Coming out in India: Questioning Western Psychological Models of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity Development with Dr. Ketki Ranade
(This interview was first published on the Prajnya Trust’s Peace Blog.)
In February and March 2019, I was part of the inaugural class of the Mariwala Health Initiative’s Certificate Course in Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice in Mumbai. We were a group of mental health professionals, social workers and educators who had signed up to learn about queer affirmative practice, which is geared towards supporting clients who identify as queer (used here as a term that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, non-binary, genderqueer and other identities that are seen as non-normative on account of people’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics).
Queer affirmative practice is not merely queer friendly. It is a more proactive stance that involves examining one’s own feelings and attitudes about queer identities, and also advocacy in solidarity with queer clients. Such practitioners are willing to commit time, energy and resources in learning about the unique life stressors encountered by queer persons, supplying them with information about services and social spaces they can access, adopting vocabulary that is queer affirmative, and keeping themselves updated with legal and policy interventions aimed at improving the quality of life of queer persons.
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this course was for me not only in terms of learning how to be a queer-affirmative practitioner but understanding my own relationship to societal norms around gender and sexuality. It made me re-evaluate the position of therapist as expert that is often associated with counselling contexts wherein the client comes with a problem, and the therapist attaches a name to their condition through analytical tools they are equipped with during their training.
Queer affirmative practice is deeply reflective of the power dynamics involved in this relationship, and emphasizes the centrality of the client’s agency in determining how their life narrative is understood and interpreted. The course also drew my attention to the fact that mental health professionals who aspire to be queer affirmative in their practice have to make reparations for the historical complicity of disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy in pathologizing queer persons.
I would recommend this course to school counselors, school teachers and other kinds of educators who want to learn how to make schools safe and welcoming for queer students. In the meanwhile, here is an interview with Dr. Ketki Ranade (who prefers to be addressed as ‘KP’, and uses the pronoun ‘they’), who co-designed and co-taught this course. They work as Assistant Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Health and Mental Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Having worked as a mental health service provider, researcher, activist and teacher, they have a lot to share but this interview is specifically around the idea of ‘coming out’, which is explored in a chapter titled ‘Exploring Identity Development and the Symbolic Meaning/s of ‘Coming Out’ in the Process of Identity Work’ in their recent book Growing Up Gay in Urban India: A Critical Psychosocial Perspective (2018). We talked on two different occasions. What you find below is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 is available here.
Question: The American Psychological Association describes ‘coming out’ as “the popular term used to describe disclosure to others that one is gay, lesbian, or bisexual.” In your experience, what are the various kinds of feelings associated with this experience — for the person who is coming out, and for the person that disclosure is made to?
KP: There is this whole idea of whether to come out or not, and the image that might describe it best is that of a revolving door. As a queer person, it’s not like you jump out of the closet once and for all, and it is there for the whole world to see. You are constantly making decisions and choices about when to come out, who you feel safe with, and which is an appropriate setting for such a conversation. Coming out is often connected to a dilemma or a negotiation. It is very much an internal experience. If you have decided to come out to a friend, then how do you decide which friend? How much do you want to say? Are you going to talk about whether you are dating, or just tell them about the identity label you like to use? How you proceed with subsequent coming out is influenced in many ways by how the first one goes.
My first coming out was when I was studying in a hospital setting that offered a teaching programme in mental health. It was a traditional, hierarchical space. I knew that the person I was coming out to was not gay. I was looking for cues that would assure me it was likely to go well for me. I was carrying a lot of apprehension, doubt and ambivalence. I was 25 years old, I think. The person I was coming out to was a married person with whom I shared some sort of critical language to talk about the institution of marriage. I was not surrounded by a lot of politically aware people back then. People were not using terms like ‘cis-het’ even in political circles. This was way back in say 2001. Today, a lot of people are using the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ quite openly in public.
So much depends on the nature of the relationship you share with the person to whom the disclosure is made. How close are they to you prior to coming out? Is this a parent? What are the expectations both sides have from this relationship? With parents, there is a lot of complicated stuff. Parents have aspirations for their children. Many of them also see their children as an extension of themselves. Other considerations that come up are: How much emotional language is present in your relationship? Are your conversations largely transactional and matter-of-fact, or do you really talk about who you are and what is important to you?
Question: In a country where parents and teachers rarely initiate conversations with young people around sexuality, unless they want to curb it, how does one go about understanding what coming out means for the development of a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity? If coming out is going to put an individual at greater risk of physical harm and mental distress, what is the incentive to come out?
KP: There is no incentive. Each individual, in an agential, active way, makes a choice about the kind of self-disclosure they want to make, and the consequences that might come from talking about it. If the consequences are not conducive, queer persons might choose to withhold that information. The implication that people who don’t come out are living a deficient or inauthentic life is incorrect. I am not saying that to hide is not stressful. People have their own reasons for hiding, and they have an active negotiation about what that means for themselves and the people they are close to. Things are more complicated than the binary of either being out or being closeted. People choose to come out in safe spaces, and may decide to come out in limited ways. They gauge things around them, and make a decision.
