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Sonal Giani On Her Journey Of Self Acceptance & Being An LGBTQIA+ Activist In India

Sonal Giani: It isn't you who has to come out; it the workplace that has to come out of the closet about their support to the queer community!

“Be so completely yourself that everyone around you feels safe to be themselves too!” ~ Unknown. This is the feeling one gets while speaking to Sonal Giani, an LGBTQIA+ rights activist. Her warm smile and calm demeanour puts one at ease instantly.

Sonal Giani dons many hats to champion LGBTQIA+ rights; she is a public speaker, activist, diversity and inclusion trainer and filmmaker. She is the co-founder of Umang, a support group for lesbian, bisexual women & Transmen, and Yaariyan, a youth initiative of The Humsafar Trust which facilitates youth access to health and social support.

It was when she was in class sixth or seventh, that she realised she was different. She remembers being fascinated by a girl in her class. Unable to articulate the feelings of having an innocent crush on a classmate, she often wondered if she was different from the others.

“At that time I didn’t have the language,” Sonal says, “and that was my first challenge. Growing up, there was an awareness that I was different, but I could not pin-point what it was. The first time I heard the word ‘lesbian’ was when my sister had used it as a joke; and that’s when I got to know that this word which should have helped me be comfortable with myself, was something used as a derogatory word. So the first challenge itself was finding the right language and finding the right fit, and finding the community itself, which took me a lot of time.”

Sonal Giani identifies as a bisexual, polyamorous woman, and has spent many years on a journey of self love and acceptance.

Discrimination at workplaces often subtle, but very much there

On her journey, Sonal has faced discrimination at many stages. Be it at her workplace or within the queer community itself.

“People suspected it”, she says, speaking of the mid-2000s, a time when she had not really come out. “People also start to hyper sexualise a woman they think is a lesbian, because they don’t have an understanding… But there was no way for me to challenge it at the time.”

The management of an organisation may have queer accepting policies but there still exists an inherent bias in people.

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“No one directly said anything, but it was all very insidious. There were rumours, there was graffiti in the staff lift, women began walking out of the changing room when I entered. They will not call you to the after party, people will not have lunch with you. If you are an effeminate man, then you will not be asked to present your project externally to a client, even if it is a company that is saying it is very supportive. So if homosexuality needs to be ‘tackled’ in the workplace, it is not me who has to come out, it’s the workplace that has to come out of the closet about their support to the queer community.”

Sonal Giani on the struggle with coming out as bisexual and polyamorous

It is a common misconception that bisexuality is a choice. It is seen an “experimental phase” before the person finally figures out their sexual orientationion as gay or lesbian.

Sonal Giani faced several hindrances before accepting herself fully as a polyamorous bisexual woman because of the many negative stereotypes associated with bisexuality and polyamory.

Sonal Giani

Judgement comes hard and fast from all quarters, even from the queer community. “Bisexual people are seen as promiscuous, and that they are going to use polyamory as an excuse to date multiple people.” Sonal internalised this message and developed polyphobia. She made sure she was always in monogamous relationships to avoid judgement. “It was more difficult for me to come out as a polyamours person than a bisexual person…The polyamory community is genuinely more inclusive of bisexual people and I then finally accepted myself. But as a bisexual person when you are not around people like you then it become challenging.”

According to Sonal, bisexuality is viewed as “selfish fence sitting by people not making a choice about their sexual orientation.” Gay and lesbian people who have fought very hard to change wrong perceptions about homosexuality as “being a choice” are sometimes disdainful of the bisexual community.  “Bisexual people do not have a choice in who they fall in love with. Just like straight people think that lesbian and gay people are making a choice, similarly gay people tend to think that bisexuals have a choice and are fence sitters, but that is not the case. Nobody has a choice in whom they fall in love with. It is time to believe people for what they identify with!”

How have things changed for the LGBTQIA+ community since the September 2018 judgement?

When asked, Sonal says that when she had come out, there weren’t many known names who were publicly out – except for names like Ashok Rao Kavi, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and Prince Manvendra. Other public figures like those in the film industry were just rumoured to be queer. “Plus they were all very caricaturish,” she says. “So for the first few years it was very tough to find somebody like me. And I was one of the first few young women to be out. So that journey of coming out to the media and living your life openly was very lonely. It felt like a risk to take, a risk that has played out to be very much to my advantage in the long run.”

Sonal Giani

Sonal continues, “Now there is no dearth of people who are out… But I am not very sure if people are inclusive. Earlier the community was really small, everyone knew everyone in the community in Bombay. So there was a strong sense of camaraderie, and a sense of your own history in India. But now, sure you are asking my pronouns, but does that make you more accepting of non conforming people? I am not so sure. People have mastered the language but I can’t see the authenticity playing out. We need to be more cohesive as a movement. There has been a big gap in the online and offline communities in my experience.”

