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December 26, 2018

Making Waves: Divya Dureja

Text by Shreya Ila Anasuya. Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styling by Akanksha Pandey. Hair and make-up by Riviera Vaz at Anima Creatives

She ties together multiple bodies of work as a poet, curator, DJ and psychologist. Verve meets one of the smart, savvy and sensitive new faces of mental health and LGBTQIA+ rights in India

In most pictures she posts of herself, Divya Dureja looks calm, composed and confident. But on September 6, she posts a picture of herself with her face scrunched up, one hand covering her mouth. The picture is bathed in the colours of the rainbow, and the caption reads, ‘I’m tearing up’. It is a historic day, since Section 377, an archaic colonial law effectively criminalising queer Indians, has finally been read down by the highest court in the country. ‘Six years ago, I was so afraid of being my authentic self and coming out’ the caption to the post reads. ‘I cannot wait to be with queer folks and allies who understand the true joy and meaning of this verdict and feel similar emotions. I can’t wait to hug each and every one of you and make it one of the most memorable nights of our lives!’

Today, Dureja speaks about the experience of living as a queer person openly. She is DJ Sapphic (the moniker derives from Sappho, the archaic Greek poet), and part of a collective of women DJs called Coven Code. It is telling that her DJ name takes after the OG lesbian poet’s because Dureja is also a performance poet who performs passionately, often on issues of queerness. (A recent review likened her presence to that of Joni Mitchell’s.) A poetry film she has made on the painful condition called vaginismus has been shown in festivals around the world, while back home she conducts skill development workshops with young people on sexuality, relationships and health. The work doesn’t stop there. Dureja is also the co-founder and director of Performers’ Consortium, which she describes as ‘a platform for nourishing performers, democratising art narratives, and creating safe event spaces’. As a curator she has showcased the work of queer and assigned-female-at-birth artistes. She also curates an event called What a Pride Night! that focuses on the LGBTQIA+ community.

Tying together these diverse bodies of work is Dureja’s identity as a mental health professional. As a psychologist, she both exposes and tries to fill a massive gap in the mental health services that queer Indians can have access to. Dureja is everything that conventional frameworks tell us service providers are not — vocal, enthusiastic, and not afraid to take a stand. And it is exactly this that sets her apart.

Dureja speaks about what she is doing to ensure that the mental health of LGBTQIA+ Indians is a little bit more secure….

Can you tell us about your journey as a mental health professional in India? What made you want to work as a psychologist?
The turning point in my professional journey was the experience I gained at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. It gave me an insight into how global the epidemic of hatred was and how various steps could be taken to address it from a creative, legal and psychological point of view.

I saw how equal rights were drawn, executed and practised at the workplace. I saw how community spaces functioned. I saw how frameworks had been developed where queer folks could address their loneliness, struggles and feelings of otherness. Going into the depths of these processes, and how they were executed, gave me an understanding as to how to bridge the gap in our Indian society. It made me develop a targeted step-by-step method in my head which I began to execute upon return.

For example, something as simple as a Pride night in a pub, which would make the LGBTQIA+ folks feel safe in a public space, was severely lacking, and I have organised four such nights in Delhi in the last six months. As a psychologist, I have trained the restobar staff to be sensitive towards LGBTQIA+ folks and created gender-neutral signages. Now even on non-Pride nights, the restaurant sees many folks of the community comfortable and at ease in coming to this space. I attribute my background in psychology to being able to make this difference. Each such small impact makes me want to further my work in the field of psychology.

Mental healthcare, as a whole, doesn’t focus on addressing the experiences of marginalised communities, particularly those who identify as queer or non-binary. Can you give us a sense of how you address this in your work?
Depression is at times a manifestation of repressed sexuality or struggles around the acceptance of gender identity, and mental healthcare providers tend to focus only on treating the symptoms instead of addressing the underlying uncomfortable questions about sexuality and identity. I often wonder by what percentage the cases of depression would drop if this wasn’t the reality of the situation. It is also true that it’s barely been three decades since the WHO and the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder from their manuals and just five years since they drew up a more sensitive classification for gender dysphoria. This change in outlook has come about fairly recently in the medical community, and it will take time to permeate into society at large.

I structure my mental healthcare practices on three pillars. First is my focus on designing and conducting psychology workshops in schools and at workplaces with the aim to facilitate the well-being of alternate identities. I primarily focus on the key areas of sensitisation, developing empathy and awareness on topics of gender and sexuality. I instil in the attendees a sense of familiarity with the queer spectrum and an openness for them to share their own tribulations of their identity. Second, is creative expression, where I, as a spoken word poet and poetry instructor, perform and write pieces which talk about harmful stereotypes, social exclusion and stigma. And third is negotiating with social spaces, where I actively work towards liberating these spaces from prejudices and segregation by organising inclusive events. With these efforts, I hope to move our queer and non-binary experiences from the fringe to the fore.

We know that there is intense social stigma in India around mental health issues. Can you give us a sense, from your perspective, of how deep this stigma runs? And what can be done to address it?
I remember watching a YouTube video that addressed how the general public deals with a visible physical illness, like typhoid, versus how it deals with a mental disorder like depression. It was a commendable effort by stand-up comedians and one that aimed to highlight the importance of dealing with mental health disorders in the same way as one deals with a physical condition — consult a professional!

Be it Deepika Padukone’s heartfelt and honest revelation about fighting depression, or be it all the debates and coverage surrounding LGBTQIA+ folks’ hardships and Section 377, the media has played an important role in bringing these discussions to light. Thanks to the power of the internet, these messages have reached far and wide, and there is drastic improvement in help-seeking behaviour of individuals in urban areas where I practice. A positive use of the internet can already be seen with teens and young adults accessing sites like Tumblr and Instagram to find or create support systems online. However, these have only scratched the surface.

While the media›s messages may sensitise a few adults, children need to be sensitised towards these disorders in order to erase this stigma in the future. In schools, it is important to organise mental well-being awareness events that include interactive talks and complimentary screening sessions for depression, learning difficulties and other disorders. Modules need to be created to ensure that children grow up empowered enough to seek professional help when the need arises and encourage their family and friends to do the same.

Can you speak about how your creative practice as a poet has fed into your work in mental health?
My performance pieces mostly outline the struggles that exist at the micro and macro levels. They stem from both personal experiences and sociopolitical goings-on. My performance serves as a starting point for a healthy dialogue with the audience. People are more comfortable in an informal environment — where they can undergo a cathartic experience through the medium of storytelling or poetry sharing.

I’ve had so many individuals reach out to me in person and on social media platforms to tell me how my performance pieces made them feel less alone, gave them the courage to come out to their family members or feel more comfortable in their own skin. These interactions have given me a positive direction towards building better professional relationships as a mental healthcare provider.

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