Question: When the APA definition refers to gay, lesbian and bisexual orientation, does it assume that the people being spoken of identify as either male or female? Would the process of coming out not be informed by whether a person identifies as cisgender, trans, non-binary, genderfluid or queer? How would you explain the connection between sexual orientation and gender identity to readers who are unfamiliar with vocabulary that is becoming commonplace in academic and activist circles?
KP: There are two ways of responding to this. Some people say that sexual orientation and gender identity are totally separate things. We can think of sexual orientation broadly as heterosexual and non-heterosexual. Heterosexuals are people who are attracted to people of the opposite sex. Non-heterosexuals are not necessarily attracted to people of the opposite sex. This category includes gay men, lesbian women, bisexual people. I don’t know if asexuals would be clubbed under non-heterosexuals or taken as separate.
You see, these terms are mostly used to talk about who people have sex with or are attracted to. Sexual orientation is considered separate from gender identity. However, if we say sexual orientation is about who am I attracted to, then gender is already part of that conversation. How do I talk about heterosexuality without talking about men and women? Somehow, talking about sexual orientation without referring to gender identity or gender expression is almost impossible. However you do have people who insist that it is separate.
Then gender identity is talked about as cis and trans. If you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, then you are cis. If you feel that the gender assigned to you at birth does not work for you, and you do not identify with it, then you are trans. Cis people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual. Similarly, trans people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual. This is the neatly defined sexual orientation-gender identity grid but it may not really work like that. Look at the category of bisexual. Is this about two genders or about multiple genders? One of the ways of describing bisexual identity is that you are attracted to persons of your own gender and genders other than yours. Then you are not restricting bisexuality to a bi-gendered or male versus female understanding of sexuality. Many of us use the hyphenated expression ‘gender-sexuality’ because we see them as connected, not isolated. However, this approach may not work for everyone.
Question: I am curious about the coinage ‘coming out’. How did this expression emerge and become widely used? It makes me think of disclosure as letting go of guilt and shame, akin to confession in a church. Should I blame this interpretation on the fact that I went to a Catholic school, or are there some religious antecedents to coming out?
KP: It is a Western language import. Coming out of the closet possibly has some Christian underpinnings to it. Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, who have edited the book Same Sex Love in India, talk about the diversity of genders-sexualities in ancient India as existing without the taboo, shame and policing that we witness in modern times. This may be a useful question to ask — Is the language of sexual identity a postcolonial phenomenon? This is worth thinking about. India was under colonial rule for a long time. Today, we live in a globalized world, so we are borrowing a lot from queer histories and vocabularies from other contexts. Sometimes, this works really well to describe our experiences. At other times, it doesn’t.
Question: What do you think about absence of self-disclosure being framed as inability to lead an authentic life? Where does this assumption come from, and to what extent do you agree with it?
KP: One of the things I’m doing is asking questions about this idea that coming out is this imperative thing in the life of a queer person — first coming out to yourself, and then going out and telling the world that you are this out and proud queer person. It seems like there is a lot of premium attached to the idea of coming out. I am interested in challenging Western psychological models on lesbian, gay and bisexual identity development, which have all these linear stages. You master one, then go on to the next, until you take pride in your identity. Coming out is seen as an essential step before pride can happen. My data is from Bombay and Pune but I am drawing on other work done on gender-sexuality in the Indian context to say that these stage models may not work for queer lives in India. People may know very early that who they are is different from what is seen as normative and ideal. Sharing this self-knowledge might not bring them any great rewards. In fact, it might bring them serious consequences. Telling someone about your sexual orientation is actually a negotiated activity, not necessarily intra-psychic or inside your own head. If you have not told ten significant people in your life, that does not imply you are a closeted, depressed, unhappy homosexual person. People might be living full, thriving lives yet decide not to tell their parents. This is what I describe as ‘situated complexities’ in my book.
Many interpersonal and social factors determine whether someone decides to come out. There are 500 Indias within this country we call India. Identity, for a large number of people in our country, is something social and not individual. For example, people may see themselves as the eldest son of a family, belonging to a particular caste group or occupation group. People do not necessarily think of their sexuality as a primary part of their identity. In that sense, coming out about your sexuality, and saying that I am a gay man or a lesbian woman or a queer person or whatever, may not work as described in Western psychological models. People may not come out because they share a home with their parents, or because their siblings’ marriage prospects could get affected by their coming out.
In the Indian context, coming out is not so much an individualized identity achievement as implied in some of the Western psychological models. Because marriage is such an important social institution, we are conditioned to think of people in terms of whether they are single or married, with someone or alone. If you are alone, then anyway you are an ‘other’. When you are an other, what is the point of qualifying your otherness further by saying you are gay? Singlehood itself is non-normative. For single gay people, the question of coming out to parents is also complicated by parents wanting to know things like: What does that mean? You are gay with whom? What is going to happen to your life?
