Teenagers face bullying, and in many cases, the adults in their lives are not well equipped to help them — may not even understand their fears and anxieties. So who do they turn to?
“For so long, people told me that I am actively choosing to be a woman. But that’s not true… I am a woman. It’s not a choice. But having no validation, and people saying I was presenting like this by choice really scarred my mental health,” the 21-year-old medical student, who was assigned male at birth, says. Bullying at school, and the lack of support at home led to Aruvi performing poorly at school examinations. But her teachers dismissed Aruvi’s complaints of bullying, and accused her of using it as an excuse for failing some of her exams.
A 2018 study by Sahodaran — a male sexual health project, along with UNESCO, conducted among sexual and gender minority groups found that 60% of those identifying outside mainstream sexual identities were physically harassed in middle/high school, and 50% in higher secondary. Sexual harassment was high among the participants from primary schools at 43%. However, only 18% of them reported the bullying to school authorities. Even when they reported, 29% of teens were asked to change their “perceived feminine behaviour” to avoid being bullied, and 49% were asked to ignore the incidents.
The Sahodaran-UNESCO study also found that bullying not only played a key role in the teenagers dropping out of school (33.2%), but also in lowered academic performance for 63% of them. However, teachers may often not put these factors together and blame the teen instead, as in Aruvi’s case.
It was not till class 8 that Aruvi began socialising, when her family shifted to Chennai. She formed a group of 7-8 peers who were like her, where they could talk and vent. Her yearning to find a sense of belonging and support also led her to join a WhatsApp group, under the assumption that it was a safe space for queer people, but she found herself to be the only minor in the group. Later, at a meetup organised by the group, she faced physical and sexual harassment, and later, was forced out of the group.
“In my late teens, I started meeting some queer activists,” Aruvi says. “While they were supportive, they would also say that they could not really help me right now as I was a minor and still under my parents’ care. There was no organisational support I could access as a teen. I had dysphoria, I didn’t have anyone to tell me what it was or how to deal with my body. It is only at 21 that I have been able to really come out as a trans woman.”
Law prevents orgs, people from helping minors
While there are several queer-affirmative and LGBTQI+ support groups and organisations in the country, most are not accessible to minors. Gender sensitisation and sexuality education aren’t always available to teens, and how nuanced they can be are often left to the discretion of the school’s management. This, along with bullying and/or abuse, makes the experience of navigating non-heteronormative gender or sexuality an isolating one for adolescents. Noting that a sense of isolation is strongly associated with suicidal behaviour, the World Health Organisation also notes that LGBTQI+ persons are among the vulnerable groups when it comes to suicide.
LGBTQI+ Organisations or counsellors and adult queer persons do want to help teens. However, because the child is still under the care of parents’ or families’ who may not be supportive. And since Indian law does not recognise the consent of a person below 18 years, those who want to help tend to be wary.
Moulee, co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles, makes it a point to ask how old a person is if they reach out to him for support on his personal social media. “I have no answers for them if they are below 18. However, if they reach out to the organisation, we direct them to NGOs, counsellors, and other resources. Once, someone reached out on behalf of another person who’s a teenager. I told them about queer-affirmative counsellors, but also that they should ensure that an adult accompanies the teenager.”
Moulee points out that all teens require guidance and support at that age, and queer teens may need even more if their parents are not able to support, validate or discuss the child’s gender and sexuality. “We don’t have data on how many children who run away from their homes due to their gender and/or sexuality not being accepted. It could be one of the major reasons. I don’t think there are standard options for teenagers at this point to seek help if they do not find it in their homes or schools. There are a lot of things they cannot ask.”
Take, for instance, the case of Riyana, a trans person who was studying at St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru, and the trans women who helped her, back in 2016. Kannada channel TV9 interviewed Riyana’s parents without telling them the objective of the show, and ran a 6-hour programme called ‘Operation Anandi’, where it lied saying that Riyana had been forced to do a ‘sex change operation’ by other members of the trans community. A day after this show was aired, six trans women were arrested after a woman alleged that they are compelled her minor son into a sex reassignment surgery. Based on the complaint, six trans women were arrested and sent to judicial custody on charges of abduction, wrongful confinement and attempt to murder. One of the trans women was also placed in lockup with men.
Meanwhile Riyana clarified in a press conference that she was not forced into anything, underwent gender affirmation surgery willingly, and that she is a trans woman. “I can live only with a Mangalamukhi and not with a man or woman. I know my body and emotions,” she said. “Our Ajji, Naani, Guru and community elders all care for us as our biological parents often reject us. I underwent [gender affirmation surgery] willingly and was not brainwashed. I am happy with my life as a Mangalamukhi unlike the boy I was born as.”
Akhila, an advocate practising in the Madras High Court, points out that while the law assumes that parents know best and have the best interest of the child at heart, that may not always be the case. “It could be because of internalised social values around gender and sexuality, moral, or religious reasons. On the one hand, support groups or organisations may not have any legal liability to provide guidance but it can be difficult because minors can’t give affirmative consent on several things, meaning the guardians’ assent is required,” she says.
Trans persons are especially at risk in the current scenario, as they may face aggression from families, and risk illegal arrest or detention by law enforcement, due to prejudice and social norms that always view trans women particularly, and the trans community in general, with suspicion. Even if a child has left home willingly and finds refuge with trans persons who operate in their own social systems (such as the jamaat system), the members of the community are somehow held responsible. “The child would then be produced before the Child Welfare Committee, and if they say they don’t want to go back home, they will be placed in a state-run children’s home,” explains Akhila.
