The Pain and Cruelty of Conversion Therapy: A Tainted Practise

While history can paint a rainless image of the truth, it cannot quite hold back the words that roll off a misleading tongue. Such is the case with homosexuality. Despite innumerable accounts of existence and acknowledgement of homosexuality as evidenced in ancient Sanskrit Texts, Holy Scriptures and primitive sculptures, homosexuality proceeds to be recognised as an anomalous phenomenon. Over 1000 species of the animal kingdom exhibit homosexuality. So, is homosexuality really against nature’s order, and is reorientation the tool to set it right?

‘Conversion Therapy’, ‘Reparative Therapy’ or ‘Gay Cure Therapy’ is a pseudoscientific practise that attempts to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of non-heteronormative and non-cisnormative individuals through alleged psychological, physical or spiritual interventions. The undivided theme of sexual reorientation paints homosexuality as a mental disorder, thereby perpetuating a false sense of dysfunctionality. The idea of “conversion” is severely tainted by the undercurrent of homophobia. Several jurisdictions across the globe including Australia, Brazil, China, Ecuador, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan have banned conversion therapy and enacted laws to protect LGBTQ+ minors. As of date, a total of 20 states in the United States have enacted laws that limit, regulate or ban this therapy, California being the first and Virginia being the latest and the 20th state to do so.

OutRight Action International in its comprehensive and ground-breaking report has revealed the extent of the global reach of Conversion Therapy. It breathes in varied forms in different societies and rebranding does not change its underlying goal. Based on data and the findings of OutRight Action International, the leading promoters of Conversion Therapy are family members, followed by religious leaders or institutions. Educational institutions were identified as the third most common source of promotion of conversion therapy in Africa. In Asia, the primary perpetrators are private mental health institutions, followed by traditional healers. This predicament is nothing short of a globally consuming calamity.

The practitioners of Reparative Therapy range from godmen to qualified medical professionals who are not guided by any professional medical standards. The proponents of this therapy often engage in aversion therapy, pseudo-medical treatments, cosmic healings and religious interventions. There is neither empirical data nor positive scientific evidence to corroborate the propositions of this therapy. On the contrary, several studies such as UCLA Williams Institute on Conversion Therapy and LGBT youth and researches conducted by the medical and scientific community have repeatedly established that it is ineffective and decidedly unethical as per national and international medical standards. The study conducted by UCLA Williams Institute further put forth very disturbing statistical data which estimates that around 698,000 adults have undergone Conversion Therapy in the U.S. Additionally, over 16,000 LGBTQ+ youth in the states that have not imposed a ban will be subjected to reorientation therapy before they attain adulthood. Moreover, the study highlights that a national poll conducted by Ipsos/Reuters found that 56% of adults in the United States find conversion therapy by mental health practitioners illegal. One can take note of the inescapable element of coercion in the majority of such cases. Anxious, vulnerable, and unwilling LGBTQ individuals, including those who haven’t come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, are forced to undergo therapy. Since it is not a mainstream psychological treatment, there is no statutory accountability attached to it in many jurisdictions.

The inherently discriminatory practice of reparative therapy blatantly disregards the right to freedom of expression by engaging in coercive suppression of an individual’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The fear of being subjected to such treatment deters many LGBTQ individuals from seeking mental health care. It has severely compromised an individual’s right to life, health, dignity, and self-determination with its futile attempts to assimilate the Queer community into society's heteronormative architecture. The incomprehensible necessity to conform to heteronormative standards coupled with parental rejection, ignorance and unreserved prejudice of society has caused colossal damage to the mental, physical and emotional well-being of the queer folk.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity submitted his Report to the Human Rights Commission at its 44th session, June 2020, which called for a global ban on “Conversion Therapy”. An extract of the Summary of the Report reads as follows:

“He also notes that these practices are inherently degrading and discriminatory. They are rooted in the belief that LGBT persons are somehow inferior, and that they must at any cost modify their orientation or identity to remedy that supposed inferiority. He highlights that such practices constitute an egregious violation of rights to bodily autonomy, health, and free expression of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity. When conducted forcibly, they also represent a breach of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment”

Aversion therapy, which was widely employed in the last few decades, includes the administration of nausea-inducing drugs while exposing the subject to erotic material and subjecting them to multiple electric shocks while simultaneously showing same-sex erotica to coerce the subjects to associate homosexual desires with agony and unpleasant emotions. Acts of psychological and sexual violence, “corrective rape”, forced nudity, confinement, force-feeding are among the frequently endorsed methods of reorientation which have plagued the lives of our healthy youth. There is sufficient medical indication to show that such practices cause depression, aggravating anxiety, self-harm, suicidality, loss of sexual desire, shame, and low self-esteem which leads to severe and long-term mental and physical health hazards. On one hand, the proponents of reorientation therapy primarily insinuate that the alleged dysfunctionality is an aftermath of early childhood trauma or overbearing parents. On the other hand, minors of the LGBTQ+ community who are subjected to cure therapy account for a significant section of extremely vulnerable non-heteronormative individuals. The grim reality is that minors are prone to coercion and undue influence. Their age deprives them of the required understanding and the law deprives them of the authority to exercise their right to autonomy, self-determination and consent or decline “treatments”.

