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From tackling queries about confused sexual orientation and workplace discrimination to advice on safe sex, LGBT helplines across India are providing a support structure crucial for community members

Soon after news that the Supreme Court had set aside an earlier order decriminalizing gay sex went viral on December 11, the Sahaya helpline was besieged with calls, one of which was from a man who had come out at his workplace after the Delhi High Court’s landmark judgment in 2009. "He was panicking about being out now in an unsafe, homophobic place and worried that his colleagues would use the opportunity to have him arrested," says Vinay Chandran of Swabhava Trust, a Bangalore-based NGO that runs the helpline. Several callers were concerned about having gone public with their sexual preference. "We got calls from people breaking down and crying," says Sonal Giani, advocacy officer, Humsafar Trust which runs Umang, a helpline for women from the lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) community. "There was a mixed message that just being gay was a crime."

Fear of harassment, depression and loneliness are predicaments the LGBT community has grappled with even before the verdict, and it is helplines like Sahaya that have provided these troubled individuals with support and information. Some, like Sahaya, are focused on the LGBT population as a whole while others, like Umang, are dedicated to specific groups, such as LBT or men who have sex with men (MSMs). Sahajan, Sangini, LESBIT, Sappho for Equality, and LABIA are other helplines operational across India.

The Sahaay helpline, with offices across Delhi, Mumbai and Chhattisgarh, is the most recent, having launched its toll-free service in September. Supported by the Humsafar Trust and approved by the Indian government’s Department of AIDS Control (formerly the National AIDS Control Organisation), the 24/7 Hindi helpline was an idea that emerged from a research study focusing on MSMs. It is targeted specifically at the gay and transgender community to answer their health queries and emotional concerns.

Dialling Up Support for LGBTs

At Sahaay, apart from speaking to counsellors, callers also receive recorded information on safe sex measures. "Callers also seek support on issues related to their selfidentity, relationship problems and family," say project directors Dr Ashok Agarwal and Dr Bitra George via email interview. Giani says calls to LGBT helplines range from confusion about one’s sexual orientation to more complicated issues like being outed without consent, harassment at work, depression and suicidal tendencies. "When we get calls related to mental health or a crisis, they are passed on to a trained counsellor at Humsafar," Giani explains. The Umang helpline, which is handled by LBT women, provides sound peer support through conversation but in situations where legal or police assistance is required, the caller is connected to Humsafar, which has a legal team in place. In cases of abuse, the NGO’s members offer to accompany the caller to lodge a complaint.

Psychiatrists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore have helped set up the core counselling team at Sahaya. Sahaay, too, has each of its three offices staffed with a four-member counselling team, and there are also community mobilisers responsible for promoting the helpline number among the MSM community. By May 2014, when the operational research phase ends, the founders hope to have reached out to 50,000 community members. The fact that they currently offer counselling only in Hindi might restrict their reach, but plans are on to expand to other languages.

In the months following the Delhi High Court landmark judgment of 2009, a majority of calls to these helplines were about dealing with everyday life as a gay man or woman, as opposed to earlier, when coming out was the primary problem. "We think this meant that there were more people getting comfortable with their sexuality," Chandran explains, adding that after the December 11 verdict the helpline is now prepared for an influx of panicked calls, reminiscent of the situation prior to the Delhi High Court judgment.

Along with genuine phone-ins, counsellors are also used to handling prank calls or requests for "hook-ups". Giani recalls phone calls from couples "looking for" a lesbian or people interested in casual sex. "We let them know that we cannot hook you up with people, but we can introduce you to others from the community," she explains. For those who are not apprehensive about losing the anonymity that a phone conversation provides, the NGOs provide in-person counselling and interaction.

But whether callers choose to remain anonymous or engage with community spaces at a later date, these services are a lifeline for those struggling with their sexuality. Chandran cites how recently, a college-going boy nervous about coming out to his family had called in. "He was so well-connected with his family in all other aspects of his life, except this one," says Chandran, sharing that in these instances, unfolding in numerous homes across the country, a phone helpline can become indispensable.

Times of India
23 Dec 2013,
by - Mithila Phadke

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