Conversion Therapy: illegal and failed attempt to change sexual orientation

Capstone Health Legal LGBTQIA+ Mental Health

Conversion therapy is persisting in India through quacks, religious gurus and healthcare practitioners with conservative training backgrounds.

Balaji, a motivational speaker did not doubt their sexuality from the get-go. They knew they were gay and had no qualms about it. But the society had a different point of view, at every point in their life Balaji were questioned about their life choices.

Balaji (they/them) are a staunch advocate for gender fluidity.

Balaji said that the religious aspect plays a big role in our society. When their relatives came to know about their sexual preferences they claimed that the devil had entered their body. They advised Balaji’s parents to take them to a temple where the priests perform several pujas to “cure” homosexuality. Some even asked them to “try it out with a girl” and then get married. Their relatives said that everything would go back to normal within six months. 

Akassh K Aggarwal designer, activist, queer counsellor and a TEDx speaker shared the ordeal of many people who go through this. He too said that in India the religious aspects of conversion therapy are a lot. He added that there are tantriks who do experiments on people. Since there isn’t any scientific backing to what they do it is mostly up to their own will. Some might hit with a Jhadu while others might hang one upside down. “The whole point is to get out the ‘devil’ that has possessed the victim’s body. All this can be traumatising as it takes a toll on one’s mental health. Bringing someone back to normal after they have gone through all this is a difficult task,” he said.

At one point Akassh too thought he could change his sexual identity. He sorted multiple ways to change his sexual orientation and surprisingly, he didn’t had to travel far. Newspapers, hoardings and walls of random buildings are full of advertisements claiming to cure all sex-related woes. Following them, he reached a Sablok clinic. “I didn’t want to be gay. Who wants that kind of drama in their life?” he said. At the clinic, he was given an oil that he was asked to rub on his genitals. “It wasn’t a cheap oil and I rubbed it there for months,” he said.

Akassh K. Aggarwal (centre), a fashion designer balances activism with his profession.

Akassh said that such practices give a false hope that sexual identity can be changed and this can be mentally taxing for an individual in the longer run. All these advertisements pry on the toxic masculinity prevalent in society. He added that their prevalence is so deeply rooted that when one goes to the police to share their ordeal, the police say, “why don’t you get the treatment when it is available.” “Even the police treat homosexuality as deviance,” he said.

Conversion therapy persists

Conversion or aversion therapy is a set of practices by families, communities, healthcare, and other institutions to ‘convert’ people—who do not identify as strictly man or woman or as strictly heterosexual—to make them ‘normal’.

The practices can range from praying for change or conducting services in religious institutions to complex and violent experiences of harassment, abuse, rape or other sexual assault, physical assaults, shock therapies, serious psychiatric medication, institutionalisation, etc. 

Vinay Chandran, Executive Director, Swabhava said that when most families discover that their child or family member may identify as trans, gay, lesbian etc., they focus on how to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ that person. They assume that such variation is a disease or ‘abnormality’.

He added that many healthcare practitioners, with conservative training backgrounds and no experience with gender or sexuality debates, suggest conversion therapies to families as a means for ‘treatment’ and cause more psychological damage. “Severe depression, increased suicidal feelings, complete loss of self-esteem, and continued feelings of hopelessness, are all expressed as effects of conversion therapies but are not taken seriously,” he said.

Jeet from the queer collective YesWeExist said that victims of conversion therapy are forced to give consent through emotional blackmailing. He added that such victims go through mental and physical torture which scars them for life. Many don’t even come out of it alive.

Telemedicine is a boon but only for some. Conversion therapy runs rampant on social media as well. Jeet said that many doctors listed on such websites claim to cure homosexuality. “I have confronted many such doctors who simply say they weren’t aware that conversion therapy is not legal. Doctors must be aware they can’t just play the ignorant card,” he added.

Even the mainstream media acts deaf on issues related to the LGBTQIA+ community until the government or the court is involved. A mainstream media house had aired a debate where a quack was claiming he could “cure” homosexuality. As the channel refused to take any action against that person Jeet filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the court under the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995. The court had asked the government to intervene and the government asked the channel to take appropriate action.

Conversion therapy: illegal but not criminal

Vinay said that Conversion therapy is not explicitly punished in India, and it would require a person to complain formally for punitive measures to be taken. No such direct complaints have been lodged till recently. The members of the LGBTQIA+ community are provided partial protection under the mental healthcare act but there isn’t a separate law to ban conversion therapy.

Winy Daigavane a lawyer said that conversion therapy is illegal in India and can attract civil liability. This means that the perpetrator will have to pay monetary damages for medical negligence to the victim. 