We tread a dangerous path that endangers youth and leaves them at the mercy and desire of their disapproving parents, guardians, counsellors, and people of authority. Amidst the Utah suicide crises among youth, for instance, which escalated at an alarming rate, the conservative state successfully introduced legislation that outlaws conversion therapy on LGBTQ+ minors. The Psychologist Licensing Board of Utah played a key role in its enactment, however, this ban was imposed on therapists licensed by the State only. Legal guardians, clergymen or religious counsellors do not fall within the purview of this enactment. Nevertheless, it accounts for a pivotal advancement in the LGBTQ+ sphere and it is commendable that the interest of LGBTQ+ minors was prioritized over all disagreements that followed when the bill was first introduced.

David Matheson, a qualified counsellor who fiercely advocated conversion therapy and “gender wholeness” publicly acknowledged in 2019 that he now intends to live as a gay man. Previously, Matheson claimed that he was in a position to assist ex-gay men to pursue a heterosexual life. Furthermore, Alan Chambers, former president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, apologized to the survivors of “reparative therapy” after years of relentlessly campaigning “conversion”. He later expressed his fear of being labelled “gay” and the ostracization that would follow. He went on to pen down his story of transformation in his memoir, My Exodus: From Fear to Grace. The internalized homophobia of Matheson and Chambers coupled with the ignominy of homosexuality took a form of preposterous imposition of their forced beliefs upon others. They have exploited their position of power and caused irreversible harm and injury to countless healthy and innocent people belonging to the queer community. It is a shame that our civilized society made it easier for them to subscribe to a false idea of “reorientation” and hammer it upon malleable minds.

In India, The stigma surrounding homosexuality which is widely labeled as a "mental disorder" was effectively demystified by the Supreme Court in its most celebrated landmark judgment of Navtej Singh Johar & Ors. Versus Union of India (2018) 1 SCC 791 wherein Section 377 was held to be unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between adults of same-sex.” The Supreme Court of India observed that the definition of “mental illness” under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, “throws to the winds all earlier misconceptions of mental illness” and thereby declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The Indian Psychiatric Society also issued a position statement regarding LGBTQ seeking a ban on treatments and therapies employed to reverse the non-heteronormative sexual orientation of an individual. The Government has however exhibited a lackadaisical approach towards the same. The statement of the American Psychological Association on Homosexuality which was released in July 1994 is noteworthy:

“Homosexuality is neither a mental illness nor a moral depravity...Research suggests that homosexual orientation is in place very early in the life cycle, possibly even before birth. It is found in about ten percent of the population, a figure which is surprisingly constant across cultures, irrespective of the different moral values and standards of a particular culture...Research findings suggest that efforts to repair homosexuals are nothing more than social prejudice garbed in psychological accouterments."

In a gut-wrenching incident that happened earlier this year in India, Anjana Harish, a 21-year-old girl hailing from Kerala, committed suicide after her prolonged battle with Conversion Therapy. Anjana gave a harrowing account of her intense struggle during the alleged “therapy” in a video, where she narrated her gruesome turmoil. She was forced to undergo this therapy by her parents when she identified herself as “Bisexual”. Throughout this alleged therapy, hallucinating schizophrenics kept her company, she was profusely sedated and administered with over 40 injections against her will until she was “…mentally and physically broken…and this thing called 'Anjana Harish' disappeared.” Unfortunately, this controversy simmered down as quickly as it sparked up because it predominantly affected the queer minority. One can take note of the inescapable element of coercion in the majority of such cases. Anxious, vulnerable, and unwilling LGBTQ individuals, including those who haven’t come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, are forced to undergo therapy.

While it is imperative to outlaw and criminalize Conversion Therapy performed on LGBTQ+ minors and adults alike, humanity dictates that the larger goal is offering protection, funding, medical support, and opportunity for rehabilitation to survivors. Sensitization and training of psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health experts, and the medical community are vital to this cause. As is recommended by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, it is imperative to establishing a definition of prohibited practices of “conversion therapy”, set up a system of complaint mechanism, and establish a system of sanctions for non-compliance with the ban through appropriate legal or administrative means.

Homophobia seeks refuge in such demeaning practices and promises the destruction of individuality in its wake. As Alvin Toffler puts it astutely, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” It's about time that we answer the knocks on the doors of humanity before homophobia and bigotry sink their claws deeper into mankind and have a hearty laugh.

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