When the adolescent Laila comes out to her mother as bisexual in the coming of age movie ‘Margarita With a Straw,’ her mother is disgusted and says, “Ye sab normal nahi hai (This isn’t normal)”. To this, Laila, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound, retorts, “That’s what the world said about me too.”
In a world where we are constantly subscribing to the ‘normal’ set out by our surroundings and struggle to love ourselves, being queer and having a disability can cause an individual to face an accumulated stigma and make things harder. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining…
Shivangi Agrawal, 25, is very vocal about the issues that affect her. While she spends her days at Ambedkar University where she’s pursuing a Master's in Psychology, she takes part in poetry events to express her feelings about love and her body - which differs from most people around her. Having a congenital disability, Shivangi struggled to fit in with her classmates while she was in school.
During adolescence, she started thinking more consciously about how she was different from others. “I remember this time when I was in class 11 when I felt that I did not belong here, and I did not understand why that was. I realised that it was because I look different from others and wear different shoes,” she recalls. When she moved to the States to study at Oregon State University, she recalls that the disability groups there did not address sexuality. It was in the queer spaces that she found herself. “In the disabled community, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about sexuality and enjoying sex. Only in queer spaces was there an active discussion on sexuality.”
Now, back in Delhi, Shivangi has an active network of queer friends and allies. She’s initiated an art project called ‘Determined Art Movement’ wherein she, along with a group of artists are painting wall murals in Delhi. She goes on dates from time to time and wears her disability proudly on her sleeve. “For me, when I say that I’m disabled, it gives me a voice to say that I can be whoever I want and still have a disability. It’s the same as being queer. I can be whoever I want and still be queer. I don’t have to be feminine to be a gay boy. I don’t have to be a butch to be a lesbian. I can be anyone and be queer,” she emphasizes.
In many cases, people aren’t aware of their disability till the world makes them aware of it. For 28-year-old Ashly Nornha, a fashion designer in Mumbai, it was difficult to deal with fellow kids while growing up as they had no awareness about cerebral palsy. The condition, which has affected his legs, made him self-conscious to the extent that he did not move during a date for the fear of being rejected if the other guy found out about his disability! “My only and constant fear has been to be rejected by someone. The feeling of not being wanted or liked by someone made me feel like my life had no purpose,” confesses Ashly.
For anyone who has faced rejections in life, having a support system that loves and cares for you goes a long way in instilling the feelings of self-worth and confidence. This is what has worked for Ashly, who claims to be ‘as gay as the rainbow.’ “Over the years, I came across some fabulous people. These were the kind of people you know would stay with you for life, no matter what. Whatever medical condition I had or however I walked didn’t matter to them. I may have thought very low of myself, but they showed me how they didn’t and that what I looked like on the outside didn’t come in the way of us being friends. Needless to say, some of my friends found me attractive too! And above all, acknowledged that even though my legs made me different as per the world standards, I was just like anyone else; just a bit more special though!” writes Ashly in an email exchange.
For Sujoy Das, it took him a lot of time to ‘be okay with himself.’ Hailing from a middle-class family in Kolkata, Sujoy contracted polio when was 7 years old, affecting his legs. For the major part of his life, he felt victimised. Now 39, Sujoy has been living with his partner in Bangalore for the past 6 years. It was when he met his partner that he started acknowledging the problems he was facing and sought counselling to deal with his psychological issues. He believes that coming to Bangalore was the turning point in his life as he became independent and did everything that he always wanted to do. The key to freedom, according to him, is economic independence. “The moment you are financially independent, you start exploring,” says Sujoy in a phone conversation.
Sujoy is happy with his partner but found the gay community non-inclusive. He says, “We don’t walk in the Pride; we are proud of what we are. We don’t have to show it and tell it to the world. Pride comes from within. Both of us have distanced ourselves because of our disappointment. But there are certainly supportive friends as well.” Sujoy claims that after meeting his partner, he doesn’t have to face the world alone. If he has any issues, they face it together. While his family may not understand their relationship - but they acknowledge his partner’s role in his life. To others who may be having issues with their disability, Sujoy advises them to accept their disability first and seek help to resolve their issues, love themselves, be confident, take care of their health, and most importantly, take life with a pinch of salt.
When one’s disability is visible, it’s difficult to steer away from the stares of people who aren’t used to seeing physical disability. But when the disability is invisible, it might take time for the individual to figure out what’s wrong. At the age of 14, when Reshma Valliappan ran away from her home listening to the voices in her head, she did not know what was happening to her. It was only eight years later, at the age of 22, that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Reshma, now 38, is an artist and mental health advocate who runs an organisation called ‘The Red Door’ in Pune. Over the years, she has learnt to live with schizophrenia without any medication. “I don’t consider it a problem that has to be solved. I just consider it a different way of existing,” says Reshma in a phone conversation.
Reshma recalls that she used to dress up like boys during adolescence and had a lot of girlfriends in her convent school, but it was only in 2006 that she started wondering what exactly it was that she was feeling. Subsequently, she came out to her parents in 2009 and left mental health advocacy in the same year to figure out what this other identity of hers was. She joined a support group in Pune and started discovering herself. But since she has schizophrenia, people would say all sorts of things about her.
“They told my parents that the voices were telling me to like women, and this was because I wasn't taking medications. They also believed that I was influencing other people with schizophrenia," says Reshma. Thankfully, her parents are supportive now. “When I came out, an article was found about me not being straight - it was highlighted. My father got a call saying that you need to take care of your daughter. My father said, ‘For what? What is she doing now?’ ‘Oh, we found out that she likes women.’ So my father tells them, ‘Oh, that’s good! Don’t you also like women? I also like women,” laughs Reshma as she recounts this incident.
Having learnt to live with schizophrenia, Reshma gets invited to conferences on mental health, but the mental health world is reluctant to talk about queerness. “I have been open about my queer identity even in the public world. And the mental health world has been very hostile to me because of that. Even when I travelled to countries perceived to be open to being queer, it isn't necessarily true. They are open because of the law, but otherwise, they don't want to hear about your identity. If you are in a room about mental health, they don’t want to hear about it. It’s irrelevant for them,” claims Reshma.
Through ‘The Red Door,’ Reshma challenges the idea of ‘normal’ and ‘madness’ and uses creativity to challenge these constructions of mental illness. Through art workshops and activities, people are encouraged to figure out their healing. When asked about her views on raising awareness about queer-disabled folk, she says, “I just wish that people would bring awareness about being good human beings and having basic common sense about life.”