October 18, 2021

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Growing up non-binary in today’s India

Agender, genderfluid, bigender — children and young adults finally have a name to put to what they are feeling. Now parents and the society must learn how to be supportive and respectful

“I knew I was different. I didn’t fit into what boys used to like or what girls used to like, but I didn’t know the words,” says Rubani Singh, 19, a budding pastry chef from Mumbai, who identifies as non-binary and prefers to be addressed by the pronouns they/them instead of she/her.

Confused? If the usage of pronouns on social media bios, and the number of young people contacting therapists are any indication, an increasing number of children, teenagers and young adults are identifying themselves as non-binary — an umbrella term for people who do not see themselves as fitting into the gender binaries of exclusively male or female. They may not identify with any particular gender (agender), may not have fixed which gender they identify with most or may not want to be restricted by any gender (genderfluid), may encompass a bit of both genders (bigender), or may identify completely with the binary that’s across from them (someone born female could identify with the male gender and, therefore, chooses to be a trans man).

The incongruence sets in because the world doesn’t see them the way they see themselves. Publicly listing the pronouns they are comfortable with on their social media handles is one step towards bridging this. “I don’t see it as a phenomenon, something fashionable or cool. I think it’s because young people have found the language to express what they are experiencing,” says Shelja Sen, Child & Adolescent Psychologist, who counsels gender non-conforming youngsters at Delhi’s Children First, along with her husband, psychiatrist Dr Amit Sen. Children First offers clinical and counselling services.

Actors Amandla Stenberg, Miley Cyrus and Eliott Page

Actors Amandla Stenberg, Miley Cyrus and Eliott Page

Access to the internet, online support groups that offer safe spaces to communicate, lived experiences, and representation via OTT shows, books and movies, have all helped non-binary people find a voice. Popular celebrities such as singer Miley Cyrus, actors Amandla Stenberg and Elliot Page, and songwriter-singer Sam Smith speaking up has also helped. Perhaps what Smith said in a BBC interview explains it best: “I’ve always had a little bit of a war going within my body and my mind… I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It’s all on the spectrum.”

Transitions are never easy

“I can see a clear cultural shift and an acceptance [within a younger age group] of a spectrum of gender identities,” says Dr Amit Sen. “However, what we are witnessing is only in small pockets and the stigma still runs deep.”

Breaking the binary

  • American skateboarder Alana Smith, the first openly non-binary athlete to compete at the Olympic Games, has been repeatedly misgendered by commentators while competing in the women’s street competition — despite having their pronouns written on their skateboard. But Smith, 20, is focussing on fulfilling their goal “to be happy and be a visual representation for humans like me”.
  • Disney has introduced its first-ever non-binary character in season two of the fantasy comedy, ‘The Owl House’, which premiered on July 24. Raine Whispers (voiced by Avi Roque, who also identifies as non-binary) is a witch in the series.

Fighting on the frontlines to make this change happen is Delhi-based Air Cmde (Dr) Sanjay Sharma (Retd), CEO and MD of ATHI (Association for Transgender Health in India). His journey from commanding Air Force hospitals to taking premature retirement to set up ATHI has been paved with years of personal struggle as his first-born male child — now a 26-year-old trans woman — started exhibiting a non-binary narrative early on. Like most parents, they had initially dismissed it as a phase.

“It started with him wearing my wife’s heels, trying on her make-up, and asking me to buy Barbie dolls for his sister which he would then play with. As puberty hit, there was bullying, and as the male features became pronounced, he started withdrawing, became impulsive,” recalls Dr Sharma, who is also a board member of WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health). “At age 14, he came out to his mother thinking he was homosexual. However, he did not fit into that peer group and the mental health issues began getting worse. One day, he bought insulin and tried to inject himself.”

Meetings with several mental health professionals followed, but neither that nor medication helped, and the self-harm continued. One day, Dr Sharma got a call from his very disturbed son, wanting to end his life. “I had to make a decision and I decided to stand by my child.” Post-surgery, Tia now works with her father at ATHI, which aims to provide holistic care for trans people.

The symbol for non-binary

The symbol for non-binary
| Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Their journey hasn’t been easy. “Even after surgery, there’s a lot to navigate. In relationships, there is so much potential for abuse,” says Dr Sharma, who found solace in an online parent support group called Sweekar, The Rainbow Parents. Today, ATHI is striving to establish a Centre of Excellence in collaboration with the government at AIIMS, Delhi. “We are pushing for reforms in medical education, so a trans person can be treated not with curiosity but with dignity.”

Finding acceptance at home

The realisation of gender or the questioning of ‘who am I’ starts fairly early. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, by age two, children become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls, and by the time they turn four, they have a pretty good idea of their gender identity.

“When people referred to me as a girl, it never resonated with me,” says Vibha Hegde, 22, a BBA student from Bengaluru who identifies as non-binary. “Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I can’t recognise myself. My chest makes me very uncomfortable, and I feel like my head has been photoshopped on to my body.” They went through the usual labelling of ‘tomboy’ for their masculine gender expression via clothes and hairstyles, and initially thought they were a trans man. Once they knew, they told their mother. “She didn’t understand at first, but is now very understanding. She told my dad too, but he’s never brought it up. He’s very conservative and I don’t have the courage to talk to him,” they admit.

(Clockwise from top left) Shelja Sen, Dr Amit Sen, Tanya Mangwani, Hemangi Vyawahare, Air Cmde (Dr.) Sanjay Sharma (Retd), and Ram Sinha

(Clockwise from top left) Shelja Sen, Dr Amit Sen, Tanya Mangwani, Hemangi Vyawahare, Air Cmde (Dr.) Sanjay Sharma (Retd), and Ram Sinha

Emotional distress, especially non-acceptance from parents, can lead to several problems. “Many years ago, we had an eight-year-old girl who had strong gender dysphoria and eventually developed severe psychological problems because of it. Anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, self-mutilation, massive guilt, confusion, could all be outcomes,” says Dr Amit Sen. Usually dysphoria gets aggravated at puberty, he adds.

Parental acceptance is key to a child leading an emotionally and psychologically fulfilling life. But parents often find it hard to come to terms, often blaming themselves and their parenting. Hemangi Vyawahare, a queer affirmative psychotherapist practising in Mumbai and Bengaluru, says several parents call her, worried about whether society would accept their child, would their child be bullied, sexually abused, and so on. “The realisation that the future they have envisaged for their child is not going to be the same now, is what engulfs them,” she says.

It’s difficult for young people, too. “The journey can be painful and long. There is confusion and doubt, it takes time to accept, to speak to your parents, to find your tribe. But for a child to hear from their parent ‘I have your back, no matter what’, makes a huge difference,” says Shelja Sen.

Rubani shows off their tattoo

Taking it to schools

“I didn’t know I was non-binary,” says Rubani. Growing up, they were equally excited by an older cousin’s make-up and skirts, and a male cousin’s toys. At 13, they used to like wearing shorts but with a palazzo underneath. It was only when their supportive brother showed them a poem that deeply resonated with them that they started searching for online support groups (Pause for Perspective helped), and spoke to their parents. “My dad was very quiet. He is old-school; it’s hard on him. I think he felt I might make changes to my body, but I assured him that I’m the same person. My relatives started showing me a lot of love and even now, if they misgender [calling them she, for instance] me, I keep correcting them,” they say, adding, “I feel very privileged that everyone has been so supportive.” Rubani doesn’t feel the need to change their name as it is gender-neutral, and though “there are a few parts I want to dispose of”, they want to understand their body better. They shaved their head during the pandemic but the only permanent step they’ve taken is a fresh tattoo designed by them, featuring the non-binary gender sign. “It’s a big achievement for me.”

Not everyone is so fortunate. “Many children who come to me have been dismissed, invalidated, and are coming from a place of hurt. They first ask me if I’m queer-affirmative; what they are basically asking is ‘is this a safe space?’” says Vyawahare.

Tanya Mangwani, a queer-affirmative psychotherapist based in Pune, concurs. Mangwani sees teens and young adults and has had a lot of queer clients over the last year. Common red flags, according to her, are how your child expresses their gender (in attire or grooming), the toys they play with, and saying ‘don’t call me a boy/girl’. “Parents should take their child seriously, follow the child’s lead, validate their concerns, and not project their own biases of homophobia on to their children,” she says. Even after they speak out, let them decide whom they want to tell. “They pick up where they feel safe or unsafe.”

The non-binary flag, actor Demi Lovato and singer Sam Smith

The non-binary flag, actor Demi Lovato and singer Sam Smith

Of course, schools are the big bastions where change is key. “Schools can have gender-neutral bathrooms [or let trans kids use the restroom of the gender they are expressing], make uniforms inclusive, and make language more accommodating. The management, teachers and support staff, all need to undergo sensitisation workshops. And instead of sex education, they should have relationship education and teach consent, borders, gender,” says Vyawahare, who has worked with schools on gender and sexuality. “We also need to start questioning things, like why do we need kids to stand in lines divided by gender, or why have boys-only and girls-only schools?”

Vedica Saxena, a TEDx speaker and project director at Tagore International School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, says the school launched Breaking Barriers, a student-led campaign to raise awareness about the LGBTQIA+ community way back in 2013. “We use inclusive language [policeperson not policeman], ensure everyone feels safe to speak freely without any teacher hushing them, have a curriculum that is free of gender stereotypes, and have trained counsellors. We want to raise empathetic and informed students.”

Inclusivity is introduced for classes 3-5 by means of stories — where students are encouraged to reimagine plots of tales such as Cinderella and then discuss it. Class 6-8 have group discussions and even a ‘drag queen hour’, where a drag artist is invited to come in and read out stories. “We want to normalise the idea and the [drag] look,” says Saxena. Classes 9-12 take the lead by educating themselves, and then going out to conduct workshops. The school has conducted workshops across 45+ schools and 4,500 students across India. While it all sounds easy, the fact is such systemic change needs to be introduced across the board with everyone being mindful of it all the time.

Growing up non-binary in today’s India

Calling all allies

India is very reflective of the world. While large-scale surveys haven’t been carried out in most countries, a 2016 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law showed that at least 0.5% of Americans identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming. Estimates place the UK’s non-binary population at 1%. And countries are beginning to officially recognise non-binary people; Argentina just became the first Latin American country to allow people to choose the gender X on documents; Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some US states also allow the same. So does India.

As the world moves towards inclusivity, we need to bring up children who have a voice, have safe spaces to speak up, and this needs to move beyond just their homes, their friends and family.

Ram Sinha, co-founder of Pride Circle, a Bengaluru-based Diversity & Inclusion organisation, says the way forward for non-binary recognition is the way the LGBTQIA+ community did it: through education and exposure. In a country where more than half the population is below the age of 25, many of the young generation are already allies and strong advocates. The onus now lies on us as parents to educate ourselves and find the vocabulary to raise and support gender non-conforming children. “Parents must question their own gender roles at home, reduce gender stereotyping, include diversity in their social circle by say, inviting a gay couple home, so children develop a diverse worldview and realise this is okay. That’s the only way to break stigma,” concludes Vyawahare.

Geetika Sasan Bhandari was formerly Editor, Child magazine, and now runs a parenting blog, Let’s Raise Good Kids.

If you are in crisis, call the 24×7 helpline at Aasra (9820466726).

Growing up non-binary in today’s India

Gender between pages

Fiction and non-fiction books to help children and teens get answers to the questions they didn’t know whom to ask:

1. Guthli Has Wings by Kanak Shashi: Guthli is a happy child who can’t figure out why he’s being called a boy and stopped from wearing his sister’s skirt, when he feels like a girl

2. Loveless by Alice Oseman: A well-etched secondary character, Sunil is non-binary, and plays a large role in the book.

3. I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver: Ben is a senior in high school who comes out to their parents as non-binary and is asked to leave home

4. Trans Teen Survival Guide by Fox Fisher and Owl Fisher: Practical advice and tips in a frank and funny book that teens will enjoy.

5. The Gender Quest Workbook — A Guide for Teens and Young Adults Exploring Gender Identity by Deborah Coolhart and Rylan Jay Testa: A workbook to help teens navigate the challenges of gender identity and expression at home.

6. How to Understand Your Gender — A Practical Guide for Exploring Who You Are by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker: A kind, smart friend with whom you can discuss gender issues.

7. Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon: A gender-nonconforming artist draws from their own life to challenge the world to see beyond the black and white

8. Friends Under the Summer Sun by Ashutosh Pathak and Kanak Shashi: Little Nimmi spends her summer discovering the small joys of life and becomes friends with her neighbour. But wait, is he a boy or a girl? How can he be Shri and Akka?