How Conversion Therapy Remains An Insidious Threat To India’s LGBTQIA+ Community

How Conversion Therapy Remains An Insidious Threat To India’s LGBTQIA+ Community

Your sexuality is the innermost part of your being. It is central to your identity. An inability to express this, especially due to an unsafe environment, is damaging to your sense of self-worth and overall mental health. In a heteronormative world, homosexuality comes off as a foreign entity. Its minority status in society as a whole causes alienation and even persecution for no crime other than living your own truth. In a world that seems fairly progressive on the surface, a constant fight for parity on an individual and social level still persists.

Conversion therapy is arguably the biggest threat to the queer community. We hear stories of churches and unlicensed medical practitioners claiming to ‘treat’ homosexuality in what we believe are rural or ‘uncivilized’ parts of the country. But this malpractice is more extensive than that. It’s also not something that’s happened ‘in the past’ as people from across the LGBTQ communities, primarily from orthodox or religious families, still face this tyranny.

Image Courtesy: The News Minute

Anjana Hareesh, originally from Kannur, was a 21-year-old student of Brennen College in Thalassery. On March 13th, Anjana put up a live video on Facebook in which she accused her family of abusing her physically and mentally. She was put on heavy medication that made her ‘dizzy’ and ‘robotic’. She also recalled incidents of solitary confinement inside a cell at a mental health centre because her family believed that they could ‘cure’ her bisexuality. Anjana killed herself two months later on May 12th. She was found hanging from a tree in Hosdurg, Goa.

Div is from Pune. She was 17 at the time when one late morning on September 2018, she was taken to a temple on the outskirts of the city by her parents to be ‘fixed’. She was assigned male at birth, but she realised early in childhood that she did not fit into the constraints of the gender binary. A Hindu ‘Baba’ who sought to convert her gender identity and had been taking sessions with her for three months preceding this incident, took her up a hill beside the temple, sat her down inside a ring of petrol as her parents watched from a distance, and set it on fire. “I was scared for my life,” she recalled thinking to herself. “Am I getting burnt to death? Are my parents sacrificing me to god?” she tells Scroll. Following that, another man placed a burning pumpkin atop her head and sliced it vertically with a sword. Div felt a sharp pain as it struck her scalp. Some blood oozed out from the wound, and a tuft of hair was cut off. Even though she was scared for her life, she pretended that the ritual had worked and walked away. A few months after the hilltop incident, the baba was accused of sexual harassment and revealed to be an impostor. A month after the hilltop incident, Div attempted to take her life by consuming her sister’s sleeping pills. She was rushed to the hospital just in time and survived.

Sreenath, a man who had recently returned from another country, was taken to Dr Joseph Anto in Thrissur by his siblings. He questioned the doctor about the credibility of his ‘treatment’ in reference to the statement made by the Indian Psychiatric Society in 2014 on homosexuality not being a mental illness or a disease and about the decriminalisation of consensual sex under Section 377 by the Supreme Court in 2018.

“He (the doctor) would say that in some countries it is still considered wrong. He is a priest, too, so he quoted Biblical references to make his point. He said I’d be isolated everywhere, at home and in society,” says Sreenath.

Rajashree Raju, a board member of Queerala, a welfare organisation for LGBTQI+ people in Kochi, says, “Most queer women (lesbian, bisexual and even heterosexual women who are partners of transmen) who contact Queerala have been taken to sexologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists in Kerala. Almost every one of them has told me that they were prescribed medication which makes them drowsy. They don’t have sexual urges anymore because of the medication.” She states that marriage is prescribed by the doctors as a ‘remedy’ and further reveals the criminal acts of a ‘doctor’ who sexually harassed a woman she knows, called it treatment, and forbid her from telling her parents.

There have been numerous horrific stories of people from the queer community going through violent, degrading, and outrageous acts that are downright crimes against human rights in the name of therapy like this.

When aversion therapy, another ridiculous name for conversion therapy, was introduced in India, it involved using electro-convulsive therapy as well as a programme of behavioural therapy to remove fear or anxiety of the opposite sex. Patients would attend sessions with a range of erotic or pornographic same-sex photographs they had chosen themselves. While viewing them, they would receive an electric shock, creating a negative association of pain with their own feelings of arousal.

The photographs would then be replaced with a heterosexual image and the electric shock would subside, assigning a sense of relief to opposite-sex attraction. While visual aids were the primary stimuli, Indian practitioners also included sensory materials, such as women’s perfume, to elicit stronger positive relations with opposite-sex stimuli. Women’s perfumes are still being used for this today, according to recent accounts of conversion therapy.

While their western counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s primarily used a combination of aversive techniques alongside some behavioural therapy, Indian practitioners relied more heavily on a set of ‘additional behavioural programmes’ to develop ‘social skills’ to help patients navigate their new-found heterosexuality.

