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Our Rainbows Have Scars

EXPLORING SEXUAL ORIENTATION CHANGE EFFORTS IN INDIA 

25th June, 2021

Written by Suryansh Srivastava
Illustrated by Suryansh Srivastava

Anjana Hareesh, a student of Thellasery’s Brennan College, was on a week-long vacation in Goa with her friends when the lockdown was imposed. A few weeks past their extended stay, she was found hanging in her accommodation. While the cause and trigger of her death were not clear, the police registered a case of unnatural death and it was believed that she died by suicide. However, on probing further, netizens uncovered an unsettling part of Anjana’s story that took the LGBTQ community by surprise. 

Earlier that year, Hareesh had come out to her family as bisexual. Her family not only did not receive this well but also allegedly forced her into what is known as ‘conversion therapy’: an inhuman, pseudo-scientific yet prevalent practice that claims to “cure” queer and trans individuals. According to the News Minute, Anjana had uploaded a video narrating her ordeal, how her kin took her to two “de-addiction” centres. Here, she claimed that she had been physically assaulted for even explaining that there is nothing wrong with her and was put on heavy medication. 

According to her friends, the adverse impact the medications had had on her was shocking. A member of the wrestling team, her friends could not believe that it was Hareesh when she finally returned after weeks of absolutely zero contact. Anjana decided to flee to Goa with a few friends from where she never returned. 

What happened with Anjana Hareesh is not unique to her. Instances of queer people being put on medication of sorts are widespread. Ahana, a community organiser at Sahayatrika, an organisation working for LGBTQ+ individuals in Kerala, says that they had intervened when Anjana was being taken to the de-addiction centre and even planned on approaching the court but the legal attitude towards the queer community, despite reforms, is apathetic.

 

Conversion therapies comprise an array of extremely dangerous practices and their use presupposes that non-binary sexual orientation is essentially pathological and is a concern which warrants medical attention. There are innumerable methods through which this therapy is practised. These have developed and grown over time, including procedures like castration, hormone therapy, sterilization, electric shocks, masturbatory reconditioning, aversion therapy, visits to prostitutes and so on.

In the mid-20th century, innumerable psychiatrists adopted an incredibly painful method in a bid to convert “sexual criminals”: individuals accused of homosexual conduct or looking to change their orientation would be subject to an aversion therapy that closely resembles the one in Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange. This method would usually involve showing pictures of naked men while giving them electric shocks or certain drugs in order to make them puke. Once the accused would give up, he would be shown images of naked women and this time around, electric shocks will not be administered. The individual would then be sent on a date with a young lady. 

Conversion therapy includes a range of methods including psychoanalysis, group therapy, reparative therapy, and involvement in ex-gay ministries. Popularised by Richard Cohen, ‘Bioenergetics’ is another way adopted by conversion practitioners. Cohen is known for holding male patients--curled up in a fetal position--in his lap (Cohen, Richard A. 2000). Other methods encourage people to turn to faith and blame ‘a broken world’ for the existence of homosexual behaviour. 

Victims of SOCE often end up suffering from depression, shame, hopelessness, self-destructive behaviour, as well as suicidal tendencies (American Psychological Association). According to a survey conducted by the Ozanne Foundation to assess the impact of SOCE, 68.7% of the respondents said to have experienced suicidal thoughts and many had even attempted the same. Moreover, more than 50% of them were reported to be suffering from clinical depression and in need of medication. Almost half of the respondents self-harmed and a quarter suffered from eating disorders. 

The problems attached with conversion therapy increase exponentially when the victim is an adolescent or a young adult. This is because of the range of biological and emotional conflicts that mar the age group. Add to that the fear of being rejected by their family and the pressure of going through conversion/aversion therapy. According to the same study, going through conversion therapy in adolescence increases the likelihood of committing suicide by eight folds and succumbing to drug traps thrice as likely. 

It is crucial to acknowledge the role of homophobia in the promotion of conversion therapies in India. We can also not ignore that such practices are propelled by the belief that homosexuality and same-sex behaviour are diseases that require a cure. It is difficult to not take into account the normalcy that the society has conventionally attached to heterosexual behaviour that any variation of sexuality compels one to take charge and “fix” what they see as an abomination. 

