India requires its youth to identify as either girls or boys and they are usually assumed to be heterosexual. Those who do not conform to their biological genders, are set off on a cycle of violence and trauma that saps their potential.
The first thing anyone ever asks when a child is born is whether the baby is a girl or a boy, while a more sensible question may be to enquire after its health. Instead, the newborn receives balloons in pink or blue. As the child grows up, it is surrounded by social signalling that it must want blue because he’s a boy. Is it wrong then for the child to want a Barbie in a pink dress?
Gender non-conforming (LGBTQI) youth face hos- tile school environments and this is often amplified in rural settings. In addition to facing stigma from their peers and wrestling with self-doubt, most do not find solace at home as parents find this situation confusing, often blaming exposure to media or “bad” friends. The extreme pressure and isolation that this causes makes way for perpetrators to step in and exploit these young people.
A series of studies conducted by Oregon State University and Swasti aimed to gain insights into decision-making paradigms of gender non-conforming youth and transpersons in relation to self-care and health seeking behaviour. It revealed some startling statistics.
About 80 per-cent of 4,000 transpersons felt coerced to surgically reassign their gender. Almost every one of them have seriously considered or at- tempted self-harm or suicide at least once in their lives. The study involved art projects and dreaming exercises involving memory regression. This revealed that most gender non-conforming and LGBTQI persons hit rock bottom between the ages of 10 and 15. Several reported being disowned by biological parents, abused by known people including teachers and even raped or kidnapped. Many of them were forced into sex work or found themselves begging just to stay alive. The trauma resulting from these experiences had pushed these youngsters into a chronic crisis mode, leading them to make choices that led to them being exploited over and over again.
The discourse in India on gender non-conforming youth is largely around HIV prevention and Section 377, but it has never really sought to understand them. The self, the environment, everything provides fodder for discrimination, physical and mental trauma and ultimately, much reduced human potential.
It therefore became imperative to do more for this significant and hidden chunk of the population. Thus was born the GenY programme, that provided lifeskills to young people on grit, resilience, self reliance, relationship management, conflict resolution, sexuality and gender identity formation. The programme also created curricula for counsellors, teachers and peers on counselling and emotional health.
Consider Shankar’s story. After completing the GenY programme, Shankar (not his real name), 22, sat down with his mother to discuss his gender identity. He had always believed that she hated him for being effeminate. The programme helped Shankar talk to his mother about his gender and sexuality.
“We need to continually strive to unravel how youth understand and express gender as it is critical to address health disparities in this important population,” says Angela, who has worked in this area since 2002.
She hopes this study improves emotional health support services for teenagers and that teachers and parents begin to help transkids and gender non-conforming kids feel more comfortable about accessing the care they need.
The GenY initiative, with the support of the Canadian High Commission in India was launched in January 2017. The initiative reached close to 4,000 people. The Department of Social Welfare in Tamil Nadu scaled this programme across 10 colleges.