Behind Closed Doors: The Notorious Truth About Conversion Therapy in India

“I often think about how they could do that to me. How they could sedate me with medicines to change my sexual orientation. I feel betrayed,” said Sujitha.

Despite the Madras high court ordering a ban on conversion therapy last month, members of India’s LGBTQIA+ community continue to live through the trauma inflicted by conversion therapy.

Like many others, Sujitha was sedated with medicines. Sharing her encounter of almost undergoing conversion therapy, Sujitha, a 25-year-old pansexual said, “In 2019, when I came out to my parents, undergoing conversion therapy was incomprehensible for me.”

After a few months, her aunt insisted that Sujitha visit a psychiatrist in Chennai. Sujitha found the request bizarre as her aunt knew that Sujitha was already undergoing treatment under a psychotherapist and psychologist based in Mumbai. But trusting her aunt, Sujitha decided to visit the psychiatrist on her next trip to Chennai.

Her aunt accompanied Sujitha to the session. “When the psychiatrist was taking down my history, instead of focusing on my pre-existing depression and anxiety, he constantly brought up my sexual identity. I found it a bit weird and told him that I am comfortable with being bisexual, after which he backed off,” said Sujitha.

“Within 40 minutes of the session, he administered a drug to me which is usually given to schizophrenics. When I asked why he gave that specific drug, he didn’t give a definitive answer. He also gave me psychiatric medication with a heavy dosage, despite being told that I was already on medication for depression and anxiety,” she adds.

“During that visit, I was not on talking terms with my parents and was staying with my aunt,” Sujitha said. Her parents live in Chennai and had severed ties with Sujitha after learning about her sexual orientation. “Later that day, despite telling my aunt that my parents must not be involved in this, she took my reports to them without my consent.”

“After a day, my aunt asked me to take two medicines. Being a grown-up, I could have taken those by myself, but she literally forced me to take those tablets in front of her. After taking those medicines, I felt nauseous and was sedated till the next day,” Sujitha said.

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After that incident, and having prior knowledge about conversion therapy, she left her aunt’s place and stayed with her friends for the rest of her time in Chennai. The incident caused her to spiral into a deeper pit of depression, for which she continues to undergo treatment till now. Moreover, after that incident, Sujitha has stopped communicating with her family.

This is one amongst the few cases where a queer member was saved from undergoing the trauma inflicted by conversion therapy. It has been three years since the colonial-era law banning homosexuality was scrapped by the Supreme Court, yet sordid tales of physical and mental abuse and suicide due to conversion therapy continue.

In March last year, a 21-year-old student from Kerala, Anjana Harish, died by suicide. In her last video, which went viral on social media, she shared her plight regarding conversion therapy. The incident sparked protests, with many psychiatry groups condemning the practice.

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy uses the pseudo-scientific approach such as ice lobotomies, electric shock, heavy medication or sedatives in an attempt to convert homosexual individuals into heterosexuals. However, no substantial evidence has been found to back this theory.

The American Psychiatric Association and Indian Psychiatric Association no longer identify homosexuality as a mental disorder and have condemned conversion therapy. A study by independent UNHRC researcher Victor Madrigal-Borloz, which surveyed 8,000 participants from 100 countries between March 2019 and April 2020, reveals that 98% of participants have said that they were physically and mentally paralysed after undergoing conversion therapy.

Lack of awareness

Meghna Mehra, founder of All India Queer Association, tells LiveWire that such therapies are perilous for a person’s physical and mental state. “More often, these therapies lead to suicide,” said Mehra.

“The parents come from a generation that lacks awareness and acceptance due to stigmatised views towards the LGBTQIA+ community. It also come from a place of caste and class purity that they want to maintain while believing that heterosexuality is the only acceptable way of orientation, causing them to use conversion therapy to save the family honour. It is just like honour killings, in my opinion,” Mehra said.

Mehra, who identifies herself as asexual and has been working for LGBTQIA+ rights for the past three years, notes that lack of awareness amongst healthcare professionals is another major reason that conversion therapy is rampant in India.

Need for sex education 

Adrianna M, a trans woman, notes that cases of conversion therapy in rural areas or towns are unreported. “The situation is dismal in small towns, cities and villages. Members of the queer community are reluctant to come out because of a lack of awareness and social ostracisation,” said Adrianna.

“I feel the first step to fight against myths related to conversion therapy is to sensitise people about different genders or sexual identities, and then about repercussions of conversion therapy. Educating healthcare professionals is even more important as they are the first contact by parents when they find out about the sexual orientation of their kids,” Adrianna said.

Astha Oriel is a budding journalist. She is a history buff, and loves to explore unique stories and ideas every day. You can find her on Instagram @pencoffee11.

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