“But conversion therapy should be considered as a serious crime,” She said. Doctors are aware that it is a sham but still, they do it ignoring medical research. Therefore criminal liability is necessary to eliminate its practice. She added that to attribute criminal liability to conversion therapy victims could rely on either Section 319 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or section 304-A of the IPC. She also wrote about this in an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The former makes a case for causing hurt or infirmity to the mental health of the victim and hence could lead to criminal liability. While the latter relies on medical negligence of a severe degree to imply criminal liability. She added that in reality, both seem like a far fetch idea as their application is not supported by the judicial system. Hence, to address this issue there is a need for a specific provision in the law.

Akassh also agreed he said that conversion therapy should be criminalised because there are no scientific reasons for it. Apart from that, the repercussions on the victim’s health can be detrimental.

Jeet added that many countries have banned conversion therapy. New Zealand, France and Canada were amongst the countries that banned conversion therapy recently. Even in India, the National Medical Commission (NMC) recently asked for a ban on conversion therapy. It also asked for actions against medical professionals who practice it.

Vinay said that apart from NMC other organisations like the Indian Psychiatric Society, the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists and the Indian Association of Psychiatric Social Workers have also condemned the use of conversion therapy.

The Madras High Court had also asked for a ban on conversion therapy. He added that the court in a harassment case went over and above their responsibility to address the underlying causes of such experiences in the LGBTQIA+ communities. 

Vinay said that implementation of these across the board, especially for disciplinary action against healthcare practitioners, is a distant goal. Criminal charges against such practitioners can be brought through the mental healthcare policy but it is not implemented. “There are also considerations of conversion therapy practices offered by religious practitioners, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners (AYUSH etc.) that still need to be worked on,” he said.

The History

In Nothing to fix: medicalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity author and psychologist Ketki Ranade wrote that until the mid-1950s homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM). Mental health professionals branded it as a deviation. While religion and society condemned it as ‘immoral’ and ‘abnormal’. 

In 1957, Evelyn Hooker challenged the prevalent belief that homosexuality is an illness and deviance. With the evidence available in favour of homosexuality in 1973, APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in DSM. World Health Organisation (WHO) followed suit and removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1992

Decriminalisation of homosexuality at the institutional level after the scrapping (some parts of) article 377 couldn’t achieve acceptance for the community in the society. The community still faces discrimination in various spheres of social life. The heteronormative structure of the society portrays homosexuality as something abnormal which can be cured by medical intervention. This leads to homo-negativity which can be witnessed by the community at every step like when applying for loans, jobs, housing, and marriage.

Winy said that the prevalence of conversion therapy in India is a testament to the fact that, “what the court had asked for with the Article 377 verdict hasn’t really come to fruition yet.”

Jeet said that conversion therapy can take many forms. It could include aversive treatment in which electric shocks are given to the hands, head, stomach or genitals with a homoerotic stimulus. It May also include nausea-inducing medicines or pain devices to subvert arousal due to same-sex imagery. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), greatly restricted to severe cases of mental health conditions under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 (MHCA) is also used by some people to ‘change’ an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Further, might also include attaching electrodes to the head and passing an electric current between them to induce a seizure. Since an individual’s non-heterosexual orientation is believed to be a mental disorder, some anti-anxiety medication, anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, and psychotherapy are also used as a form of intervention.

According to government data (2012) alone, India has 2.5 million gay people. Since the Indian society is majorly orthodox this affects the members of the community in a big way. Further, the violence faced in the name of conversion therapy is intersectional. It does not affect people of different religions, castes and gender in a similar way.

Better understanding: Moving towards a solution

The notion that sexual orientation can be changed is scientifically wrong, a person is born with it. In our society everything apart from heteronormative behaviour is considered to bring shame to the family. Due to this parents force their children to undergo such practices. They are blinded by the shame and make their children go through such inhumane practices. Jeet added that lack of education regarding the community—starting at the school level—is one of the biggest reasons for it. 

Vinay explained the concept of sex, gender identity and sexuality. He said that Sex is the set of biological indicators (anatomy, chromosome, hormone, etc.) used to assign people to male or female categories—the sex binary—that society considers to be ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. While Gender is the set of socialisation or training processes carried out by society (family, community, education, occupation, etc.) to maintain the two biological categories as separate entities (man or woman—the gender binary). 

He added that gender identity is the self-expressed experience of gender that is deeply personal, psychological, and often unconnected to either biology or social expectation. Experts agree that both sex and gender, should be seen more like a spectrum and not as a binary.

He said that sexuality is a collective set of experiences related to the body, reproduction, psychology, health, relationships, desire, violence, conversation, curiosity, learning, or others, that forms an intrinsic part of being human. While sexual identity (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc.) is the self-expressed orientation of a person based on whom they are attracted to or want to have a relationship with or wish to have sex with or have desires for. 

Human sexuality is socially taught as being only for reproduction (meaning that all sexual acts are meant to produce children), but historically, culturally, and scientifically speaking sexuality is far more complex and irreducible. Only heterosexual desire (man to woman or vice-versa) is considered ‘normal’. However, sexual identity is a wide spectrum and allows for many kinds of attraction and desires.


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