Anjana Harish‘s tragic death a few days before the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT 2020) on 17th May is a sobering reminder that India is still far behind in uprooting the stigma towards the queer community. Anjana, all of 21, ended her life following physical and mental harassment by her family, who reportedly put her to ‘conversion therapy’. Gaysi dedicated a heartfelt tribute to Anjana shortly following the incident (read here). The queer community received a day before IDAHOT 2020 when two women – N Jyothi and S Priya – believed to be lovers who committed suicide as they were unable to cope with societal pressure. In a serious lapse of judgment, News18 Tamil Nadu ended up advocating for conversion therapy in their coverage of the news, taking it down after The Pink List India raised objection and wrote to the media house. While Section 377 has been decriminalized and transgender rights have made some progress, the harsh realities of queerphobia continue to fester through violent and dehumanizing practices such as conversion therapy. While medical and mental health practitioners and governments in several nations globally – including the Indian Psychiatric Society – have debunked it as pseudo-science, conversion therapy is a widely practiced and potentially lethal reality.
The goal of the ‘therapy’ is vulgarly clear – to change one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expressions to societally normative identities. In the processes, people may be subjected to psychoanalysis, religious faith healing, exorcism, aversion behavioral conditioning, electroshock, surgical interventions, and even corrective rape. Violent and invasive conversion therapy has a long-standing documented history in Western psychiatry. Back in 1899, German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed he had successfully cured a gay man following 45 hypnotic sessions and visit brothels. Even more bizarre was Austrian endocrinologist Eugene Steinach’s theory that homosexuality stemmed from the male testicles, which led to horrific testicle transplantation experiments in the 1920s. Post World War II, homosexuality was seen as a contagious risk, and homosexual men were locked up in mental asylums.
While Freud, arguably the foremost figure in psychoanalysis, held a relatively tolerant view towards homosexuality, he was convinced that cure existed and was essential for higher psychosexual development. After a failed attempt to convert an 18-year-old lesbian, he arrogantly dismissed her as a ‘man-hater’ and ‘feminist suffering from penis envy’. Such an absurd response was found in Anjana Harish’s case as well when a section blamed her involvement in feminism and Marxism as the cause of her death. Post Freud, largescale conversion therapy efforts persisted throughout the 40s until the end of the 60s. Many queer persons, who had likely internalized homophobia owing to little to no social support, sought such treatments voluntarily. To the proponents of conversion therapy namely Sandor Rado, Charles W. Socarides, and Lionel Ovesey, queerness was nothing but ‘pseudohomosexual feelings’, a result of ‘deficient adaptation’ and ‘female-dominated environment with a poor father figure’. Despite claims of limited success, historian Elise Chenier observes such cases were never satisfactorily documented.
Fortunately, the queer rights movement in the West solidified over the years and received further push in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) struck off homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While most medical and mental health practitioners began considering the therapy as unethical, there were psychologists like Joseph Nicolosi who continued to vouch for its effectiveness. Nicolosi went on to establish the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in 1992, an organization that operates to date. Religious bodies, which usually dismissed psychoanalysis, became bedfellows with such psychoanalysts to further their queerphobia. Ex-gay ministries and gay conversion camps sprung up to isolate queer individuals from families and put them through a dehumanizing ordeal.
Conversion therapy is an egregious violation of human rights which is still practiced in over 80 nations worldwide. Just four countries – Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, and Taiwan – have enforced a blanket ban. The Global Reach of So-Called Conversion Report by Outright Action International, an LGBTQ human rights non-governmental organization, states that religion and sociocultural pressures are among primary reasons for the widespread continuity of conversion therapy. In the US itself, close to 7 hundred thousand adults have undergone the therapy, with half among these experiencing it during their adolescence. Such an experience can have drastic consequences on one’s wellbeing. In 2018, Faith and Sexuality Survey was conducted in the U.K. which revealed that more than fifty percent of respondents who underwent conversion therapy reported mental health concerns. Family rejection worsened the situation, with a landmark US-based study revealing it significantly increased chances of attempted suicide, serious depression, consumption of illegal drugs, and engagement in unsafe sex.
Another major concern is that little is documented about conversion therapy happening in countries beyond the US, UK, and Australia, and this includes India. Among the handful of literature, is an article published in 1983 in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, titled ‘Homosexuality – A Study of Treatment and Outcome’ by SN Deshpande and M. Mehta, a study which subjected six volunteers through behavioral aversion therapy. Reputed public and private medical establishments have carried out such practices. This came to light in 2001, when the Naz Foundation (India) Trust filed a complaint before Delhi High Court against All India Institute for Medical Sciences, New Delhi, for subjecting an individual through conversion therapy over four years. Besides medical practitioners, influential religious leaders like Baba Ramdev have claimed that yoga can cure homosexuality.
Efforts are being undertaken to expose such malpractices as well. In 2016, the Mumbai-based queer organization launched the campaign #QueersAgainstQuacks. Likewise, the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 states that ‘an adult cannot be treated for any mental health condition without their express consent, or that of a nominated representative in case they either cannot make decisions or pose a danger to themselves and others’. In December 2018, a Delhi-based doctor offering conversion therapy was banned by Delhi Medical Council and summoned by the high court. While such initiatives are welcome, we need a clear cut provision that strictly outlaws conversion therapy.
How many more like Anjana need to suffer under systemic queerphobia before the government and the law take action? In the current pandemic, many queer members are forced to live with unsupportive families, making them doubly vulnerable to stigma. What we need is a transformation at every level of the ecosystem that enables queer individuals to live an existence sans fear and shame. Each of us needs to unlearn the internalized queerphobia that makes us devalue ourselves. We need families who do not view us as a disgrace if we live outside the cis heteronormative framework. We need education systems that sensitively introduce queer identities in every textbook so we don’t feel othered since childhood. We need the various institutions, whether religion, healthcare, or media – to realize their queerphobia is endangering the lives of millions. Anjana’s demise is an unfortunate testament to this. We must all give up the hope that our queerness can be ‘converted’, find solidarity among community members, and fight the system that is set out to trample upon our rights, our lives every single day. It is the queerphobes who must convert, shed off their deep-rooted bigotry, and let go of a black and white pursuit of ‘normality’. Because queerness is here to stay.
- Blakemore, E. (2018, June 22). Gay Conversion Therapy’s Disturbing 19th-Century Origins. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
- C Ryan, D Huebner, R Diaz, & J Sanchez. (2009). Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics, 123 (1): 346-352.
- Dickinson, T. (2015). ‘Curing queers’: Mental nurses and their patients, 1935–74.
- Drescher, J., Shidlo, A., & Schroeder, M. (2002). Sexual conversion therapy: Ethical, clinical, and research perspectives (No. 3-4). CRC Press.
- Harmful Treatment: The Global Reach of So-called Conversion Therapy (Rep.). (2019). Retrieved May 19, 2020, from Outright Action International.
- Ranade, K. (2009). Medical response to male same-sex sexuality in western India: An exploration of conversion treatments’ for homosexuality.