In the year 2017, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality in the Navtej Singh Johar judgement, scrapping a draconian law introduced by the Raj. This was seen as the first step towards enfranchising the country’s gay community. However, nothing beyond the legality of the

act has yet been brought forth. Moreover, despite being explicitly stated otherwise by the premier psychiatry associations across the board, homosexuality is still looked at as an illness which makes it even more challenging for the LGBTQ community to seek help from a fractured mental healthcare system. 

Coming to the legality of conversion therapies, there are not any Indian laws that clearly outline, define, and in turn, prohibit conversion therapy. However, the Mental Health Act of 2017 restricts treatment for any mental health issue of an adult in the absence of their informed consent. In addition, Section 2(i) states that the consent for a specific intervention must be acquired without the use of force while also disclosing adequate information including risks, benefits, and alternatives prior to giving such consent. Conversion therapy and its affiliated procedures, thereby, pose as a direct contradiction to the Act. 

What can be inferred from precedents such as the Laxman Balkrishna Joshi case is that the use of such therapies by doctors can attract civil liability (and not criminal) since it is for the medical professional to decide whether to administer such denounced and deplored therapies (Shelat, J.M. 1968). Civil liability, however, only attracts a monetary compensation which is why just ascribing civil liability will not facilitate the elimination of SOCE. 

To hold criminal liability against the culprits, there are two methods that can be adopted. First, Section 319 of the Indian Penal Code states that causing infirmity will amount to ‘hurt’. This, in turn, can be associated with the mental infirmities that are caused by conversion therapy. Second, section 304-A of the IPC provides for criminal liability for medical negligence. But the threshold for establishing medical negligence is immensely high and rather ambiguous. 

It is necessary for any kind of SOCE to attract criminal liability since it is proven to be detrimental to one’s holistic wellbeing and known to cripple its victims emotionally and in some cases, destroy beyond repair.

When the Navtej Singh Johar judgement of 2018 decriminalised homosexuality, it banked largely on international definitions and standards to disqualify homosexuality as a disorder and not explicitly state anything on the topic. Despite the apex court instructing the government to publicize the judgement widely in order to remove social stigma, the institutionalisation of law is a long-drawn process and the judgement, only a stepping stone to a very long walk. However, it is still a commendable feat in the right direction. 

In 2020, the solicitor general of India opposed a PIL filed in the Delhi High Court which demanded equal rights for same-sex couples in a domestic relationship stating “our values and cultures”. This can be seen as a disservice not only to the dynamic nature of human society but also to individual liberty. In a country where even basic mental healthcare is denied to the members of the LGBTQ community and young adults, often disowned by their kin on coming out, elimination of SOCE should be a pressing concern for authorities. More recently, the Solicitor General on behalf of the Centre told the Delhi high court that an urgent hearing of pleas seeking recognition to same-sex marriages was not warranted under current conditions. “You don’t need a marriage certificate for hospitals, nobody is dying because they don’t have a marriage certificate,” he said. 

In a first, in early June this year, the Madras High Court issued far-reaching guidelines to ban “any attempts to medically cure or change the sexual orientation of LGBTIQA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender”. This will effectively make Tamil Nadu the first state to ban conversion therapy. In a welcome move, Justice Venkatesh said while issuing the order, “I have no hesitation in accepting that I too belong to the majority of commoners who are yet to comprehend homosexuality completely. Ignorance is no justification for normalising any form of discrimination. Therefore, I took upon myself the vested responsibility and the duty to deliver justice in all its forms and spirit, of cutting across personal prejudices and notions and setting forth to, at the least, educate myself lest my ignorance interferes within guiding homosexuality and the LGBTQIA+ community towards social justice.” 

Members of the LGBTQ community have inevitably suffered from discrimination, repressed emotions, and a number of mental health issues due to the stigma that society has conveniently attached to their ability to love someone of their choice. This often leads to a lot of people questioning the validity and “rightness” of their sexual orientation. No one should be made to feel invalid because of being different.