What it means to be non-binary in Indian society

By Indira Laisram
Pic supplied

In the shadows of Indian society, students like Aditya, Sarika, and Farida navigate the complexities of identity, culture, and acceptance

Aditya (last name withheld for privacy reasons) recalls entering a gay nightclub in Melbourne, where the security person, whom Aditya identifies as Indian, gave him a disapproving look. Despite living in Australia for a decade, Aditya’s journey of self-discovery began in India, where he grappled with the meaning of queerness amidst societal pressures from family, friends, and strangers.

“In school in India, my classmates often talked about girls, as teenagers do, discussing crushes. While they chatted, I realised I had no feelings for girls; instead, I felt differently around senior boys. Unsure and unaware of being gay, I kept quiet, hoping my feelings would change. Sadly, in India, there was no counselling available,” reflects Aditya on his internal conflict during that time, realising his gay identity.

After completing year 12 in Haryana, his home state in northern India, Aditya chose to pursue further studies in Australia, a decision his father did not approve of.

For Sarika*, raised in Manipur, concealing her identity became a necessity as she grappled with familial expectations. But as a student at Monash University in Melbourne, she says, “I don’t have to hide my identity like how I did back in India.”

Farida*, originally from Delhi and now studying at RMIT, despite growing up in a privileged household in South Delhi, faced mental health challenges as a transgender individual.

The narratives of Aditya, Sarika, and Farida mirror the broader struggles encountered by the LGBT community in Indian society. Scarce resources and entrenched cultural taboos have resulted in many individuals living in fear and isolation—challenges particularly pronounced in Aditya’s experiences.

“In 2021, I came out to my parents as they were constantly pressuring me to come home, especially with my older sister’s marriage on the horizon,” Aditya shares. “They insisted on finding a girl for me after my sister’s wedding, which terrified me as I didn’t want to marry a girl.”

“Ignoring their calls, I finally reached a breaking point and confronted my dad, leading to him threatening and abusing me. Feeling hopeless, I tried to reach my mom, but she didn’t answer. When I finally spoke to her, I revealed my truth, knowing she wouldn’t support me.

“My dad views my sexuality as a disease, insisting on treatment, while my mom urges me to come home for traditional remedies, claiming my mind has strayed. My dad threatens to kill me, seeing me as a disgrace to our family, worried about our reputation. I feel lost and trapped.

“Mom promises to convince him but insists I return, offering to find a girl for me after “treatment.” She emotionally manipulates me, highlighting family consequences. I question my fault, but she worries about my sister’s marriage. Desperate, I have blocked my dad’s abusive messages and cut off contact from my family.

“I confided in my sister, but she reacted with anger, questioning my actions and accusing me of tarnishing our culture and religion. Overwhelmed, I attempted to end my life once, feeling utterly alone and unsupported.”

Sarika too is still fearful of coming out to her parents or family. “I don’t know when that will happen,” she says.

Pic supplied

In Australia, where acceptance is more prevalent, the three have found solace in their newfound freedom and appreciate the ample opportunities for counselling.

“It’s much more open in Australia,” Farida observes. “When you introduce yourself, people ask for your preferred title or pronouns. There are gender-neutral toilets too.”

Aditya has since undergone rigorous counselling and says he has changed a lot because of it.

As Sarika explains, “I had a lot of anger and self-esteem issues that I didn’t understand the origins of, but through counselling, I’ve learned how to confront and manage them.”

She adds, “I was living as a version of myself that wasn’t authentic. The culture and traditions I grew up with buried my true self. I am not saying culture and tradition are bad, but they shouldn’t suppress your identity.”

Yet, Aditya’s lingering apprehension serves as a sobering reminder of the pervasive impact of discrimination.

“I can’t go to India; my dad will harm me for sure. He’s determined and well-connected, making it impossible to hide. To stay safe, I’ve changed my address and quit social media to avoid being traced,” he shares.

“Honestly, since coming out, I don’t feel comfortable in groups; I’m just scared. If there are more than 2-3 people, I want to run away. Mixed feelings swirl in my head—memories of my childhood and the trauma of my cousin exploiting me. Sometimes, I feel ashamed because of my parents. I know it might not make sense to some, but given my situation and my father’s connections, I understand the risks.”

Recent experiences have solidified his belief that India offers no safety for him. He met an Indian nurse from his home state of Haryana through a dating app. After connecting, they shared their experiences of coming out; the nurse’s parents initially disowned him but later reconciled, and he left for India. The nurse has now vanished from social media, and Aditya hasn’t heard from him in over two years, suspecting that his family may have coerced him into something.

Aditya says he has met several Indians in LGBT groups, but “many are afraid to come out due to the stigma. Some make hurtful comments or even harass others. Even in Australia, there’s a taboo within the Indian community. Trust me, I’ve seen it through their eyes and experienced a lot of discrimination.”

So how can the Indian community work towards inclusivity and intersectionality?

“It all begins with knowledge. Being open and learning about everything around you is crucial for understanding. Without personal reflection and a shift in mindset, nothing will change. Stereotypes in our society, like assuming someone is gay because they act feminine, perpetuate false beliefs. It’s essential for people to educate themselves beyond these stereotypes,” says Farika.

Sarika believes there should be more discussions, and same-sex marriage should also be legalised in India. “It’s an issue that is not talked about enough in our society.”

Perhaps, there has to be a more intentional effort towards inclusivity. As Aditya says, “I just want to lead a normal life.”

Everybody deserves that.

(*Names have been withheld upon request for anonymity)

The Indian Sun acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.

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