A label can give a sense of security and belonging. You feel connected to a group, less lonely and confused. If you label yourself as a homosexual, then you mark yourself as someone not attracted to the other sex. But what if this self assigned label makes you feel confined? What if you find yourself constantly challenging it in your search for a more embracing definition of the person you are?
At a workshop in Chennai, organised by Swasti, I heard stories of many gender nonconforming youth, who often take difficult, divergent paths in their search for labels that capture the complexities of their gender and sexual identities. The passion, pain and love involved in the process of their self expression deeply moved me. The participants made art, danced, sang and used poetry to express their struggles with their ‘identities’, some self assigned and others given by the society and their peers.
The personal experience of gender is never constant, as one participant revealed, “I came out twice, once as a gay man and once as a transgender woman.” For few others, self-labelling is limiting, “I am a male, who loves boys but I also like makeup. Who am I?” A more complex concept that emerged is of ‘gender fluidity’, which describes a wider range of gender expression in persons. A gender fluid individual oscillates between identifying as male, female, or any other non-binary identity, or at times, some combination of identities.
But all of the above identity expressions are outside of the heterosexual norm. Many of the participants struggled with the feelings of confusion, and their desire to be accepted by their peers and the larger society. They were misunderstood by their families, and faced isolation, and loneliness from a very young age: “I felt like I was in a cage I could not break out from. My family wanted me to marry a woman and society was insulting me.”
It is never easy to be a part of a vulnerable, minority group, where the search and fight for your rights and space are constant. Participants said that many of their peers leave school at a younger age due to bullying and isolation. When they are older, rejection by the families cause them to leave home. Often, it leaves them on the streets, exposed to dangers like addictions, crime, and violence. Many enter sex-work to make a living. Their marginalisation puts them at the risk of experiencing physical and psychological abuse and acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Social exclusion, stigmatisation and harassment from a very young age often causes emotional wounds that have long term consequences.
The complexity of the struggles of gender nonconforming youth warrants that effective interventions that seek to influence their health seeking behaviour understand the fluidity of their gender expressions and sexual orientations. Equal focus should also be placed on addressing the emotional and mental health issues of these individuals along with programmes to address other socio-economic vulnerabilities that hinder their well being.
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