Similarly, if an adult is trying to help a child with resources, depending on the complaint of the guardians and how the provisions of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act on sharing explicit material are used, the person providing support could get booked. Several people working in the child rights space have pointed out that the POCSO Act does not recognise that children have a sexuality too.
“NGOs and support groups for gender and sexual minorities often face police complaints or threats of these. This stops them from helping people in need, because even if the case ultimately doesn’t hold in court, the process becomes the punishment. Resources of the NGO or group will get diverted towards fighting the case, and they won’t be able to help the child or person in need either. These issues can act as deterrents,” Akhila says.
Lack of structural support
When Aruvi was in class 12, her mother took her to a psychiatrist. She identified herself as a gender-fluid person at the time and had come out to her mother as gay. Though Aruvi tried to pick one herself, her mother insisted that Aruvi would go to the psychiatrist that she chose, because she was still 17. “Thankfully, the psychiatrist turned out to be queer friendly, but what if he wasn’t? I know of people who got prescribed high doses of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication in the name of conversion therapy,” she says.
For Aruvi, the first real support came in the form of a trans woman who befriended her when she was in class 12. Aruvi was invited to the woman’s house, where other trans women also came. “For the first time, I could dress how I felt. They heard me out and validated me,” Aruvi says. Later, in her gap year after class 12 when she was preparing for NEET, another trans woman near her hostel took Aruvi under her wing.
However, these acquaintances were short lived, for Aruvi realised she did not want to be a part of the jamaat system that the trans women were part of. “The good thing about the system is that they live in communities, and if something were to happen to me, I would have a lot of support from them. But there are certain rules and regulations, and if I became a part of it, I may not be able to leave or make certain choices.”
Aruvi had access to social media, and was able to befriend some trans persons on Facebook, and started following a trans woman who was a doctor. “I saw myself in the doctor – even if I wasn’t in the jamaat, that could be me. I knew I had options. But many vulnerable young persons may not see that they have a choice because they need the support at the time, especially because other support mechanisms or sensitisation are not there.”
What sort of support is required
While there are online resources, it can be difficult to navigate, simply because there is too much information, and not all of it is necessarily authentic or child-friendly. There is also the danger of people preying on vulnerable children online, grooming, and being exposed to age-inappropriate material. People TNM spoke to stressed on the need for more structural, standardised and accessible mechanisms for LGBTQI+ teens.
Olga Aaron, a trans woman who runs Chennai-based organisation Bravoh, says that they work by empowering parents to address their children’s issues. Further, she says that LGBTQI+ children need holistic support, just like any other child would. “They should be able to continue their education, their feelings should be validated and so on. So, we need to look at making family, neighbourhood and community, and education, all of them queer-affirmative and child friendly,” she says.
“Parents are often unable to understand why the child is behaving in a gender non-conforming way, slipping in academics and so on. At Bravoh, we work by making parents aware that children could be exploring their gender identity, giving them information, normalising if their child is feeling gender dysphoria,” Olga adds.
Dr Sangeeta Saksena, co-founder of the Enfold Proactive Health Trust in Bengaluru, explains that these steps towards education and awareness can start small. Enfold, which holds gender and sexuality education sessions with schools, parents, and other stakeholders, “has made its language non-binary from class 1 onwards,” Dr Sangeeta says. “We introduce that the sex given at birth and felt gender may be different. At class 5, we introduce ‘intersex’, and ‘transgender’ into their vocabulary. When doing gender equity and sensitisation, we ask if certain jobs can only be done by people of certain genders. Do you think a trans person can do this job? Why not? From class 5 onwards, we start talking in general to every child like this.”
If a child does come up to them saying they are experiencing dysphoria or another related issue, Dr Sangeeta says that they orient the counsellors to be queer-affirmative in the schools they work with. “The school counsellor would look at supporting the child and the family. Depending on the dysphoria, we’ll take it further to finding queer-affirmative counsellors and medical practitioners,” she adds.
However, not all schools have counsellors. Government schools especially don’t have them, support mechanisms or queer-friendly sensitisation, points out Aruvi. “I wish someone had told my classmates that I am not that different from them. I am who I say I am. I didn’t want someone to tell me who I am, that I should man up, or that I am not a woman. They did not understand me, nor did they understand the differences.”
Aruvi stresses on gender sensitisation in government schools too, and for the state to put resources into it. Olga adds that she and some others are lobbying for India’s National Policy for Children should be revised to specifically mention children with gender dysphoria as protected under it.
“The state policy should include issues such as ensuring privacy in boys’ toilets the way girls’ toilets have. Colleges, social work and counselling curricula also need to be mindful of these things,” Dr Sangeeta says. Enfold is currently working with some private colleges teaching B.Ed, social work, special education, nursing and counselling to introduce gender sensitisation aspects. Twenty-five teachers are being trained, five from each discipline, in colleges in Bengaluru as well as Shillong, so that they can take the learnings forward to their peers, and into their own practice.
Moulee says that the education system needs to be more accommodative of everyone, not just binary persons. “There should be more space for children to simply be themselves – many of them might be confused, and it should not be a dirty or taboo topic. The way of dealing with situations like when a child complains about bullying to a teacher needs to change. Those aspiring to be teachers should perhaps have a module to ensure they display sensitivity in dealing with students who display queer or gender non-conforming behaviour.”
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