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Being non-binary and genderfluid in 21st-century India

It's not easy to be non-binary anywhere, but especially in India, it's fraught with encounters at home, work and society that can trigger mental health issues

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, seen here in her famous self-portrait with hummingbird and thorn necklace, embraced many identities in her lifetime, including gender fluidity.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, seen here in her famous self-portrait with hummingbird and thorn necklace, embraced many identities in her lifetime, including gender fluidity. (Alamy)

Gender identity is like a sphere rather than a spectrum with two ends,” says Medha, who prefers to go by one name and use the gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns. “You can be anywhere on that sphere.”

Not long ago, this 25-year-old programme manager at Pride Circle, a diversity and inclusion (D&I) consultancy headquartered in Bengaluru, came out as non-binary—a person who identifies as neither a man nor a woman, but is gender fluid or gender expansive—at work. It was a relatively smooth experience for Medha, compared to what most others who identify as non-binary face in India.

After all, it’s Medha’s job, and of their colleagues’, to sensitise companies and startups to adopt policies that are cognisant of the needs of the LGBTQ+ workforce. A major part of that process involves training managers and employees to use the correct pronouns and forms of address preferred by LGBTQ+ employees. So it’s natural for Medha to have found a welcoming home at their workplace. But not everyone is as lucky.

It’s not easy to come out as non-binary anywhere in the world, but in India especially the process can be fraught with traumas and triggers that can cause lasting damage to mental health. “Sixty-seventy per cent of the people who come to us feeling that they may be non-binary are still actually exploring their gender identity,” says Vanishree B.N., consultant psychiatrist at DrSafeHands, a digital platform for sexual and reproductive health and wellness as well as mental health. “Most of these people are 25-35 years old, though some in their 40s also find themselves in such situations.”

It has been a year since DrSafeHands started free counselling for people from the LGBTQ+ community, adds Tanvi Gupta, head of the programme, and 15-20 calls come in daily from different parts of the country. At the moment, the counselling service is available in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English, on Zoom, WhatsApp or on phone call. “The demand is so high that we have trouble scheduling sessions,” says Dr Gupta. “Most of the callers have no clear understanding of gender dysphoria (when a person does not identify with the gender identity assigned to them at birth),” adds Dr Vanishree. “They want to change the way they feel, find a ‘cure’ through medication. Our job is to assure them this isn’t a disease and help them accept the way they feel.”

Although the aim may be focused, the task of convincing these callers can turn out to be long and arduous. A little over two years ago, India read down the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which especially criminalised the LGBTQ+ community. But striking down an antiquated colonial law is one matter, and changing the mindset of an entire society, persuading its people to accept the LGBTQ+ community with all its diversity and demands, quite another.

In the corporate workplace at least, ripples of change have begun to emerge, with D&I being the buzzword. “We have worked with a range of companies such as Mastercard, UBS, ThoughtWorks, Tata Steel, Wipro and Infosys to train them in the best practices of making their offices inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees,” says Srini Ramaswamy, co-founder of Pride Circle. Any change predictably works best if it trickles down from the top management. “Those in leadership roles have to set the tone, project themselves as role models,” he adds.

Simple steps, such as including one’s preferred pronouns in email signatures and a link to urge people to read more about gender sensitivity, can a long way in changing the impact of a company’s communications policy. “There are other protocols, too, like using Mx instead of Mr or Ms to address employees,” Ramaswamy says. “This honorific, along with the preferred pronouns of the addressee, should be used in offer letters, contracts and all other correspondences. People should also indicate their pronouns while signing into video conferences.”

While such advice may seem eminently sensible, if not obvious, it’s far from widely followed. Most people would rather assume another’s gender identity from the way they look, dress, present their body to the public eye, than take the trouble of quickly verifying the facts with the person concerned. “Even if I wear a dress, I am still a boy,” says Dan Rebello, a 29-year-old Thane-based activist who came out as non-binary in 2017. “I want to reject all the expectations of representation that society has foisted upon us.”

Rebello, who prefers he/him or they/them as their pronouns, also uses micro-labels like demiboy, asexual and polyromantic to describe themselves. Coming out was a “daunting and scary” experience for them. “I had no access to much information while growing up,” they say, “perhaps that’s why I took so long to come out.” At home, their family is ambivalent. Rebello’s mother still uses their “dead name”, or the name they were known by before they came out, and misgenders them. Their father was upset when they recently changed their name in their Aadhaar and PAN cards. He insisted they change it back. “But when I speak on panels or am appreciated in the press, my family takes pride in who I am,” says Rebello.

Ambivalence defines the mood of their workplace too. A primary schoolteacher for the last four years, Rebello has dealt with the orthodoxy of the management. “I told my principal early on that I am not going to wear saris and salwar-kameez,” they say. “She was completely okay with my decision.” Some of their colleagues call them Dan, some don’t. But the young children who are their students are far more receptive. “I explained to them about myself in a language they can understand,” Rebello says. “It didn’t take the kids long to warm up to it, and they started chanting ‘Dan teacher’!” These days, when Rebello logs in to teach online, they are often greeted with a “Good morning, Sir!” “Hearing that brightens my day,” they say.

A non-binary identity isn’t set in stone for all. “Everyone has their own way of being non-binary,” Medha reminds their clients every now and then.

For 26-year-old Suryatapa Mukherjee, currently living in Kolkata, coming to terms with her non-binary identity—although Mukherjee uses she/her as her pronouns, it doesn’t necessarily mean she identifies only as female—has involved reckoning with several crossroads, including having a somewhat transphobic reaction to a friend’s coming out in college. “I am still very much navigating this identity,” she says, “and even though I do identify as gender-fluid, I don’t always come out as non-binary everywhere.”

The right place, time and company help shed inhibitions, but coming out is always a delicate and personal matter. “There is no general approach to coming out—it is determined by individual scenarios entirely,” says Dr Vanishree. “As counsellors and therapists, our job is to sit with each and every individual and help them make a structured plan to come out, considering all the practical and emotional circumstances of their lives.”

From a young age, Mukherjee, for instance, has never fully felt like either a boy or a girl. Once, a teacher ridiculed her as “50-50”. “During puberty, I felt I was not girl enough, and wanted to be seen as beautiful and desirable,” she says. “I thought if I played up my femininity, I would get the acceptance and approval of society, along with attention from the boys.” Even after all these years, Mukherjee tends to emphasise her femininity in certain public situations to deal with her social anxiety.

The “win some, lose some” rule of life may seem especially skewed towards the latter in the case of people who live out their gender fluidity, but there are silver linings too. Rebello lost childhood friendships going back 18 years after they came out. “You start finding other non-binary and trans people,” they say. “And it is with them that I am now most comfortable.”

Rebello left Facebook, uncomfortable about sharing that space with their family, and joined Instagram, a platform they find more accepting of difference. “I use the space to promote non-binary, queer, trans artists,” they say. “I am also running a fund-raiser to buy the best-quality chest binders, especially for trans and non-binary people who don’t have the means to buy expensive products.” During the lockdown, Rebello and the Thane Queer Collective they have founded raised funds for gender reassignment surgeries of trans people as well as for their post-operative treatments that had stalled.

While such practical initiatives are immeasurably helpful, a presence like Rebello’s on a public platform is fortifying in other ways too. “So many younger trans and non-binary people reach out to me with questions, tell me about their lives,” they say. Revolutions don’t always start with a bang. Sometimes they are sparked by a few whispered confidences.

A non-binary identity isn’t set in stone for all.
A non-binary identity isn’t set in stone for all.

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