Navigating healthcare as a Dalit, non-binary person with debilitating social anxiety
by Rachelle Bharathi Chandran
Two words I learnt very early. Maybe just after my first few words.
I understood that they elicited disgust in everyone who said them. And they were said a lot, because most of my family was black and had a lot of hair. Some had lighter skin. Being born with fair skin was aspirational.
I was happy about my golden skin colour, to the obvious dismay of other people who didn’t see the beauty I clearly thought my skin colour had. But some parts of my body were black and my mother would ask if I scrubbed them well.
Scrubbing also brings memories of the time when my mother told me how I was born with a head full of curly hair that was beautiful, but my body, which had a lot of hair, was not beautiful. They scrubbed me for years with turmeric. But I still have more hair on my armpits, legs, fingers and arms than any girl I know. And I have been with boys who had less hair than me.
Scientists argue that for gay, lesbian, or trans identified people, there is evidence of structural differences in the brain. And that no such thing exists for people who identify as non-binary (NB). However, many of us have felt NB as children even if we didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. It is essential to hear stories of NB persons to understand that our identities are rooted in our psyche and, for some, in our physical bodies.
Being compared to a cis boy and having more hair for a cis girl might be a way that my body expressed that I have aspects of both — boy and girl. But clearly society does not want to hear about this. Gendered products to groom young boys and girls are rampant. Even Ayurvedic formulations of cosmetics include turmeric for girl babies because hair needs to be tamed out of our system. There is deep shame associated with being black and having hair, and non-binary bodies especially bear the brunt of this pain because society decides who we should be.
As a child, I didn’t have my ears pierced and wore a lot of pants and shirts. None of the traditional markers of Indian femininity were present. Many did mistake me for a boy. I assumed it was because of my clothes or lack of earrings. I had a very soft voice and when I spoke people would assume that I was a girl, because a soft voice equals femininity. Even though I was assigned female at birth, that is not how I primarily identify, even though aspects of femininity appeal to me.
I was also a very lithe kid with a very sharp boy cut but still heard catcalls and comments about my body as a child. The leering of men at my body is very familiar. To all the people who talk about taking ‘self-defence’ classes, this is the kind of male attention I received as a young child returning from a karate class. Because people say, ‘Start teaching young girls self-defence.’ I loved the class and was so happy when I received my yellow belt, kicking brick slates. But none of that helped me when I was assaulted. I couldn’t suddenly kick the guy like you see in the movies.
They ask, ‘What have you done? Did you get self-defence lessons? See, I have taken lessons and can bring down a guy in a minute.’ Except they don’t tell you that they are doing it in a controlled environment. Or they have done that in real life but a past sexual traumatic memory didn’t inhibit them. How do you think a rape survivor/victim is going to react to a person in a space where they know they are going to be harmed? All our memories come flooding back. And people who think that we have to fight back don’t see the ableism of that statement. How is a person with a physical or mental disability or limited mobility going to fight back?
These are also experiences that have contributed to dysphoria. Being a NB person, the experiences of being in a woman’s body shapes a lot of how the world sees me. It also dictates the way I experience pain which is centred in body parts that are considered to be female-specific. During those times of pain, I disconnect from my body. There are many times that this body feels alien, like when I am groped and I disassociate the way many trauma victims do, but I also disconnect because I feel no connection to the woman’s body parts, I don’t feel attached to them or want them.
Seeking help for any of this has not been easy. I started exercising avidly when I was in 10th grade. After months of obsessively working out, my weight and body structure bordered on the boy archetype of strong shoulders and arms. Petite girls in my class would love to hold me as I made them feel smaller and girlish. It made me feel nice too. But this culturally ingrained theme is damaging because there would be times when I would want this too. The reality that we cannot transition our bodies whenever we want hits and it is painful to reconcile with.
That doesn’t mean that NB persons don’t try different ways of transforming themselves. I went from having a strong-shouldered body to becoming anorexic in a few years. I finally became the petite girl who held me. Over the years in therapy no one has addressed this — no one has addressed how conditions like anorexia may play a role in a non-binary person’s life, because of how we feel disconnected from our bodies and may seek to change them.
No amount of therapy worked when I was young. I only met upper caste psychologists and psychiatrists with whom I never felt comfortable discussing money or the general anxiety it brought, especially because I was constantly in and out of hospitals because I was ill.
Eventually, I gave up on therapy. I held the parts that discriminated against me and my ancestors closed, never to be opened or spoken about. I navigated college and work experiencing debilitating social anxiety, largely without ever talking about it. And when I finally started to apply to colleges again, it came back. All the pain and discrimination came back. And when I looked, I had no one to share it with. No support groups or communities. My Facebook became a space where saffron reigned high. Hatred for reservation was not far behind. The few people I knew as friends were either under some garb of neutralism or completely under the saffron wave. I lost many friends and acquaintances over arguments.
I met a therapist who works at one of the better institutions considered liberal and encourages anti-caste dialogue. In a conversation about how micro-aggressions of race, class, caste, gender occur every day at the workplace, the therapist repeated the same line without the word caste. Of course, I know for many this might just seem like a slip. I am sure the therapist meant no harm. But it doesn’t have to take a malicious intent to be casteist. All it takes is unconscious bias which the current therapist scene in India fails to address.
How can I as a Dalit person ever feel comfortable talking about caste to a therapist who repeats every word except caste? How can I feel comfortable discussing my NB personhood, problems with school or work when every one of these are marked with my Dalit identity? Or when an upper caste doctor can physically touch me inappropriately and be sure that his job won’t be at risk because he knows the management? I wish I could talk about these issues in isolation. But I can’t. Even LGBTQIA+ spaces in India are led by upper castes who are every bit as casteist as their cis and heterosexual counterparts.
Isolation for the oppressed is not chosen. It is an inevitability. We are unable to navigate this world without constantly hearing about Dalit merit and reservation. We have to meet upper castes who flaunt their caste surname but turn around in the same breath and say that caste is not based on birth but work. It is to be in a country that never has spaces for us. Our people have to hide their identity for fear of discrimination, so we don’t even recognise each other and are isolated and alone.
We want to escape and dream of another place but no matter where we go in the world, caste follows because upper caste Indian diaspora fills this world. Few spaces address caste and when they do, they are the savarna saviour voices who we cannot speak to or feel comfortable with. These translate to medical and subsequently therapy spaces that are full of people who are casteist.
There is no way to discuss those of us who are marginalised by sex, gender, religion, abilities without discussing caste. Caste plays a role in what help we get in terms of healthcare. It decides if we can get adequate care, blood transfusions, organ donations. It’s that feeling of loneliness when we don’t know of places where we can speak about our lives, and hope that our journey is understood.
We need people who experience our pain, so that they not only empathise with us but offer us hope that we can live. Especially in spaces of medicine and therapy. We need people who celebrate their life, so we know that it is okay to live happily and deserve happiness, merit be damned.
Rachelle Bharathi Chandran is a Dalit, Non Binary identifying Pansexual person. Zir interests lie in areas of intergenerational trauma, sex and gender within Dalit communities, accessible healthcare and support groups for marginalised persons.
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