Build a society that respects individual choice | Opinion
K’s parents prided themselves on being educated and liberal and yet, when he told them he was gay, he remembers his mother saying: “You don’t have to flaunt it. After all we do live in society.” K is one of the lucky ones, unlike the many, who, when they come out to their families, are dragged off to psychiatrists, counsellors, godmen and sundry quacks for a “cure”.
The suicide of a woman from Kerala has ignited conversation on this so-called “conversion therapy”. There is talk of legal options in some activist circles. An online petition wants mental health practitioners to pledge support to LGBTQI+ people. Four different professional organisations such as the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy have issued statements debunking it.
Conversion therapy has “absolutely no scientific basis,” says Vikram Patel, psychiatrist and professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. “It has been prohibited by every major psychiatric association in the world, including India.”
And, yet, it persists, often with tragic consequences. “I’ve heard some heart-rending stories,” says Rafiul Rahman, founder of the Queer Muslim Project. Stories where individuals are subject to a range of often-violent interventions from medication, electroconvulsive therapy, forced institutionalisation and even exorcism. “It distorts your idea of self and leaves a scar,” says Rahman.
The therapy continues because there is a demand for it. Families, influenced by religious prohibition on same sex relationships, buy into ideas of what is “normal”. Also, the thought that a child might have autonomy in sexual choice flies in the face of parental authority. But, says Patel, “You cannot change someone’s fundamental nature or their fundamental right to be who they are.”
It’s an idea reflected in two Supreme Court judgments. Both Nalsa, which granted legal recognition to transgenders, and Section 377, which decriminalised same-sex relations, and affirmed the right of citizens to live with human dignity.
“Conversion therapy goes against the grain of the 377 judgment,” says Saurabh Kirpal, one of the lawyers in the petition. “It amounts to physical and psychological torture and negates the humanity of individuals by rejecting their sexual choices.”
In 2018, the Indian Psychiatric Association clarified that homosexuality is not a mental illness but stopped short of calling for an explicit ban on conversion therapy. Doctors who practise it face no action. But, says Patel: “If doctors choose to not follow science, they should lose their licence.”
Perhaps we need more centres like the Mariwala Health Initiative that teaches queer affirmative counselling to mental health professionals. Says its director Raj Mariwala: “There’s a much wider work that needs to be done if we are to be truly inclusive.” Demonising doctors and families who force individuals to undergo conversion therapy is the easy bit. The far harder part is the work that must go into building an affirmative society that is respectful of individual choice. It’s an effort where we all — media, professionals, entertainers, teachers — can play a role in writing a new script.