Yerram Raju Behara speaks fondly of the people who have guided and supported their journey through neurodivergence and queerness. They remark that having a support system in childhood is a privilege that very few neuroqueer individuals enjoy. As part of their personal support system, Raju mentions their cat and the authors who have also helped them find hope outside of fantasy, and utopia. They have nurtured Raju’s ambition to educate and support others who exist on the margins.
Raju acknowledges that they have been blessed when it comes to both their biological and chosen families. They introduce their support system to us by starting with their mother who was the first person to come out in support of their identity. Through her guidance, they have learned the meaning and potential of safety at home.
Yet, despite all the support, Raju, too, like any other individual living at the intersections of queerness and neurodivergence, has had to overcome a fair share of traumatic experiences.
I had a support system. I also had a very privileged upbringing.
Reflecting upon their personal struggles, Raju says that harassment and bullying come almost immediately after adolescents begin growing into their gender and sexual identities. In Raju's case, it was harassment on the streets, which they have vocally written about. But for a long time, they did not think of these experiences as traumatic. Hearing stories of childhood abuse, before and during their time as a volunteer with the All India Queer Association, was an eye-opener. During this time, Raju realized why they were so afraid to be themself.
A lot of Raju's friends come from different backgrounds and that is what helped them understand intersectional struggles. Both of their families have made it possible for them to understand the significance of privilege and how it can be translated into mindful action as a "practice in our lives." While privilege can cushion one from the harsh effects of intolerance, Raju feels that there’s only so much a sheltered life can offer.
There's this beautiful quote…Queer children (often) forget what childhood is like. The childhood that they live in and the adults that they become is a reflection of what they would not look like. So, we don’t know what our natural self would be…
Raju points out how the education system is where the process of self-imprisonment begins, as ‘normative’ societal perspectives push one to shy away and lock themselves in the closet. Many young queer people police themselves to be socially acceptable. Raju is happy they have supportive families but acknowledges that it’s not the same for everybody.
Raju strives to reform society with the right kind of education through volunteering and writing. In one of the articles that they wrote for Gaysi, titled 'A Place Where Children Go to Die? Schools In India Need To Do Better For Queer, Neurodivergent Children,' he asks a pertinent question: "Why do our schools fail so terribly at keeping queer kids safe?"
In conversation with egomonk, Raju argues that schools have "barely any safe space for gender expression" and points out how everything is tamed by heteronormative binaries. Raju tells us how spaces are usually divided based on this binary, as seen in gendered bathrooms or queues found in schools. For inclusive societal structures to become a reality, they emphasize a need for radical change. The most affected and often ignored, Raju tells us, are nonbinary folk—whether in terms of neurodivergence or queerness.
For neurodivergent folks, this gets murkier, they say, as there is rarely any understanding, support, or safe spaces for neurodivergent identities to exist during early childhood. They stress the need to critique the Indian education system and its maladaptive treatment of neurodivergent identities. Raju feels more can be done in this area and expresses their dismissal and sadness at the hasty retraction of the trans-affirming educational guideline drafted for the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT).
The document Raju is referring to was published in 2021 and is entitled ‘Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap’. It comes seven years after a National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) verdict recommended the drafting of a training manual to make school education more inclusive. While it appeared to be a step in the right direction, it received a lot of backlash on social media and was pulled down within a week.
Explaining their disappointment, Raju said that it is necessary for such documents to be part of policy discussions. Moreover, they are drafted by individuals with (negative) lived experiences, thereby providing feasible and progressive solutions to mitigate the current system's flaws without requiring a complete overhaul.
Traumatic childhood translates into traumatic adulthood experiences and it just propagates intergenerational violence which we need to closely reflect on. And it should start with the NCERT guidelines perhaps.
Growth is always non-linear and so is healing, Raju says as they introduce their idea of inclusive change. According to Raju, we must first normalize divergence, whether in regard to gender identity or within neurotypical structures.
Secondly, we need to focus on spaces. Most of Raju’s work involves finding and reimagining safe spaces for queer folks. They believe that a safe space can come from anything - an object that makes you feel immediately at ease or a writer you turn to for wisdom. For this to happen, awareness and sensitization are imperative.
Raju then guides us to a natural follow-up question: Where do awareness and sensitization come from? School.
As our time together comes to an end, Raju loops back to the previous point by highlighting the value of training teachers in sensitization and awareness raising. Such a strategy would transform schools into institutions that act and offer the tools to create safe spaces, rather than instruments of hierarchy. This year and in the years to come, Raju hopes to counter the negative impacts of systemic awareness that affect children by reforming present systems and methods of education.