Shock treatment, exorcism, psychotropic drugs: behind ‘conversion therapy’ for queers

As the recent death of Anjana Harish revealed, the dangerous practice of ‘conversion therapy’ for queer people is still going strong. This Pride Month, a new UN report urges governments to ban it

June 27, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated June 28, 2020 07:38 am IST

A scene from Delhi Queer Pride Parade held every year since 2008 on the last Sunday of November.

A scene from Delhi Queer Pride Parade held every year since 2008 on the last Sunday of November.

Rihaan* came out to his parents in the summer of 2008 — three days after they created a profile for him on a matrimonial site. His conservative upper-class family in Pune reacted badly. There was confusion, rage, tears. “My father begged me to meet a psychiatrist, who instantly diagnosed my ‘condition’ as mother-fixation.” Rihaan’s ‘treatment’ started the same week. First it was coercion and counselling; then he was given medicines and dragged to brothels.

“Then came the final sitting to ‘reverse my orientation and cure the disorder’. I was locked into a room wallpapered with pictures of nude men and they gave me some injections that made me throw up. I retched the entire day, collapsing in between, then waking up covered in vomit. Two days later the session was repeated and I was shown gay porn.” Within a couple of weeks Rihaan was a defeated man. “Panic rose in my chest even at the mention of same-sex attraction. My parents were summoned and officially informed that my ‘conversion’ was complete. I lived like a zombie those days. I was heavily dependent on medicines and each time I tried to stop, I was ravaged by withdrawal symptoms. I contemplated suicide. Then, before I knew it, I was married to a cis woman.”

Rihaan’s marriage lasted five months, but more than 10 years later, he still gets panic attacks. He has no career or confidence. “I am unable to have a meaningful relationship and at times the shame and pain are unbearable,” he says. Now, Rihaan is finally on the road to recovery.

‘Curing’ queerness

Not everyone is so lucky. Anjana Harish, the 21-year-old queer student from Kerala who was found dead in Goa last month, was also subjected to conversion therapy. Her friends say that Harish live-streamed a video revealing the torture she had to endure from pseudo-therapists.

Anjana Harish, the queer student from Kerala who was found dead in Goa last month

Anjana Harish, the queer student from Kerala who was found dead in Goa last month

Disturbingly, it looks like the discredited concept of conversion therapy is still being practised. Claiming to “cure” queerness, it can involve everything from shock treatment to exorcism and hormones to psychotropic drugs and kindling a sense of shame. According to medical experts, it causes irreparable damage to the mental health of victims.

Members of the LGBTQIA+ community say conversion therapy is practised in stealth. The ‘patients’ are taken to psychiatric wards in hospitals or de-addiction centres with falsified files. When Jay*, a trans man from Ahmedabad, consulted a psychiatrist at a government facility for sex reassignment surgery, the doctor insisted that he go through conversion therapy first. “I am a 43-year-old gazetted officer and I went there with some community members. If they could try to coerce me, think about what they must do to younger people with no support,” says Jay.

Quacks and clerics

This so-called ‘therapy’ is dished out not just by unscrupulous health professionals but also by preachers, naturopaths, shamans, and religious establishments. When Marie* told her parents in Coimbatore that she was a trans woman, they asked her to attend a course at an ashram the family used to frequent. “On the second day of the course, I woke up in another place where I was held prisoner for two months,” she says. “I was slapped, body-shamed and sexually abused for being a ‘sinner’ and acting against the ‘divine plan’.”

Realising there was no point in fighting, Marie stopped reacting and convinced them that she had changed. “I was sent home where I continued the charade for two more months. At the very first opportunity, I fled and never went back.” Marie has since undergone sex reassignment surgery and works as a doctor in a hill station where nobody knows her past. “I survived because I stayed vigilant from the beginning. Once they break your spirit, there is no going back.”

At the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk

At the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk

Salma’s* relationship with another girl became a scandal that rocked her hometown, Lucknow. It was a cleric who advised the family to keep her in isolation; she was raped multiple times by a close relative, a man she called kaka (uncle). In India, religious institutions and representatives play a big part in promoting conversion therapy. In the West, groups like Exodus International openly promoted conversion therapy across nearly 20 countries, but it has been more hush-hush here, with saints, pastors and babas doing it on the sly. Organised groups operate as de-addiction centres, prayer groups or ashrams.

Against the law

“We condemn conversion therapy. It’s unlawful,” says P.K. Dalal, President, Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS). IPS has taken a strong stand against it. “We have a protocol when it comes to such cases and we will soon be coming out with a statement,” he adds.

