Umang Sheth has dedicated his life to creating safe spaces, breaking stigma, and empowering individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community. Born into a family grappling with mental health challenges, Umang's journey reflects resilience, compassion, and the transformative power of acceptance.

I wanted to create a safe space where not just the LGBTQIA+ community, but also their friends and families could seek support and guidance.

Umang's journey in creating a space for the LGBTQIA+ community began in the mid-'90s when he felt the need for a platform that went beyond the limited scope of existing gay bars in Bombay. In 1998, he founded Gay Bombay, India's first social support space. Motivated by a desire for more profound connections and meaningful conversations within the community, Gay Bombay provided a haven where individuals could be open about their sexuality without being reduced solely to sexual stereotypes. Over the past 25 years, Gay Bombay has evolved into a multifaceted community hub, organizing events, picnics, parties, brunches, and film festivals that challenge societal perceptions and provide a supportive environment for self-expression.

You didn’t choose mental illness, mental illness chose you.

Umang's commitment to mental health advocacy is deeply personal, stemming from his experiences growing up in a family marked by mental health challenges. His mother battled schizophrenia, and his father faced bipolar disorder. The stigma associated with mental illness fueled Umang's early feelings of shame and embarrassment. However, a profound realization that mental illness is not a choice but a condition one faces transformed Umang's perspective. This insight led to the creation of the Hugging Club of India, a safe space where individuals, including mental health experts, could share their struggles without judgment. Umang's advocacy aims to destigmatize mental health by normalizing conversations and emphasizing that seeking help is a sign of strength.

When you see celebrities and mental health specialists talk about their mental illnesses, you realize that there is no shame in seeking help.

Talking about the intersectionality of LGBTQIA+ identity and mental health, Umang cites statistics from a report by Deloitte that indicates 68% of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community face mental health challenges. Growing up in a society that often ostracizes non-conformity, many LGBTQIA+ individuals face trauma, bullying, and discrimination. Umang's personal struggles with self-esteem and shame due to societal expectations underscore the importance of addressing mental health challenges within the LGBTQIA+ community. Initiatives like the Hugging Club of India provide a platform for individuals to share their experiences and find support, breaking down the stigma associated with both mental health and diverse sexual orientations.

Umang's own coming out journey was marked by societal pressure and self-esteem struggles. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing one's authentic self and not succumbing to societal expectations. By sharing his story with his mother, who initially dismissed it as nonsense but later showed acceptance and curiosity, Umang exemplifies the power of authenticity in fostering understanding and connection. He believes that conversations about sexual orientation should be as normal as discussing other aspects of one's identity.

My unusual childhood equipped me to start innovative initiatives.

Working tirelessly towards empowering the LGBTQIA+ community, Umang has spearheaded several impactful initiatives. From creating the first social support space with Gay Bombay to establishing India's first PFLAG support group for parents and friends, Umang has been a catalyst for positive change. Events such as LGBT relationship meets and the matchmaking initiative Mr. and Mr. offer role models and safe spaces for individuals to connect and embrace their authentic selves. Umang's ad agency CSR Initiative Change India has also played a role in creating emotionally resonant campaigns that challenge societal norms and foster inclusivity.

Umang's journey continues as he envisions a future where stigma around mental health and diverse sexual orientations no longer holds sway. He seeks to expand his initiatives nationally, advocating for increased resources, funding, and collaboration with mental health professionals. By continuing to break down societal barriers, Umang strives to create a world where individuals can embrace their authentic selves without fear or shame.

I may not be able to change the world outside but I have the power to choose how I respond to it

Umang's approach to empowering individuals involves a shift in mindset—encouraging self-responsibility in the face of adversity. Drawing from Buddhist psychology, he emphasizes the power to change one's response rather than attempting to change the external world. By acknowledging that societal attitudes are often a product of conditioning rather than personal animosity, individuals can navigate challenges like bullying, discrimination, and marriage pressure with a newfound sense of liberation. Umang's emphasis on self-acceptance and self-responsibility forms the bedrock of his empowerment philosophy.

Umang is a testament to a life shaped by extraordinary circumstances, where personal growth has become a catalyst for societal change. In him, we find a passionate advocate, a trailblazer, and a beacon of hope for those navigating the intersections of identity, mental health, and societal expectations. His story reminds us that true empowerment begins with accepting ourselves and embracing the uniqueness that makes us who we are.

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