Among gender identities, trans men find it hardest to access support

Among the many initiatives that Sonal has co-founded, Umang is a support group for lesbian, bisexual and transmasculine people. She specifically speaks of access for, and the mobilisation of transmasculine people (trans men) to the LGBTQIA+ community and support groups. They are assigned female at birth, and treated as female by their families and communities.

“The problem of transmasculine people remains unique due to the restrictions women face at home,” Sonal says. They still remain answerable to someone at home when stepping out. So mobilising their community is a unique endeavour that needs to be well thought out….Women are not allowed to step out of the house without informing the family, so mobilising strategies are different for transmasculine people.”

There is a similar problem for women who identify as lesbian or bisexual. It is hard for them to step out at “odd hours”, unlike men who have much more freedom to be out till late.“For women, I’ll have to choose something like an open timing from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,” she says. “And even then some of them will even have to tell the family that I’m going to somebody’s birthday; but how many times can they say I’m going to someone’s birthday, right? So then you have to kind of choose the different kinds of events.”

Mental health access for queer people in India poor

Queer sexuality in India has been viewed through the lens of heterosexuality for a long time in the mental health community. There still remains a lack of awareness about the unique struggles of a LGBTQIA+ persons. Finding the right kind of help can be an uphill task, as there exists an unconscious bias among many Indian therapists towards queer people.

Sonal has had all kinds of experiences with counsellors and met many quacks in the process, it took her several tries to find the right person. “I have discontinued working with some lovely counsellors who didn’t have enough information so it constantly felt like “work” with them because they didn’t understand some things. Ignorance on the part of a counsellor can lead to emotional damage to a young person seeking help.”

When the counsellor is untrained about queer issues, the emotional burden of educating the counsellor falls unfairly on the client’s shoulders.  “Knowing counseling techniques does not always mean that the counsellor will automatically become non judgemental or be able to empathise with queer people. When my counsellor is not trained, the emotional burden falls on me to educate my counsellor about queer relationships…And that is not what I need. I am here for my own mental health support and not a guinea pig for people to understand queer issues.”

There are however, resources now available to counsellors to sensitize and educate themselves on queer issues. The Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice (QACP) by the Mariwala Health Initiative, and the Health Professionals for Queer Indians by Prasad Raj Dandekar for the medical community are trying to educate medical physicians and mental health practitioners on how to address the specific needs and challenges of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Bollywood and impact of pop culture representation of queer people

According to Sonal, pop culture has a huge impact on the mindsets of Indians about queer people and their issues. Representation has evolved over the years. The presence of OTT platforms and better inclusion of queer voices at the script writing level has lead to better representation. From being inauthentic and caricaturish earlier, queer characters now have become more relatable. The emergence of OTT has really helped, you now have many shows that have queer characters who has been sensitively portrayed. This makes a huge difference because young people have reference points which are not just caricaturish.”

The audience now has become more discerning in their tastes and wants to watch interesting and realistic stories. It doesn’t matter anymore if the movie does not have their favourite movie stars as long as the plotline is engaging. This evolution in audiences tastes has lead to a burst of creativity especially in the OTT world and has opened a door for queer people to tell their stories.  “Now because of OTT there are no boundaries, and it proves that it is not only a queer person that wants to see a queer character. People want to watch content which is diverse, content is king.”

Advice to Indian parents – “love your child!”

Sonal is also a Youtuber and makes videos that discuss LGBTQIA+ issues. Her video called “How to come out to Indian Parents?” that has become a go-to guide for many queer Indians trying to come out to their parents.

When it comes to acceptance in the home, Sonal has one important piece of advice for Indian parents of queer children and that is to show unconditional love to their child when they come out.

Sonal Giani

To come out is a very courageous and vulnerable act and parents must be sensitive and keep their shock, confusion to themselves at that moment and just show unconditional support. “What’s important is that you convey that you love them, because that is the biggest and deepest fear in the child that when I come out, will something change? Will my parents stop loving me?”

Often parents may feel angry, ashamed, or guilty when a child comes out as queer, and not know how to react. “Please remain calm, curious and gently supportive to your child in that vulnerable moment,” advises Sonal. “You can always say that I’m going to find out more about this and come back with my questions. Or you can say that I am not in agreement right now. Be your most authentic self. But remember to also say that I really love you and I care for you enough to read up about this. Just saying I love you is enough!”

Images source: Sonal Giani

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