Ravaged rainbow

Forced counselling, isolation, torture, hormone injections... queer people are traumatised with illegal ‘treatment’ practices

Published: 16th June 2022 01:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th June 2022 01:51 AM   |  A+A-

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Express News Service

KOCHI:  He is under house arrest,” exclaims LGBTQ+ rights activist Sreejil Mithali, as he speaks about his 19-year-old gay friend. Sreejil, who is the president in-charge of Queerythm, says the youth had been taken to a psychiatrist, who advised his parents to cut him off from his social life. Why? “Because the guy came out to his parents about his sexuality,” he says. “Now, locked up at home, he is feeling suicidal. As his phone access is curbed, he can only speak when there is no one around him, when he can sneakily use a phone.” 

This is not an isolated case. Another friend who came out as gay was taken an institution in Chalakudy by his own friends, says Sreejil. “They thought the people there would advise him and try to convert his sexuality -- which is impossible,” he stresses.

‘Conversion therapy’, Sreejil laments, is an illegal practice still prevalent in Kerala. “One of my friends, who came out as a lesbian, was subjected to inhuman treatments in the name of conversion therapy,” he says. “In the case of women, the family and the so-called doctors say ‘all she needs is a man’. The ‘treatments’ even take the form of sexual harassment at times,” he says.

Sreejil says he has seen several conversion therapy cases, and the subsequent trauma. “Life after these pseudo treatments is miserable,” “Many have survived some of the worst days of their lives and are dealing with the after-effects, both psychological and physical,” he adds.

Vijayarajamallika, the poet who recently won the maiden Leela Menon Literary Award for her autobiography Mallikavasantham, says she is going through the aftereffects of invasive conversion therapy.

“From the time I was around 18 years old, I was treated with male hormone injections, and medication for mood disorders. Both the endocrinologist and the psychiatrist didn’t understand the difference between homosexuality and being a woman trapped in a man’s body. Now, my legs are weak due to arthritis. My kidneys and liver are damaged,” says the 37-year-old. Though Vijayarajamallika filed a case against the doctor, he washed his hands off, claiming he had never seen her. 

“I don’t trust any hospitals in Kerala,” she adds. “People say our state is progressive, but the behaviour of some healthcare professionals toward queer people is deplorable. They don’t even know how to talk to us. Even at private hospitals, they would not give us our patient charts. Why is that? This makes it difficult to file malpractice suits. For my treatments, I try go outside the state.”   

The state government, she adds, recently contacted many LGBTQ+ people, activists and experts to discuss the community’s concerns. “However, when I talked about conversion therapy, they said they could not ban something that was already illegal,” says Vijayarajamallika. “That’s true. But, the practice is still prevalent in the state. Even a major newspaper in our state frequently publishes ads from a doctor, who claims he can ‘cure’ homosexuality!”

Mental health 
Incidence of mental health issues is high among the LGBTQ+, note activists. It’s not just the effects of illegal ‘therapies’. Rejection from society and home, the alienation, and the lack of professional support are the main reasons, says Prijith P K, researcher and SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics) consultant.

The lack of trustworthy mental health professionals is a critical issue, he adds. “Until recently, medical textbooks talked about homosexuality and transgender identity as mental illnesses. Most doctors studied such things,” he points out. “Even after the Supreme Court modified Section 377, which made homosexuality legal, and even after conversion therapy was deemed illegal by the Madras High Court, the medical curriculum remained the same. Also, the doctors, too, are products of this society. They might be conservative in their personal life, and that might reflect in their professional life.”

Founder of the NGO Sahayatrika, Deepa Vasudevan, says conversion therapy “is one among a range of violations and abuses that queer people face”. Some doctors and counsellors are supportive, but not many are, she adds. 

“I think these professionals are a reflection of our society,” says Deepa. “Sometimes professionals suggest parents institutionalise their queer children. So the youngsters have to deal with parental pressure and the trauma of going through invasive treatments.” Deepa adds that conversion therapy is often covered up as treatment for sex or substance addiction. “Some medicines incapacitate ‘patients’,” she says. 

Queerphobia among docs
Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorders and suicidal tendencies are the main mental health issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, says Dr Jithin T Joseph, a member of World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and founder of Mindclinic.

“Stigma and discrimination are the prime reasons,” he says. “A queer person goes through extremely stressful situations in life. One is self-realisation. A person might realise their gender identity from the ages of 10 to 15, and sexual identity between the ages of 10 to 20. The second is when they come out to their parents. Third, when they start living after coming out in our society,” he says.

Jithin notes many health professionals are “still queerphobic”. Also, he adds, not many are trained to treat queer patients. “They don’t know how to deal with the problems faced by queer patients, or how to properly speak to them. This is one of the reasons many professionals are not keen on taking in queer patients. You have to remember, until recently, it was illegal to be queer in India. And, until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental health issue.” 

Jithin believes discrimination from the medical community discouraged many queer persons from seeking treatment even during the pandemic waves. “Three or four transgender people died due to Covid, as they were reluctant to approach hospitals,” he says. 

“In countries such as the US, Norway, etc, as social acceptance is high, incidence of mental health issues within the community has gone down. Let’s hope our society, too, sheds ignorance and accepts queer people,” he says.

What is ‘conversion therapy’?
It is a set of pseudo-scientific practices that attempt to change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Many LGBTQ+ youth are forced to endure such therapies that could, at times, be dangerous. Therapies include injection of hormones, forced counselling, isolation, forcibly making the victim watch pornography, torture, shock treatment, religious rituals, etc. However, experts say such quack treatments never yield desired results — changing the victim’s identity.  In February 2014, the Indian Psychiatric Society issued a statement clarifying that there was no evidence to prove homosexuality was unnatural. In June last year, the Madras High Court prohibited ‘conversion therapy’ in Tamil Nadu. Following which, the National Medical Commission banned medical professionals from performing conversion therapy.


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