While the main point for western practitioners was the eradication of same-sex desires, in India they wanted to redirect sexuality and make it heterosexual and capable of procreation. Due to its religious background, India also has stories of outlandish ‘rituals’ that are forced upon anyone who chooses to venture outside the heterosexual structures of society. It really makes us question the reality of the ‘awareness’ we have regarding the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s disheartening to see that marriage is considered a sacred institution in our country, just not for same-sex couples.

Malpractices like conversion therapy are rooted in ignorance about the queer community. Despite the decriminalisation of same-sex marriages in India, cultural taboos about homosexuality, transgenderism, and asexuality haven’t been obliterated. People not only seem to be intolerant to the developments in inclusivity but they also find it hard to let go of false, archaic notions about the queer community itself.

On July 6 of this year, Muhajid Wisdom Group held an unofficial session on ‘Understanding LGBTQIA+ from an Islamic perspective’ in Thrissur Medical College, Kerala. They preached about how it is anti-Islam and anti-science. A photo from the session showing the male and female students sitting separated by a veil drew massive criticism on social media. While such opinions are commonly promulgated on the internet, it is a cause for alarm when medical students are indoctrinated with such ideas. While this was an unofficial private event, what is worrisome is that even in the official textbooks and curricula of Indian Medical Graduates there is rampant homophobia and transphobia.

Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, an openly-transgender doctor, activist, artist, and content creator, who has also made ‘The Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia List 2022’, speaks about the barbaric content she came across in her textbooks as a medical student in a video with The Quint.

“Lesbianism is practised by females who are mentally deranged. They also commit crimes like homicide, suicide, etc. Women of the Isle of Lesbos practised this perversion,” states The Essentials Of Forensic Medicine And Toxicology, a textbook used by students in their 2nd year of their MBBS.

“Homosexuality, Transvestism, and trans-sexuality are abnormal sexual behaviours. These are psychosexual patients and need careful handling and a lot of counselling before taking and accepting the individual’s decision.” says another textbook used by final year MBBS students.

In 1973, The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders removed homosexuality as a mental disorder and in 1990 the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of disorders as well. This progress still hasn’t been reflected in the medical community in India. Inaction as such further instils a belief that anyone falling on the spectrum of homosexuality needs to change.

On July 8th, 2022, the Madras High Court gave an order to the NMC directing it to issue necessary official notification by enlisting ‘Conversion Therapy’ as professional misconduct. After which the NMC released the following statement —

“In compliance of order July 8, 2022, Ethics and Medical Registration Board, National Medical Commission has decided that conversion therapy will constitute professional misconduct under the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct Etiquettes and Ethics) Regulations, 2002. It has also written to all the State Medical Councils empowering them to take disciplinary action against medical professionals if they undertake ‘conversion therapy’.

Image Courtesy: The Conversation

Although, a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to abolish conversion/aversion therapy entirely. There are misinformed families and misguided ‘professionals’ who do not answer to the NMC that still believe homosexuality is unnatural and claim to be able to ‘cure it’.

Queer people struggle for their identity since birth. Parents often have a hard time accepting the sexuality of their children, and facing the threat of abandonment and isolation, the kids find it easier to hide their true selves and live a rather difficult life in pretension. Messaging is another issue. The heavy portrayal of heterosexuality in romantic stories in the media and in our books sets a bad precedent. It doesn’t take being experimented on in one of these aggressive conversion therapies for a person to shut down emotionally. Factors as small as the environment and conditioning around a child determines whether they open up and feel safe enough to express their sexuality.

I am 27 and I’m just beginning to accept that I’m bi-sexual. I didn’t ‘turn’ bisexual. I’ve been bi since I was young. It was just pushed deep down with gaslighting and the overload of heterosexual narratives in the conversations and lifestyles around me. I think the lack of awareness and representation in the backwater town of Chhattisgarh that I come from didn’t help either. Looking back and realizing that I always knew but never felt safe enough to come out is enraging. There were even doubts that arose when the quaint truth of my queerness was overpowered by the loud noise of the outside world that leans towards heterosexuality and is, in a number of insidious ways, deeply homophobic.

Childhood is the most formative and sensitive part of our lives and dictates how well-adjusted and well-aware we are in our adulthood. It’s a time that demands support and openness from our caretakers. We spend our entire lives trying to understand and undo the damage done to us in this period. Parents and folks that want to be parents should understand that they are meant to love and accept their children as they are. As people of the 21st century, we need to try our absolute best to create a world that’s kind and accepting of its residents despite their sexuality. To truly begin the process of healing in the LGBTQIA+ community we need to acknowledge our painful past and the history of oppression that still continues. We have to create narratives with queer representation using the multitude of our stories of pride and resilience so that homosexuality is perceived as natural as its counterpart, and notions of ‘conversion’ or ‘aversion’ become obsolete.

We also suggest: