Personal Stories

Peer Support Spaces Are The Alternative Support Systems Queer Folks Deserve

I remember the first time I went for a workshop organized by a queer collective, modelled on the non-hierarchical nature of a peer support space. It was indeed a novel feeling, being able to speak what was truly on my mind before a larger group.

I recently walked my first Pride Walk, and it left me with a renewed understanding of the power of community. Walking shoulder to shoulder with other queer folx can be an incredibly affirming experience, especially if one is doing it for the first time. In that swarm of marchers, whichever way I looked each person was so obstinately unique from the next person. It opened my eyes to how truly heterogeneous the people under the queer umbrella are.

The LGBTQIA+ community keeps updating its acronym to accommodate this varied spectrum of experiences. Yet the community is often rainbow-washed into a single monolith in mainstream discourse. When this happens, the issues of minority groups and intersectional identities within the community are often erased. Each of us have within this space have our different needs, desires, and aspirations. Every queer person would have very unique stressors—depending on, but not limited to the nuances of caste, (dis)ability, and religious minorities—that could cause them trauma. Given this, their emotional and psychological needs vary.

However, in a country like ours where mental health care is still not very accessible or affordable (and rarely queer-affirming), it becomes twice as hard for a queer person to avail care. Concepts like Queer Affirmative Counselling practices and trauma informed care are still in their nascent stages. The violence towards queer people in the name of psychological treatment—read: conversion therapy—has hardly abated. Besides the inadequate professional help currently available, it is imperative to rethink the nature of support spaces queer folx can avail.

During the early days of COVID lockdown I remember having joined a listening circle and feeling assuaged at finding an oasis of human connection in an otherwise desert of collective isolation. It felt like natural progression that besides training to be a counsellor, I was also inspired to sign up for a Peer Support training program. Peer supporters are not quite counsellors, but they are neither a random friend you could talk to. They are trained from a trauma-informed lens and draw from their own lived experience (hence, a peer) to help survivors process trauma while directing them to necessary resources, as and when the need arises.

The first thing that strikes differently is that it breaks away from the clinical set-up of the “expert model”, where the mental health practitioner is mounted upon a pedestal as the go-to resource person who can direct their client in whichever way they deem fit. The ‘expert model’, and no surprises here, is a product of a hetero-patriarchal understanding of mental well-being and its inherent power differential often leads to exploitative practices. Instead of focussing on one ‘expert’, the peer support space mostly relies on the non-hierarchical precept of ‘spiral learning’, wherein the learners pool their lived experiences together and create a repository of shared knowledge.

The Netflix show Maid—a true account of a woman who survived intimate partner violence—is a great example of what a peer support space can look like. Often the peer supporter comes from a place of lived experience themselves, lending them a human credibility. And yet a peer support group is quite distinct from say a brunch meet-up between friends. There are certain inviolable ground rules upon which such spaces function. The safety of all who converge in such a space is non-negotiable; not only is everything that is shared confidential, there are also constant check-ins to ensure an emotionally safe container for all participants. The focus on lived experience brings a sense of mutual validation to all who show up, and address the systemic nature of violence at different intersectionalities.

Often in heteronormative group settings, even benign ones like a mindfulness group, I would deliberately skip the introductory session uncertain about how much I should share and whether that should include my queerness. In sharp contrast to these experiences, I remember the first time I went for a workshop organized by a queer collective, modelled on the non-hierarchical nature of a peer support space. It was indeed a novel feeling, being able to speak what was truly on my mind before a larger group. The safety and acceptance I felt was unparalleled. The emotional transparency that lends itself to such an environment fuels a sense of euphoria that can only be compared to a breakthrough, unclogging therapy session.

We seem to be in a strange limbo space as a country, going around in a perpetual ‘two-steps-forward three-steps-backward’ dance. On the one hand queer lives are gaining more acceptance, queer joy is persistently becoming visible. But the infrastructure to accommodate their unique needs is still being built. Our legal medical and educational infrastructures are just taking baby steps to accommodate queer lives.

At a time like this, grassroot-level peer support groups can become the alternate spaces that provide care, safety, awareness. They can be a breakthrough model of support, resource-sharing and community-building in the years to come as the queer rights movement gains further momentum in our country. They can warrant that the varied voices within the queer community find equal space.

If you’re looking for a peer support provider, you can find one here.

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Usri (she/they) is a queer, neurodivergent, writer and counsellor. She writes mainly about culture, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Previously, she has worked as a culture writer for Tehelka Magazine. Her work can also be found in Smashboard, The Naked Truth, Feminism in India and Arre among others. She approaches her mental health practice from the lens of lived experience and intersectionality. She is currently training in trauma informed and queer affirmative counselling practices.
Usri Basistha

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