Rishabh, an 18-year-old teenager travels across continents to pursue his under-graduation in the UK in 2014. In the process, he discovers that he is bisexual. Amidst the chaos of having to adapt to the cultural transitions, Rishabh is thrown into the daunting phase of accepting himself simultaneously, finding himself acceptable in his immediate society.
15 years after Section 28 is scrapped what are the challenges that today's youngsters face in explaining their identity and choices to conservative elements of the South Asian community in the UK?
You will burn in hell
“One of my expectations arriving here was that the UK would be a much more free society and more accepting of my queer identity,” Rishabh said.
But in his first year at Sheffield University, he discovers the unpleasant truth after a series of homophobic and racist incidents.
“Rishabh in this world you cannot be openly homophobic” and there was a time when one said that “you will burn in hell” Rishabh recalls of those days when he was sharing his apartment with his staunchly religious Catholic flatmates who were not comfortable with his identity.
But he did not allow these incidents to pull him down and went onto become the Vice-Chair of the BAME society at his university. He engaged in organizing events to create more awareness about intersectionality and minority representation. And proceeds to become the chair of LGBT+ group not just at his university but also has an involvement with the NUS LGBT+ group as well.
But in this journey of identifying and accepting that identity, there are multiple stress points that impact the mental, psychological, sexual and to some degree even the physical health of a person with people tipping to suicidal tendencies.
“In Sheffield, I don't think there was an organization that was especially for counseling members of the LGBT+ community. The only counseling that we had at university was the general student counseling services which in my view was under-funded and over-stressed,”
This process of acceptance becomes even more difficult when isolation comes from all ends be it the international community which one would expect to be more understanding and their own Asian community wherein, no one wants to understand the queer character.
Out, not out and no ball
Among the many South-Asians living a closeted life is Samarth* originally from India and who identifies himself as a gay.
“My father has tried throwing all emotional blackmails and curveballs about getting me married to a woman and wanting children. It has reduced now but it hasn't gone away completely. But I have stopped letting it affect me,” Samarth said matter-of-factly.
His roller-coaster life includes exceptionally supportive women of the family and a father who is aware of his identity but is selectively in denial about it.
“I realized at a very early stage in my life that there was no point in getting married to a woman, spoiling her life by going around her back and having a relationship with someone else and ruining my mental peace as well in the process,” Samarth explained speaking about his partner in the UK.
He is now married to his boyfriend and their partnership is registered with the council. But while the family is aware of his sexual orientation, Samarth is still not completely out in the society. From society's perceptions to impact on his business relations where he works with Arabic men who he worries would not be as receptive of his identity, the reason for his “closeted” life vary including his concerns about his father.
“I am still apprehensive about holding my partner's hand in public and yes it sometimes creates a problem in the sense that my partner feels that such exercises are important for bonding and integration. And I am slowly coming out!” Samarth confesses.
But selective acknowledgment of sexual identities and orientations is not just restricted to Samarth's case but Vandana's life presented the bigger challenge of living a lie.
“Living a lie: double lives”
Vandana* is a 37-year-old woman who came out to her family when she was 18. Born and brought up in the UK she thought, the drill would be easier for her. And while that had been the case, back in the day everything was “hush-hush” to the extent that the subject was brushed under the carpet.
“They understood me and my sexual orientation but they didn't want me to live that life, so I led a double-life for a long time!” Vandana recollects.
Taking the course of a marriage of convenience, Vandana married a gay such that each knew about other's sexual preference.
“It was supposed to be a brother-sister relationship. But one year into it, we realized it didn't work out for us and we got divorced!” there is almost a note of resignation into her voice.
Vandana went back into living with her family after the divorce and she is now in a relationship with her partner. The family is acceptable of her girlfriend and everything is as okay as it can be for the couple from integrating at family lunches to social events. But the family still don't discuss the subject.
But why would these Asian families put these youngsters through these difficult phases when it is understood that this is not a choice for them?
Stigma, taboo and “the other”
Dinesh Bhugra, CBE is the current president of the British Medical Association (BMA) council and is Emeritus Professor at Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London.
“There is the element of the stigma and of being the other. Particularly among the migrant families who do not want to stand out and just want to be assimilated. Especially if you are living in geographical areas with Indian families around then the situation becomes even more problematic.” professor Bhugra explains.
Anni Dewani's murder case wherein Shrien Dewani was accused of being involved in her murder following the revelation that he was gay is perhaps, the most infamous example of pressures over forced marriages and conforming to a template life.
“I don't want to specifically comment on any individual case. But, yes there are quite often pressures from families where people do get married. But, the challenge is living a lie and that adds to emotional distress. It is difficult trying to find the balance between emotional individualistic needs as opposed to family expectations.”
“What we need to understand and differentiate between is sexual behavior and sexual fantasies.”
Mental health and domestic violence
“One needs to get the balance right. There are specific cultural issues related to the Asian society and quite often if you are gay and you have a psychiatric disorder then it puts you into what is described as “double jeopardy” and so there is a need for a safe space whether it is provided by the NHS or by a charity.
In light of such pressing circumstances, what should be observed is the tremendous cut to LGBT+ services whether in the form of closure of mental health service Pace in 2016, or the shut-down of the UK’s only LGBT+ domestic violence helpline, Broken Rainbow. Austerity has been particularly harsh on queer people of colour who face vulnerable situations, especially if they are migrants or seeking benefits.
“The tragedy is that the NHS keeps cutting off its funding and there are not enough services providing to the cultural specific conditions for the Asian community as a whole much less for the LGBT+ within the community,” Professor explains.
But mental health and isolation is not the only problem stemming in the community. Greater Manchester police in April 2018, have recorded 775 cases of domestic abuse in the LGBT community. This number only comprises of cases reported only in the city of Manchester alone and the number is potentially expected to be greater in the whole of the UK.
“Domestic violence, on the whole, is not talked about. You can't see it in isolation and must be seen in the context of gender and alcohol consumption as well which may contribute further to the increased rates of domestic violence.”
During his time at the World Psychiatric Association, he pushed for policy improvements to guard the mental health of minority, excluded and vulnerable groups across the world. This work included support for LGBT+ people alongside migrants, asylum seekers, the elderly and those with learning disabilities. The Professor has constantly stated that there is substantial research to indicate that conversion therapy is not a solution. For decades, in an attempt to "cure" homosexuality, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and chemical castration were administered.
“Conversion therapy does not work in any case and LGBT+ individuals have high rates of psychiatric illnesses and some suicidal ideas and we also have clear evidence that these rates go down with the introduction of equality laws. The NHS has got a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with various organizations stating absolutely clearly that conversion therapy is absolutely unacceptable and no professional should be doing this!”
There may be increased awareness among the younger generation in the UK. Some initiatives by organizations such as the Naz Foundation might have helped in bridging the gap between the conservative elements of the society and the youth who is trying to explain their identities and orientations. But cases of Shrien Dewani and the on-going trial of Mitesh Patel are indicative of the “stigma” that is still associated to the “LGBT+” community and why coming out even in the Grindr age today is not an easy task.