Sixteen-year-old Rishi Raj Vyas isn’t your standard millennial who floods his Instagram feed with selfies from Zara's changing-room.
Vyas, always decked in a floral shawl, a bright coloured kurta and a permanently plastered smile, works with Nazaraiya, an LGBTQ resource group in New Delhi. He identifies as a homosexual man.
But Vyas is aware that acceptance for him in the Indian society that is particularly homophobic isn't coming anytime soon.
When he came out to his parents at the age of 13, their immediate reaction was Vyas’ worst nightmare. They promptly decided to ‘fix the gay’. Vyas recalls that he was first taken to a psychiatrist in a hospital in Delhi where he was constantly interrogated about his sexual history and whether he had ever ‘experimented’ with another man.
Post the session with the psychiatrist, Vyas was taken to a 'Baba' whose ashram was located in an illegal commercial complex in Noida. Vyas didn’t want to talk to him about his sexuality, so he lied and told him that he has difficulty in concentrating on his studies. But he cut him short and said, "Abey, ch****a kisi aur ko banaiyo. Hijda hai kya tu? Mard ban".
In 2018, with the new-age millennial living in a first-world bubble of sterile concrete wilderness and round-the-clock social media updates, the conversation around sexuality and gender identity has never been more loud. Identifying as part of the LGBTQ community is a taboo no more, or so the liberal urban elite of metropolitan cities would want you to believe.
There has been dramatic shift in the media’s narrative in portraying the marginalised sexual minorities. But it hasn’t led to a pronounced decrease in homophobia, whose maniacal presence hovers over most Indian households.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections revolved around “Sabke liye achhe din aane wale hain”. But Modi’s victory hasn’t brought any ‘acche din’ for the LGBTQ community. If anything, the electoral win brought several right-wing groups an opportunity to impose their conformist ideologies with an iron fist.
And in all of this, conversion therapy is a monstrous reality for the LGBTQ community. The illegal practice is based on a set of irrational beliefs and preposterous claims that a queer person can be made to conform to a heterosexual lifestyle after undergoing several spiritual, medical, and psychological interventions.
Widely practiced by cosmic healers, priests, godmen, and even licensed medical professionals, conversion therapy includes methods like classic electrical aversion (shock therapy), surgical procedures like ovariectomy, clitoridectomy, physical castration, vasectomy, and lobotomy, exorcism, hormone replacement therapy, antipsychotic drugs used for treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorders, chemical castration, aversive conditioning, aura cleansing, meditation, and corrective rape under the guise of sterilising ‘degenerates’.
At the turn of the 21st century, lightning struck the IPS (Indian Psychiatric Society) when they finally realised, “Oh wait, so homosexuality is normal after all.” However, if the IPS was a WhatsApp group, most medical professionals forgot about the message after 'read'.
Gaurav Deka, a practising psychotherapist said, “I feel that conversion therapy is still very prevalent in India. People do it under the sly though it is clearly mentioned that homosexuality isn’t recognized as a mental or psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).”
“I keep hearing many reports of people being subjected to electroconvulsive treatment in order to ‘cure’ homosexuality. I don’t think de-pathologization of homosexuality in DSM will make any difference. It will still continue to be a pathology in the minds of people, especially parents who force their children to go through such a mindless fad of a process,” he further added.
A practising psychiatrist, Yashasree Poudwal said, “Few psychiatrists still practice conversion therapy due to their own homophobia. They themselves continue to believe that homosexuality is a disease in spite of evidence to the contrary. Quacks feed off the homophobia in the society to make a quick buck of a family's fears.”
For babas and godmen who nonchalantly parade their nonsensical ideologies, appearing as the messiahs of naïve parents and peers who are themselves isolated by their own ignorance and fear, EVERYTHING can be fixed – even people’s sexuality.
Vyas said his first meeting with the Baba traumatised him so much that he resorted to cutting himself every night. The baba said, “Main tereko bhaga bhaga ke seedha kardunga” and threatened to have (then) 13-years-old Vyas sent to jail under section 377.