Although there is no specific law prohibiting conversion therapy, legal experts emphasise that the practice violates the Right to Privacy enshrined under Article 21. “If sexual abuse is involved, it’s an IPC offence anyway and now we have the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, that gives a lot of agency to individuals,” says Sandhya Raju, an advocate at the Kerala High Court and a member of the Human Rights Law Network. “Once mental health review boards are constituted as part of enforcing the law, the community can use it to protect their rights.”

If the practice is used against children below 18, the law is even more stringent. Parents can be booked under Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015. Prijith P.K., president of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Queerythm, which operates a 24x7 helpline for LGBTQIA+ people, says, “Very often parents are involved, and doctors claim the treatment is for depression or schizophrenia.” He thinks new legislation is needed to address the issue. “While transpersons are protected under the NALSA judgment, other segments — including gays, lesbians and bisexuals — have no legal support. Same-sex marriages are still not legal in India. We talk about inclusivity and awareness, but legal backing is very important to achieve that goal. When the discrimination ends, the rest will follow,” he says.

A participant at a pride march in Bengaluru

A participant at a pride march in Bengaluru

While most such practitioners are quacks, there are some who strongly believe they are offering a ‘service’. A Kerala-based psychiatrist who practises conversion therapy said, on condition of anonymity, that his patients “undergo the treatment willingly” as it’s “easier to live as a heterosexual individual”.

According to him, many of his patients now have a family and children. But he admits that many of them return due to marital discord and are on endless medication for depression.

A Hyderabad-based sexologist is equally confident. He offers different programmes tailored to ‘the severity of queerness’ and says, “You can fix most homosexuals with hormone therapy. Psychiatric interventions have been successful in most cases I’ve treated. For example, testosterone injections can reverse same-sex desire to a great extent while some people respond to behavioural therapy.”

He refuses to share his methods and says sexual deviance often springs from childhood sexual abuse and conditioning. He believes he is “helping” queer people by “reaffirming their real orientation or gender identity, making them acceptable, and protecting the honour of their families.”

Hypnotised, lobotomised

The origins of this clandestine practice date back to the 19th century, when ‘deviant’ sexual orientations were considered sinful or criminal. One of the first documented cases comes from the accounts of Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German physician who reportedly used hypnosis to ‘cure’ homosexuality in the 1890s.

By the early 1900s, practitioners worldwide began to use hypnosis as well as electroconvulsive therapy and sometimes surgical procedures like lobotomy. People were tortured, castrated and subjected to sordid corrective measures. Aversion therapy, of the kind Rihaan underwent, was portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange .

In India, the Department of Psychiatry at AIIMS, New Delhi, conducted a study to reverse sexual orientation between 1977and 1982. The subjects were six homosexual people, who were administered electric shocks using an aversion therapy apparatus set at 50 volts to control their homoerotic fantasies. The report claimed that four persons were successfully reoriented. By the 2000s, several doctors and healers had popped up across the country.

In May this year, the U.N. published a report cataloguing the severe and everlasting impacts of conversion therapy. The report says, “Attempts to pathologize and erase the identity of individuals, negate their existence as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse and provoke self-loathing have profound consequences on their physical and psychological integrity and well-being.” It urges governments to ban conversion therapy. So far only five countries — Germany (for under-18s), Malta, Ecuador, Brazil, Taiwan — have drawn up bills making it illegal, but efforts are on in other countries too.

At the most basic level, conversion therapy is unethical and a human rights violation. Even after the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual same-sex relationships by striking down Section 377 and came out with the historic NALSA judgment to protect transgender rights, Indian society is far from queer-friendly: LGBTQIA+ individuals still face violence, hostility and stigma. And a very real threat to their mental and physical health.

The Turing Effect

In January 1952, English mathematician Alan Turing, who played an important role in breaking German war codes during WW II,

was charged under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885 for being in a sexual relationship with a man. Turing, who would later become famous as the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, was convicted. He was made to undergo hormonal therapy or chemical castration for one year, which reportedly made him impotent and led to the formation of breast tissue. Turing was also barred from continuing his government work.

In June 1954, two weeks before he turned 42, Turing was found dead at home, by apparent suicide, although subsequent reports claimed his death may have been due to accidental poisoning. Turing’s path-breaking research and his persecution were the subject of the 2014 Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch . In December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II overturned Turing’s conviction. And in September 2016, the U.K. government said it would extend the retroactive exoneration to other men convicted similarly, under a new ‘Alan Turing law’.

*Names changed to protect identity.

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