Question: As you have explored in your writing, coming out is not a one-time event but a lifelong process. Why is there a disproportionate burden of self-disclosure on persons who are already marginalized? Why are persons identifying as heterosexual or straight not expected to come out?
KP: What is normative does not have to be named. It is seen as the regular. Recently, in one of the trainings I facilitated, a participated asked, “Why do I have to introduce myself as a cis woman, and not just a woman?” By naming yourself a cis woman, you are saying that there are other kinds of women. You are opening up the category, not taking the majority or the centre as the default. Right now, the people on the margins have to name themselves, explain themselves, make themselves visible and legible. They have to carry this disproportionate burden.
Question: A few days ago, I came across a Twitter bio wherein someone referred to themselves as a coming out consultant. Is this common? In what way can a consultant support a person in their coming out journey?
KP: There is a proliferation of all kinds of experts. This is a function of greater medicalization of everyday life. We now have experts on healthy living and healthy cooking and healthy walking — all kinds of things — so I am not surprised that it extends to queer lives as well. I haven’t met a coming out consultant but this is part of a world where there are diversity consultants and life coaches. In a Foucauldian sense, you would say that this is about creating newer kinds of problems, and saying there are experts to give solutions. Someone will look at your nose, not your ears; at your bones, not your muscles. These are times of neatly defined specialities with associated narrowly defined competencies and expertise.
Question: While coming out is usually framed in terms of self and others, would you say that working with internalized homophobia is also part of the process? That does not go away overnight.
Answer: Queer persons have to work with the guilt and shame they experience. Even after coming out, feelings of guilt and shame may persist because of the prejudice that is all around. I want to suggest using the word ‘homonegativity’ in place of ‘homophobia’. The idea of phobia as a form of mental illness conjures up a sense of severe distress. Homonegativity is not a mental affliction. It is social in nature. It involves bigoted beliefs about and attitudes towards minority groups. People hold them because they are benefiting from power structure, and are happy to keep others out. Homonegativity is based on hate. We should not attribute sympathy by using the word ‘phobia’.
Question: You have engaged with Ruth Fassinger’s model of lesbian and gay identity development, which places significant emphasis on deepening and internalizing a sense of being lesbian and gay and committing to the lesbian and gay community. While there are a number of avenues such as support groups, pride marches, film festivals and parties that enable this, how would you explain the large presence of people who enjoy intimacy that can be described as homosexual but feel no sense of belonging to a wider community defined by shared sexual identity?
KP: Many people in the Indian context, particularly those connected to very strong family and kinship networks, may not experience their sexuality as their identity. They may see their identity in terms of community and clan, and marriage as a social obligation. Family is really significant in our context. Imagining yourself as outside of the family can seem like social death. Materially speaking, our lives are built so much around the institution of marriage that it cannot be easy to walk away from that. Where are those resources, internal and external? We don’t have a solid social security net, so it is difficult to get out of the family fold. Family is default for everything. If I am ill, if I suffer a loss in my business, if I have to deal with the death of my lover, if I have depression, family is the answer to everything because the state is not doing much. Economically, socially, politically we are organized so much around family.
Many people may be married against their will, living that out as a part of their duty towards their parents. Then there are people who see marriage as a social obligation, and that does not necessarily lead to distress. Men who have sex with men also talk about sexual behaviour as masti (fun/recreation/leisure) things that men do as part of bonding and homosociality but this does not have anything to do with taking on a sexual identity. They may not identify as gay or even want to be part of a community. There are also people who may be private about their sexuality. They may not actively participate in political discourse. They may choose to be who they are but they don’t think they could go to a pride march or a self-help group. Certain community spaces can be tremendously alienating for some because of other social positions they occupy in terms of their caste, class, language, region, marital status and so on.
Question: Fassinger’s model also talks about the process of internalizing a minority group identity, which I think is important to compare with other minority identities based on language, caste, religion, class and ethnicity. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a minority identity that a person rarely shares with their family. How does this influence a person’s decision to come out?
KP: Queerness is not a social identity that you are born with. It’s not like you are being socialized into this identity right after your birth by your father, mother, grandparents, uncles and aunts or siblings. If you’re any other minority, say a Muslim in India, you’ll know from very early on about your religious identity; also your family and community will figure out how socialization will happen as a Muslim in a majority Hindu country. You will know what you can take to school for lunch, and why someone will not eat with you. You will learn early on about ways to navigate the world carrying this identity of yours. I’m not saying that life is easier for other minorities. I’m just talking about how it is different. Social structures are in place. You could be part of a minority educational institution. From many places, you get the message that this is who you are. Your identity is not something you have to search for and find out for yourself. Sexual minorities are a minority within their own families. This is not the case with other minorities. That is a very crucial difference. For trans people, because of the way your gender is being read, you are alone and may feel alienated not just from your family but even within your own body.