Thirty six-year-old Jerry Johnson, a prominent LGBTQ activist, also endured his own share of therapy when he first came out to his mother. He said, “My mother deployed Catholic priests to have a ‘talk’ or to pray for me. She held prayers and healing sessions to help me. I've had ‘holy water’ sprinkled on me to drive out these ‘sinful’ desires.”
Johnson’s family, which never verbally apologised to him, however became more accepting of his sexuality - a direct contrast to the collective disappointment shared by his family after Johnson’s coming out.
Homophobia doesn’t discriminate between class, gender, age or profession. Often found in great prevalence among licensed medical practitioners as well, these professionals deem it in their right to pass off their own fallacious affirmations as a ‘mental disorder’.
But the perverted origin of conversion therapy isn't a new phenomena, it can be traced to late 19th century when German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed to have turned a gay man straight by 45 hypnosis sessions and a few trips to a brothel. Notzing’s phenomenon kicked off a long trail of assertions and techniques that were used to suppress the freedom of sexuality and invalidate the very existence of the LGBTQ community.
Shyamolie Desai, a practising psychologist said, “Parents feel understood when they’re told that some form of treatment will work on their child. Psychologists are trained to maintain a non-judgemental stance with regards to their patients and their lives and their choices. Ideally, they should not be projecting their disapproval on to their patient.”
Desai said that if the people who come to the therapist want to be heard, that should be done. “People come to a therapist very often when they do not feel understood by family and friends and have difficulty dealing with their emotions. But if their therapist too forces their opinions and views onto them, he or she isn’t going to have anywhere to go and feel understood,” she added.
It’s not easy being queer in India. An individual goes through a myriad of fears even before they accept themselves as queer. First, they are scared when they realise that they are not a cisgender heterosexual person after all. They take days, months and even years to finally accept themselves. Next, they are scared about coming out to their family and how they would react. Finally, they see all his fears coming true when they are taken to ‘therapy’ and told that homosexuality is a mental disorder.
Yashasree Poudwal said, “Various conversion therapies are practised on LGBTQ individuals like behaviour therapy using aversion principle wherein a negative experience (like nausea inducing drugs, electric shocks) is given while the person is exposed to homosexual content. In extreme cases corrective rape is also employed to attempt to change a person's sexuality.”
Humsafar Trust, a non-profit in Mumbai, had started a social media campaign May 2016 to counter all the pseudoscientific assertions of medical professionals and babas who ‘claim’ to have a cure for homosexuality. The campaign #QueersAgainstQuacks was a heroic attempt to quash the ‘quacks’ and let it be known that homophobia is the only thing that needed fixing. “It was an idea that came from wanting to bring out the bigotry and malpractice within the medical fraternity which causes physical and mental harm to the community,” said Koninika Roy, advocacy manager of Humsafar Trust.
But clearly many quacks missed the memo yet again.
S.L. Sharma, who calls himself 'metaphysician and healer', said that 40% people in USA and 60% in India identify as Gay and Lesbians.
And he believes genetics is the primary cause of homosexuality. "These genes originate from the mother's side. Testosterone is one reason for gay/lesbian birth. This hormone is necessary for both male and female. Excess production of testosterone in males is all right, but a similar production in females causes birth of gay/lesbian people," Sharma said.
According to the 'healer', if a "female is healthy, smart, consumes good food, dominating in nature, and of course - carefree", testosterone secretion order reverses, leading to more testosterone in a female - and thus, leading to a gay or lesbian child." He also alleged that extreme use of mobile phones releases a 'UVR effect' which can turn a person gay. Lack of parental supervision of the child is also a major contributing factor for people turning out to be gay.
While Sharma is full of 'knowledge' with no scientific basis, 16-year-old Vyas cuts himself even today. The trauma hasn’t left him yet.
With the 2017 Right to Privacy judgment, it’s almost certain that Section 377 would be kicked to the curb. But the Indian LGBTQ community listens and remembers the unapologetic expressions of homophobia which has left many in a sorry state of resignation.
Today, many ask for ignorance rather than acceptance.