The homophobia in our society is in part blamed on the British, with the enactment of IPC 377. It is also argued to be the result of repressed homosexuality in ancient, medieval and modern Indian literature, reflecting the conservative Indian mindset which views anything that contradicts social institutions of law, marriage and religion as corruptive. The Indian community largely insists on a heteronormative system and perceives the acceptance of homosexuality and binary genders as a threat to mainstream society. An affidavit issued in response of a public petition challenging the constitutional validity of IPC 377 only magnifies the shadow that queers in India are expected to live in, with the statement: “the state will turn a blind eye if homosexuality is practiced between two consenting adults in private. “ According to a study (Srivastava.S, Singh. P 2015), a majority of the population expresses acceptance of a queer individual as a friend but not as a family member, in which case it would lead to rejection or forceful heterosexual conversion.
The culture of coming out in India was set in motion when various diasporic writers like Giti Thadani (Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, 1996), Ashwini Sukthankar (Facing the Mirror: Lesbian writing from India, 1999) were discovered and recognized as queer through their literary works. With globalization, the process of coming out also extended to a more overt form that spoke for political action, signifying the demand for a queerspace. When a queer individual comes out, not only is there a liberation of the self but also a challenge positioned to the social oppression and the hateful perceptions associated with being queer. Coming out is a constant event in a queer individual’s life as they are introduced to new people and settings.
There have been several stage models of LGBTQ identity development which have been credited for some level of accuracy due to their predominance, but are also criticized for the varying viewpoints set by each model. These perspectives range from being based on an assumption that the process is a universal linear experience to a more individualized experience shaped by socio-cultural contexts. The process of coming out as queer in India is shaped by its own peculiarities, most of which pose great obstructions to a healthy development of identity. In such a situation the closet serves as a coping mechanism in response to both physical and psychological threats to a queer individual’s well being. However, like most coping mechanisms, the closet in itself represses the individual and contributes to further challenges to personality development, work-life balance and forming relationships.
The quarter life crisis, a stressful period associated with the transition to adulthood can be demarcated into two phases, (i) the locked-out crisis – when an individual feels incapable of achieving desired roles of adulthood and (ii)) the locked-in crisis – when an individual on achieving the desired roles of adulthood feels trapped by them. The locked-out crisis is typically said to occur when an individual is around 21-25 years old, preceding the locked-in crisis, occurring around the ages of 25-35. In the case of queer individuals, the societal barriers may lead to stagnancy in the locked-out crisis as desired adulthood roles are in perpetual pursuit.
As part of this study, a survey was conducted based on a sample size of 46 closeted queer Indians, between the ages of 16 to 25, to understand the nature of suppression of identity, how they believed it affected their personality development and what views they had regarding safety in the workspace. The respondents belonged to various parts of India with most of them inhabitants of Mumbai and Bangalore. The degree of being closeted also varied, with some having come only on the internet or to a friend or just family.
In terms of their personal challenges 72.5% of the participants strongly agreed that the conservative nature of Indian society made it incrementally harder to identify as being queer, with 54% having experienced first-hand homophobia. 70% of the participants felt like they were forced to live dual identities because of these pressures, with 61.5% strongly disagreeing to any provision of acceptance or support from their family.
Based on their responses regarding the workplace, 70% of the participants expressed strong concerns regarding their safety, with 65.5% agreeing that their physical appearance would also contribute to resentment. Only 30% of the participants believed that they would be treated as equals if their colleagues were aware of their sexual orientation.
The most positive response from the participants was regarding relationships, with 67.5% agreeing that they were hopeful of forming and maintaining romantic partners. In addition to hope for a better future, this also reflects a sense of strong identity in that they would one day like to be identified with a partner despite their current closeted status or the pressures of society. 55% of the participants also believed that the current attitudes in the workplace would change for the better. Thus more than personal insecurities, the major barrier to their development is fear of suppression.
The participants were also interviewed on questions relating to the same theme of identity development and nature of relationships:
Q1. How has being closeted affected your transition to adulthood?
“…during my course of trying to get in terms with myself, I went into depression because I kept overthinking about “How am I not finding men attractive.” Or “I am so different and this difference is not good”.
“..the environment I grew up in and the associations I had forced me to internalise all heteronormative ideas and that was excruciatingly distressing at times. I remember having low-key suicidal tendencies. Identify formation was a taxing process because I essentially had to constantly endeavour to annihilate my true identity and forcibly mold myself into a person I never was or will be (or want to be).”
Q2. How do you believe being queer and closeted has affected your personality development in comparison to a heterosexual individual? What do you believe is the best way to approach and help a closeted individual?
“..even the thought of coming out to my family or even some of my friends is a bit scary because you never know how the other person is going to be taking it. Where as, heterosexuals never have to come out, they can be themselves and I can’t. I feel smothered constantly, as if I’m hiding myself from everyone, which doesn’t help me grow in any way and has affected my mental health as well.
The best way to approach and help a closeted individual is by understanding them. Communication is also very important, ask them if they want to talk about anything. Be supportive and trust the individual. Do not force anyone to come out unless they want to, give them their space as well as be there for them. Treat us as you treat any of your friends.”
“I had many questions in my head and I thought I could talk to my parents about it. I didn’t directly tell them about what I was facing but I got my answer and that made situations worse for me. They told me that they’ll kick me out of the house, change my identity and tell people that I died in a car crash… “
“As for relationships, I always found it easier to befriend girls, maybe because I was scared of what boys would do to me if they came to know that I was attracted to them. Ever since I became fully aware of my sexuality (the mechanisms of repression eventually did break down, as they always do, sometimes destructively) I’ve been experiencing certain problems with my relationship with my parents too since they are not exactly accepting of the queer community. As far as romantic relationships are concerned, I once developed very strong feelings for a close straight (male) friend. Obviously it ended in a heartbreak. But I did tell him and it didn’t bother him. We’re still great friends.”
These statistics as well as interview responses reflect the dissonance that the queer youth population in our country face, with a strong conflict between being able to express and explore themselves and fear of backlash and exile from the society in response. Constant negative reinforcement against pursuing their own identity results in low self esteem and vulnerability to mental illness, contributing to additional stress to psychological development. These pressures can restrict them from pursuing their desired roles in adulthood to their full potential, being stuck in a limbo that is the locked-out phase of the quarter life crisis.
Being aware of the real fears that queers have to face in a heteronormative society, not only is it enough to accept their fears but help reassure them against any. Creating a healthy workspace where individuals have an enlightened understanding of the queer population free of prejudice and are accepting, helps ease them of internalized stigmas that have been constantly reinforced. With this understanding, they can also be recognized for more than their identities, respecting their potential as workers as well. In such a workspace, the queer individual can not only be motivated to, but also enjoy the intrapsychic benefits of coming out and help foster healthy relations, becoming agents of change. Acceptance in the workspace can become a strong pedestal for acceptance in society.
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- Kole, S.K. (2007) Globalizing queer? AIDS, homophobia and the politics of sexual identity in India. Globalization and Health.
- Srivastava, S. & Singh, P. (2015) Psychosocial Roots of Stigma of Homosexuality and Its Impact on the Lives of Sexual Minorities in India.
- Zukauskiene,R. (2016) Emerging Adulthood in A European Context.