Date a very beautiful woman — that’s one of the first pieces of advice doled out to Muhilann Murugan by the psychiatrist his family took him to when they realised he was gay. That was just the beginning. A Doppler scan, innumerable tests, and medication followed.
“They asked me to drop my pants and did a scan of my abdomen and private parts and later did tests on me. I have always taken care of my sexual health and didn’t like it that they did the tests without my consent,” says Muhilann. “The doctor kept telling my mother that I can be ‘cured’ and that medication would make me straight,” says the architect, who was also asked to visit the temple and try flower medicine.
Muhilann is one of numerous people from the LGBTQIA+ community who are subject to ‘conversion therapy’ – practices that claim to change a person’s gender identity of sexual orientation through medication, shock treatment, or religious rites, including exorcism – even today. And that’s why community members are elated with the recent Madras High Court ruling, which suggested a ban on health professionals from attempting to medically ‘cure or change’ the sexual orientation of LGBTQIA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender.
In his order, Justice Anand Venkatesh also directed the National Medical Commission, Indian Psychiatric Society and Rehabilitation Council of India to take action against professionals involved in any form of conversion therapy.
An order that’s been long awaited as the cruel practice still exists. In 2020, Anjana Hareesh, 21, died by suicide after she was subject to conversion therapy after coming out as bisexual to her parents.
“Earlier, medical professionals thought it was a psychiatric problem that can be solved by electroshock therapy. Homosexual men were given testosterone injections,” says L Ramakrishnan of SAATHII.
Transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam, who was taken to a doctor in Pollachi when she came out to her parents at the age of 14, was also prescribed testosterone tablets. “He asked me to take off my clothes, examined me, and gave the tablets but I took it only for a couple of days as I felt suicidal,” says Kalki, who then had to spend a month at a mental health centre in Vellore. “Luckily, my doctor was good and counselled my parents.”
These practices also continue as it’s lucrative with doctors charging Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per session. Amesha, 21, a medical student who identifies as gender-queer, says, “I met a psychiatrist in JIPMER in February 2021 as I have been feeling marked physical dysphoria. My mom and sister insisted on speaking to him, and he has been charging her Rs 2,000 per call. In a month, he charged Rs 50,000,” says Amesha.
Later, on the doctor’s advice, the family later asked Amesha to cut off from queer friends and social media. “I realised that my social media posts had been outed to my family along with a few personal things I had shared only with the doctor. He wanted to out me to my dad so I stopped consulting him but he continues to text my sister and mother,” says Amesha, who is collecting resources and reaching out to people for help.
Vinay Chandran, who runs Swabhava, a Bengaluru-based NGO that works with the LGBT community, and Arvind Narrain, human rights activist and lawyer, put together a book ‘Nothing To Fix: Medicalisation of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity’ after working on a project that looked at how the medical system – psychiatrists, psychologists, and sexologists — view sexual orientation and gender identity and treat members of the community.
“Conversion therapy can involve multiple things. In psychiatry, they offer aversion therapy, using electroshock to ‘treat’ people,” says Vinay, adding that some practitioners even try orgasmic reconditioning. “They ask you to pleasure yourself with your same-sex fantasy and, as you are about to orgasm, change the fantasy to the gender that you should be attracted to,” he says, adding that exorcism is also common.
Such ‘therapies’ affect the physical and mental health of the individual. “You will often find that medical journals or articles will say that the conversion treatment has been successful since the patient got married, but they will also record that the patient suffered from severe depression. They suggest that depression is a natural side effect of trying to change your sexual orientation,” says Vinay.
Many people are also subject to violence. Queer women are forced into marriage. “Shock therapy and invasive scans of various parts of your anatomy are often done and ‘corrective rape’ is common,” says Namithaa, independent queer feminist activist.
Transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam says she was also taken to a doctor in Pollachi when she came out to her parents at the age of 14. “He asked me to take off my clothes and examined me. And prescribed testosterone tablets but I took it only for a couple of days as I felt suicidal,” says Kalki, who then had to spend a month at a mental health centre in Vellore. “Luckily, my doctor was good and counselled my parents.”
In India, in 2018, the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) issued a position statement saying that “homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder and we recognise same-sex sexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality much like heterosexuality and bisexuality.’’ The Society also said that there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be altered by any treatment.
“When parents bring their children, I do a proper psychiatric assessment to see if they have an underlying mental illness. If so I treat it, but otherwise, I work with the person and their family members so that they understand what is happening and what can be done,” says psychiatrist Dr N Rangarajan. “But I do have parents who ask me to ‘change’ or ‘cure’ their children.”
A problem that sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy also faces. “Conversion therapy is unscientific. The medical fraternity has accepted homosexuality as an alternate sexual orientation, we cannot ‘convert’ them, and any experiments that are done only cause more damage,” he says, adding that parental acceptance is key. “Many parents refuse to accept their son is gay and abuse me when I refuse to ‘treat’ them. We need more awareness and education.”
Organisations like Orinam, along with other groups, have been running campaigns like the Campaign for Open Minds, to end homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. “It was in response to the alarming surge in attempts at conversion therapy,” says Ramakrishnan. “But the practice won’t end until the practitioners are sued in court and have their licenses revoked.”
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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