April 19, 2011




For 15-year-old Ipsita Pal, end of school barely translated into the excitement most teenagers feel before entering college. Instead, she suffered from mood swings and scored badly in her ICSE preliminary exams.

Pal comes across as a reserved teenager, but is surprisingly candid about that “crazy, confusing phase where little made sense.”
“I was in love with my best friend - a girl. I don’t think I can even articulate what was going on in my head then,” Pal says in a rush.

“I had always seen my girlfriends gushing about liking guys. Love gave them such a high. But I felt none of that. I was ashamed and terrified because everything around you points towards liking the opposite sex,” explains Pal.

She adds that she was afraid of approaching a teacher because they never discussed similar dilemmas.
“If things went wrong, I would have been left with an added embarrassment - that of a teacher knowing about my feelings.”
Over months, Pal lost her appetite, sleep and her friends, too.

“The friend I loved moved to another city to pursuer college, and I had irrational fears about approaching other girls…what if I developed feelings for them too?”
Pal’s parents took her to two counsellors suspecting exam anxiety or, at most, depression.

“Neither took any time to speak to me, and put me on medication right away. It only reinforced the guilt I felt. I started believing that my feelings were unnatural, shameful and something I had to ‘cure’.”

Dr Zirak Marker was the third psychologist Pal visited.
“When a teenager approaches you with confusion about his/her sexuality, one has to be very careful about not disclosing too much or too little. Sexuality develops over a long period of time.”
Instead of concentrating on whether Pal was a lesbian or not, Dr Marker took time to understand her and took her off medication.

“You cannot reinforce an idea in a teenager’s mind - about heterosexuality or homosexuality.” In due course, Pal’s parents were taken into confidence. “Unlike most parents, Pal’s parents assured her that they loved her just the same - whether she loves a boy or a girl.

Dealing with confusion about one’s sexuality in school is difficult to begin with. Most signs around reinforce that heterosexual attraction and feelings for the opposite sex are ‘normal’ and anything that doesn’t conform to this notion is ‘abnormal’.

Worse, homophobia and bullying in schools makes it impossible for an adolescent to think his/her feelings through, says Mansi Hasan, child psychologist.

“The issue in school children today isn’t just about whether they can make sense of their sexual identities or not. It is also about the homophobia they see all around them. The word ‘gay’ is used as an abuse,” says Hasan.

Recently, the principal of an international school in the city approached Hasan to conduct a sex education workshop mainly because homosexual exploration was on the rise amongst boys and girls.

“Even 3-4 years ago, we didn’t include homosexuality in our workshops, but now we do touch upon it. In this school’s case, a fifth-grader made other boys uncomfortable by touching them inappropriately. When we conducted the workshop, we found his classmates to be severely homophobic.”

Hasan also started speaking to the boy separately and realised he himself was quite confused about his reasons for exploring his classmates.

“It is too early to ‘decide’ or explore whether the boy is homosexual or not - that is something the child will have to decide for himself. At this age, what is important is to create a safe atmosphere for the child. The boy, for instance, was bullied and mocked for “being gay”. Thanks to the information available online and on TV, even children as young as him do understand these concepts to some extent. He has started playing out the mockery to find out what it really meant,” explains Hasan.

Two years ago, when Mohit Prabhu was 13 years old, his mother took him to a psychologist because he, in an unusually frank chat, told his school counsellor that he often got aroused while playing with a male friend at home.

“For a long time, I had to help Mohit accept that arousal, whether with a boy or a girl, is something that he cannot ‘control’. After a year or two, he tried going around with girls but told me that he didn’t feel the same around them. I have not yet had a frank chat with him discussing his homosexuality, but he is more comfortable with how he feels. His parents, however, are still in denial.” The best way forward, says psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, is to let nature takes its course - and parents must be prepared for whatever their child chooses.

Dr Marker cites an instance of a boy who came to him because he had realised he was homosexual and was anxious about what “his future held for him”.
“His parents accompanied him, but after five to six sessions, his mother started approaching me secretly, demanding I stop asking him to accept the situation and concentrate on “curing” him instead.

"Sex education workshops are best done keeping parents in the loop too. It is futile if you work towards making a child comfortable, and do little to make his home environment conducive to his feelings,” says Dr Marker.

Dr Shetty says asks students to write their queries on paper anonymously. “Children are getting bolder and experience feelings more complex than we can imagine. Sex education workshops mustn’t be about moral judgements - once you let a child know that his feelings - homosexual or heretosexual - will be respected, h/she’ll not look for information from dubious sources.

No comments: