Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are often referred to as sexual minorities, as their sexual orientation or gender identity differs from that of the majority of the surrounding society. This group usually consists of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary individuals.
Despite the growing awareness and acceptance of sexual minorities all over the world, there has been evidence suggesting that members of this community have poorer mental health compared to their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, many studies have found that members of this community are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, substance abuse, and thoughts about suicide and self-harm. This problem is prominent in India, although it has been observed globally as well, because of various social stigmas, traditional mindsets and lack of awareness amongst the masses.
This data is highly concerning, and it is important for us to understand why members of the LGBTQIA+ community experience such concerns.
Risk factors faced by sexual minorities
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), disproportionate mental health concerns in sexual minorities may be explained by the minority stress theory. This theory highlights the idea that health concerns for minority communities can be explained in large part by stressors induced by a hostile culture and environment.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that contribute to the difficulties faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in India.
Misinformation and lack of awareness
While ancient Indian culture involved recognition and celebration of different sexualities and gender identities, the recent history of the country has turned this into a taboo. The masses in India are mostly either unaware of the existence of sexual minorities or believe alternative sexual orientations to be unnatural. Talking about sexuality is still taboo in many parts of the country, which also creates problems for sexual minorities. Because of the lack of importance given to talks about sexuality, words like ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ are not even part of the vocabulary of many Indian languages, or may be used only in the form of abuse or insults. This creates a lack of belonging and sense of dehumanisation for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Societal norms and taboos
Social norms, systems and traditions are built to promote heterosexuality. For example, traditions like heterosexual marriage influence people to believe that homosexuality is abnormal or unnatural. Being viewed as ‘abnormal’ or ‘unnatural’ undoubtedly has effects on the mental health of minorities because they are viewed as inferior and less worthy to their heterosexual counterparts. Because of the taboo surrounding their sexuality, members of the LGBTQIA+ community in India live in constant fear that they might not be accepted by their families. In some cases, members may even be forced to undergo unscientific, unethical and cruel conversion “treatments” or be forced to have a heterosexual marriage.
Misrepresentation in media
Pop culture and media play an important role in shaping people’s attitudes. Unfortunately, members of sexual minority communities are not portrayed in the media in a constructive way. Movies and shows predominantly incorporate LGBTQIA+ characters for comedic relief, or they are portrayed as villains. Even the language used is often homophobic, transphobic and offensive. National and local news reports also propagate homophobia. These types of stigmatising coverage negatively impact the way that members of the LGBTQIA community are viewed in society and, in turn, add to the discrimination they face.
The impact on mental health
As touched upon before, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are highly vulnerable to mental health concerns. Some of the most common concerns seen in the community are:
Studies have found that people who identify as lesbian or gay are more than twice as likely as people who identify as heterosexual to have severe alcohol or tobacco use disorders, while people who identify as bisexual are three times as likely to have this kind of substance use disorder. This is because historically, several members of the LGBTQIA+ community who felt discriminated against by others in society would visit bars and nightclubs to feel a sense of belonging and to relieve stress. Frequenting these places therefore led to problems with excessive drinking and tobacco use.
Depression and anxiety
Studies have found that because of the stigma and discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQIA+ community, they are over 4 times more likely to experience depression than their heterosexual counterparts. About 40% of transgender youth reported feeling depressed most of the time, compared to only 12% of heterosexual youth. The rate of depression and anxiety amongst members of the LGBTQIA+ community has been proven to be 1.5 to 2.5 times higher in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts.
Loneliness and isolation
The very act of “coming out” can create feelings of isolation amongst members of the LGBTQIA+ community. If the individual is not accepted within their family or community, which happens very often, they undeniably feel isolated. However, deciding to keep their sexuality to themselves and not being open about the same can also create a sense of isolation. This is why sexual minorities often struggle with the decision to come out.
Some studies show that while 10% to 20% of heterosexual teens are involved in self-harm behaviour, the numbers are much higher for sexual minorities. Around 38% to 53% of sexual minorities engage in self-harming behaviour. These numbers are highly concerning, as they indicate that many youngsters belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community are losing the will to live due to harassment and stigma they face.
Why the future looks brighter
Despite all these issues and concerns, there is still hope for the future. Here are some changes that are currently taking place that are positively impacting the LGBTQIA+ community in India.
There is greater awareness and acceptance
The decriminalisation of homosexuality in India was one of the first steps in the right direction. It has changed people’s views towards the LGBTQIA+ community; even the Indian Psychiatric Society no longer considers homosexuality to be a psychiatric disorder. The acceptance of sexual minorities by the government and other organisations provides the community with certain essential rights and protections which will benefit them.
Media coverage is changing
The good news is that whilst people are becoming more educated and aware about sexual minorities, media coverage is changing to represent these minorities in a more constructive manner. Movies and shows are creating well-fleshed out LGBTQIA+ characters, and journalists are learning how to empathetically and ethically report on people within the LGBTQIA+ community. With time, this will change the way in which people view members of the community and pave the way for equality.
Support and help is available
Several organisations and people are working towards educating others about the rights of sexual minorities. A number of private, governmental and non-governmental organisations are dedicating their time and effort to making a difference in the lives of the LGBTQIA+ community. Moreover, medical professionals like psychologists are also getting trained in special therapies (such as affirmative therapy) that are suited to the special needs of sexual minorities. With the combined force and knowledge of thousands of people all over India, a shift in the mindset of Indian society is bound to take place.
Right now, sexual minorities in India live a dual life, where they are stigmatised and discriminated against by many, but are also celebrated and loved by some. By being informed about their struggles, we can become more empathetic towards the LGBTQIA+ community and find ways to extend positivity and acceptance towards them.
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