Can Love Be Shackled?: Working with Queer & Trans South Asian Folks

In recognition of South Asian Heritage Month, we are excited to be working with the South Asian community to spread awareness around the topic of South Asian Mental Health and feature South Asian mental health professionals doing important work & helping others on their healing journey.

Meet Akshita Vaidyanathan.

Akshita (they/them, she/her) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker – Associate working as a mental health therapist in Washington. They are queer, South Indian, polyamorous and a immigrant to the US. Akshita works from an anti-oppression, harm reduction lens and primarily works with people of colour – specializing in working with folks that are queer/trans and navigating intersecting marginalized identities. We had the pleasure and honour of interviewing Akshita and getting to know about their personal and professional journey! 

What inspired you to enter the field of mental health? 

This is such a hard question to answer, because the reasons have changed so much over the years. I think I’ve always been interested in psychology and the human condition, which was the initial draw. I’ve been doing mental health related work since about 2015, during that time I was involved in activism/advocacy for survivors of sexual violence and that led me to explore the pathway to becoming a professional counselor because I wanted to continue supporting survivors. 

Although that is something that I still focus on, it’s also changed and broadened since then. There are so few therapists that hold the same intersecting marginalized identities that I do, and I know how frustrating it can be working with clinicians who do not understand your lived experience. So a huge reason I am a therapist today is so that I can use my skills to support and hold space for the other queer and trans individuals in my community. It feels like an honor & privilege to support other QT-BIPOC folks, many of whom are South Asian on their healing journey. 

Are there any interesting theories or studies on culture or gender & sexuality that have helped you in your personal or professional journey?  

Hmm, that’s such an interesting question and I definitely want to seek out more information on the topic. One thing that comes to mind is a training I attended last year called “Gender as Trauma”, it was led by Alex Iantaffi (they/them) who themselves is a counselor and Somatic Experiencing practitioner. They talk about how the concept and social constructions of gender are traumatizing for EVERYONE in different ways, not just trans and gender-nonconforming folks. They’ve written a book on it that is still on my to-read list called “Gender Trauma”. 

Rather than engaging in theories or studies around gender/sexuality, I love engaging in media (books, movies, tv-shows) that highlight lived experience (fiction/non-fiction) of queer and trans folks. Some of my favorites from this year: 

– All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

– Light From Uncommon Stars Ryka Aoki

– A few essays from Good Girls Marry Doctors collected by Piyali Bhattacharya 

– A Marriage of A Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu 

– Joyland (movie) 


Pride in Chennai, India in 2018. The Tamil quote reads "Can love be shackled?" and it's a quote from a 2nd Century Tamil Poet named Thiruvalluvar, and was the slogan for Chennai Rainbow Pride for many years.

What’s something you want other queer/trans South Asian people to know, who might be struggling with their mental health? 

The biggest thing I want y’all to know is that you are not alone, and that your gender & sexual identity don’t have to be at odds with your culture. It is such a common experience for South Asian folks to feel like their queerness is irreconcilable with their ethnic and cultural identity. This does not have to be true! Queer and trans people have existed forever — we exist today, and we have always existed. Colonization did a great job at erasing these histories, but if you look for these stories, you will find them. 

Also — you’re not alone. Queer and trans South Asians exist everywhere and you can find your community if you look for them. I find that community has been so important in my own journey of reconciling my queerness with my Tamilian identity. If you’re having a hard time knowing where to look – Desi Rainbow Parents hosts monthly support groups for QT South Asian folks, and even offers groups for parents.

Is there anything you want others to know about South Asian mental health, specifically around the queer experience? 

Although queer and trans visibility is on the rise these days, we still live in an extremely homophobic and transphobic society. We internalize the messages we learn about queerness and transness being “wrong” and “sinful” and can be really hard on ourselves because of these messages that we’ve internalized.  I want folks who are struggling with their mental health because of their gender/sexual identity to know that regardless of what people say to you, how you think and feel about yourself is what matters at the end of the day. How can you figure out how to be kinder to yourself? How can you find communities of people that will accept you the way that you are? Remember, you don’t owe anyone “coming out” if it’s not going to be safe for you to do so. Your relationship with yourself matters most. 

Do you have any tips for those in the South Asian community who are unable to access professional help right now?

I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ll say it again. Seek out other queer/trans South Asian folks, whether it’s online or in-person. Find your community. If folks are seeking professional support, obviously the Asian Mental Health Collective is a great resource, so is South Asian Therapists as well as the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. Desi Rainbow Parents is also a great resource for groups & for friends/family members of QT-South Asians. 
Asian Mental Health Collective