Anjana Hareesh, a 21-year-old student from Kerala who recognized herself as a bisexual, was forced by her family to undergo ‘conversion therapy’ and subjected to two de-addiction centres to ‘cure her bisexuality’. These disturbing incidents lead to her committing suicide on 12th May 2020, which soon became national news [i]. Homophobia is a feeling of dislike or hatred towards LGBTQ+ people. Parents forcing their children into conversion therapy results from homophobia, which is, greatly prevalent in our society. Conversion therapy causes physical and mental harm to LGBTQ+ individuals who are already stigmatized and rejected by their families and communities. They even face great injustice due to discriminatory laws. The government’s lack of action to follow the Supreme Court’s directives of implementing sensitization programs doesn’t help either. Meanwhile, conversion therapies pose higher risks to LGBTQ+ minors.
WHAT IS CONVERSION THERAPY?
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, is an attempt to alter sexual orientation or gender representation of an individual. In past, various inhumane techniques were used, such as, ice pick lobotomy; electroconvulsive shock therapy; chemical castration; hypnosis and other unethical practices to convert LGBTQ+ individuals into heterosexuals. Although the techniques are no longer as extreme, they are still devoid of any scientific evidence. Various studies and institutions have declared that conversion therapy is based on unscientific rules and is ineffective in changing sexual orientation.[i]
Conversion therapy’s foundation lies in the assumption that homosexuality is a mental or psychological disorder. However, the Indian Psychiatric Society issued the following statement in 2014, “Based on existing scientific evidence and good practice guidelines from the field of psychiatry, Indian Psychiatric Society would like to state that there is no evidence to substantiate the belief that homosexuality is a mental illness or a disease.” Thus, concluding that homosexuality is not a mental illness [ii]. Conversion therapy has been discredited by several notable medical institutions, like IPS, as an extremely harmful and unethical practice[ii] but is still performed by medical practitioners in India.
WHY IS CONVERSION THERAPY STILL PREVALENT IN INDIA?
Homosexuality has been deeply rooted in India’s diverse culture since the ancient times but, it was disgraced upon after the British Empire criminalized homosexuality in the 18th century. This law represented a Christian religious view of “sin” in understanding sexuality, a view that is neither consonant with Indian history nor with current international medical-legal principles [iii]. Although this discriminatory law (Sec. 377 of IPC) was struck down by the Supreme Court in the case of Navtej Singh Johar v. UOI,[iii] homosexuality is still seen as an abnormality.
Despite the general view of all major health organizations that homosexuality is not abnormal; many psychiatrists continue performing conversion therapy because of their own homophobia and feed off the homophobia of others to make money. In India, it’s easier to entrap clients for the benefit, where many families are homophobic. Ignorance and fear instil these families to force queer individuals into several spiritual, medical and psychological therapies. This causes emotional distress and leaves youngsters vulnerable to oppression.
HOW IS IT AFFECTING THE LGBTQ+ YOUTH?
In India, LGBTQ+ youth faces several problems and has to cope with the prejudice, discrimination, and violence in society and also, in their own families, schools, workplaces and communities. Proponents of conversion therapy claim that their treatments prevent children from becoming homosexual. Often, misinformed parents do not believe that conversion therapy is based on a false idea- “homosexuality is a mental illness which can be cured”. Thus, they reject accepting their children’s sexuality and force them to undergo such conversion therapies which are often practised by babas, priests and medical professionals [iv]. These godmen and psychiatrists traumatize minors by their fraudulent, unethical and harmful methods.
According to a report published by the American Psychiatric Association, conversion therapy has lead to cases of depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem, anxiety and suicidality.[iv] Conversion therapy can cause severe physical pain and life-long mental suffering and, it can also prove to be fatal in some cases. For instance, in a highly publicized case, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender committed suicide on 28th December 2014. She was not accepted by her parents, who forced her to undergo conversion therapies to change her gender identity. The pain caused by the treatment and her family’s rejection was clear in her suicide note [v]. Research shows that LGBT minors who reported higher levels of family rejection were eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide, five times more likely to report high levels of depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs, and three times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers who didn’t face family rejection [vi].
BANNING CONVERSION THERAPY
The fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,[v] published by APA doesn’t recognize homosexuality as a mental disorder has made no difference in the heterosexism that our society offers. It persists to be an abnormality and a matter of shame in the minds of the people. People are unwilling to accept that conversion therapies only aggravate depression and cannot cure homosexuality.
The Constitution guarantees protection of rights of LGBTQ+ individuals through the core fundamental rights of articles 14, 15 and 21. Decriminalization of sec 377 was an important judgment that not only reversed the colonial rule but also mandated that LGBTQ+ Indians be accorded all the protections of the Constitution. However, this wasn’t enough to end the exploitation and discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community. India is a step behind several countries around the world which have already enforced new legislation to ban conversion therapy. In Canada, for example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said banning conversion therapy was a top priority for his government, while lawmakers in Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, and Spain have also called for bans [vii].
Many psychiatrists violate professional ethics by performing conversion therapy which has been proved to be dangerous. Prohibiting medical professionals and religious institutions from practising conversion therapy on a person under 18 years of age would restrict them from attempting such “gay cures”. However, these practices involve a wide range of techniques, for example, verbal and emotional abuse, restrictions on movement, physical and sexual assault, talk therapy and religious counselling. Thus, it is necessary that the lawmakers follow a human rights-based approach and distinguish between different types of conversion therapies and criminalize/impose penalties accordingly. In 2016, for instance, Malta became the first country to ban some forms of conversion therapy. Practitioners face fines of up to €5,000 or six months in prison, with stiffer penalties for licensed professionals [viii]. While criminalization of abusive therapies is necessary, the lawmakers should impose civil penalties for non-violent talk therapies which inflict physical and mental suffering. Taiwan, for example, fines practitioners and suspends their professional licenses, and similar penalties have been levied in Brazil [ix].
Conversion therapy should be prohibited not only because there is significant evidence that it does not work but also to end the discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faces. Psychiatrists must adopt an approach which supports and cares for homosexuals meanwhile accepting their sexuality. Conversion therapy has proved to be harmful and a ban on conversion therapy is necessary to ensure that psychiatrists are providing competent care and not harming patients. India needs a detailed legislation which curbs these harmful methods and educates families and society to protect minors from such abuse. It’s the responsibility of the government to invest in awareness campaigns for medical professionals, families and schools to learn the dangers of conversion therapy. India has been far behind in recognizing LGBTQ+ rights and providing protective legislation. But now it’s high time to sensitize people and prohibit any efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity of LGBTQ+ individuals.
[i] Cruz, David B. “Controlling Desires: Sexual Orientation Conversion and the Limits of Knowledge and Law”, 72 SCLR 1297 (1999).
[ii] Cianciotto, Jason, “Youth in the Crosshairs: the Third Wave of Ex-gay Activism”, National LGBTQ Task Force, National LGBTQ Task Force Policy Institute (2006).
[iii] Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India W.P. (Crl.) No. 76 (2016)
[iv] American Psychiatric Association, “Position Statement on Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation (Reparative or Conversion Therapies)”, (May 2000).
[v] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4 (2000).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dudharejiya Krutika is a third-year BA LLB (Hons) student at Faculty of Law, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Her subjects of interest include Constitutional law, Criminal Law and Human Rights.