Kerala is often called God’s own country. A state with a 100% literacy rate, Kerala is hailed as open-minded and compassionate about the marginal section of the society, even if it is against the common perceptions of society. However, education and literacy have failed to bring a desired change in the deep-rooted orthodox mentality. Kerala is one of the leading states where controversial LGBT conversion therapies happen.
Sexual orientation in today’s time is one of the most talked-about subjects. In 2018, when India decriminalized homosexuality, it was termed as a historic moment for the LGBT community. Yes, there are differences between people’s mindset about sexual orientation, but that does not mean sexual orientation can be termed as a disease.
On the other hand, there are problems in the LGBT community that include unnecessary hatred towards Hinduism and attempts to impose LGBT related studies in schools, which led to controversies that screamed for attention. However, that does not give a right to anyone to try to ‘cure’ homosexuality.
The not-so-hidden world of ‘Gay Conversion Centres’
When we talk about correction facilities or rehabilitation centres, it is often related them to jails or de-addiction centres. However, in Kerala, there are correction centres for homosexuals as well. At these centres, the members of the LGBT community are allegedly ‘cured’ so that they become heterosexual. In the last few years, several reports have come out that talked about such centres in the state of Kerala where the homosexuals or the ‘sinners’ were treated.
The controversial history of ‘conversion therapy’
‘Conversion therapy’ is an illegal practice that people from the LGBT community are often subjected to in order to ‘cure’ them of their sexual orientation. In 2020, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IESOGI) published a report [PDF] on ‘conversion therapy’.
It said, conversion therapy can be defined as “an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. Such practices aim (or claim to aim) at changing people from gay, lesbian or bisexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”
Conversion therapy is a lucrative business, and it is often promoted by Faith-based organizations and religious authorities across the world. There are three main approaches that such therapies follow are Psychotherapy, Medical and Faith-based.
Psychotherapy: Based on the assumption that homosexuality is a product of an abnormal upbringing, several methodologies are used in psychotherapy to allegedly cure ‘gayness’, such as psychodynamic, behavioural, cognitive and interpersonal therapies. According to the IESOGI report, “a recurrent method used is aversion (electric shocks, nausea-inducing or paralysis-inducing drugs) through which a person is subjected to a negative, painful or otherwise distressing sensation while being exposed to a certain stimulus connected to their sexual orientation.”
Medical: Based on the assumption that sexual orientation is an inherent biological dysfunction, several methodologies to ‘correct’ the problem is used in medicine-based gay-correction’ such as medication or hormone or steroid therapy.
Faith-based: Based on the assumption that sexual orientation can be a by-product of something evil inherited by the ‘patient’, a spiritual advisor subjects the person to different programs to overcome their ‘condition’. It may include beating, shackling and food deprivation.
In some cases, it was noted that such patients were subjected to corrective rape therapy to correct their ‘gayness’. In India, the recorded [PDF] history of conversion therapy dates back to 1970s. The study had claimed to show ‘progress’ as the patients showed ‘heterosexual’ tendencies.
Effect of correction therapy
According to IESOGI’s study, such therapies can result in physical and psychological damage. The group contacted over 8,000 survivors, out of which 98% from 100 different countries reported physical and psychological damage. Around 5.9% of the participants reported they suffered from depression. 4.5% said they get suicidal thoughts. 2.9% alleged they had attempted suicide. 1.8% had reported permanent physical damage.
In 2020, Raj Mariwala, director of Mariwala Health Initiative, said that there is a history of violence against the members of LGBT community. Asylums and Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) have been part of conversion therapy. He added, “Psy-disciplines and practices classify things as normal and abnormal. If you start with pathologising something like homosexuality as abnormal, it leads us to the place where treatment is required.”
The haunting stories of the ‘sinners’ of Kerala
In its recent report, The News Minute narrated stories of few members of the LGBT community that attended these centres in different parts of the country, including Kerala. Alex (changed name) had joined one such centre in 2019. He was one of the thirty inmates who were admitted to the Parithrana retreat centre in Adichira that is located on the Kottayam-Ettumanoor highway in Kerala. The centre was established in 1990, and the Vincentian Congregation of India maintains it.
In July 2019, one of Alex learned about the centre through his friend. Alex believes that his deep-rooted homophobia had urged him to get admitted to the centre for ‘correction’. After getting in contact with the officials, he was permitted to join a 21-day course and asked to bring a copy of the bible, a notebook and a white shirt.
Alex paid a hefty fee of Rs.25,000 and was made to sign a consent form. The conversion centre was located on an offshoot location in an auditorium which was in a secluded location miles away from the actual retreat centre. He said, “We were required to tell our name, age, location, sexual orientation (whether gay or bisexual) and conclude with the sentence, I am a sinner.” There were men and women between the age of 18 to 27 years from different religions in his group.
While recalling his horrifying experience at the centre, he said that no one could interact with each other. They were advised to pray with rosaries in front of a photo of Holy Mary during our free time. Every day, a new pastor would come for a counselling session. He recalled that they claimed to be qualified psychologists or psychiatrists and alleged that they were formerly homosexual. They alleged that they were ‘corrected’ when they chose the path of Jesus.
Every day between 8:15 AM to 9:30 AM, the male inmates were instructed to do “masculinity boosting and confidentiality exercises.” Alex said, “During the private counselling sessions, they would talk about our sexual preferences, sex positions and would advise us to watch lesbian porn. Lesbians were advised to watch gay porn.”
The aftermath of the retreat
Once Alex finished the course, he suffered from guilt and often broke down. He tried to live as a heterosexual but failed. He alleged that the retreat centre officials asked the inmates to administer testosterone in the future. In the next few months, Alex tried to track down his fellow inmates only to find out that some of them had run away from their homes, and a few had committed suicide. One of the inmates was allegedly jailed for killing his parents. He said, “The course left a trauma in many people’s minds, leaving us with the idea that there is a devil inside us, and we all are sinners.”
The traumatising story of Ann Marie
Ann Marie (name changed) is a trans woman who was forcefully admitted to a rehabilitation centre for addicts in Thiruvananthapuram for a three-month treatment in 2014. Her family admitted after believing a rumour that she joined a Hijra community in Bengaluru and started using drugs. The rehabilitation centre in its website claims that it gets a grant from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India.
Ann alleged that the centre was designed to torture vulnerable individuals. He said, “Four male staff tied my hand and legs and forcibly sedated me. I felt dizzy after the injection. I slept most of the days and woke up only for food. I felt exhausted, dizzy and my body was imbalanced. I was in a half-conscious state and injected with lots of medicines.”
An elder inmate advised her to act as an obedient inmate to ease her treatment. At first, she was not taken even once for a consultation with a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. After insisting repeatedly, she was able to meet a clinical psychologist who ignored her gender identity. Recalling her traumatising experience, she said, “I was just being angry with everybody and broke random things at home. Most of the days, I woke up with a start.”
The trauma left her unemotional, and she lacked confidence for months to come. It became hard to feel emotionally attached or excited for anything for more than six months.
The death of Anjana Harish put conversion therapy in the limelight
On May 13, 2020, 21-year-old Anjana Harish alias Chinnu Sulfikar committed suicide at Goa’s resort. Before committing suicide, she did a Facebook Live session. She narrated her ordeal of the forced conversion therapy for two months in 2019 at Dr NS Mony’s Clinic in Coimbatore, Shalom Institute of Mental Health and Research in Palakkad, and Karuna Sai Institute in Thiruvananthapuram.
In the video, she said, “Owing to the medications and injections forced into me, the person named Anjana Harish has now ceased to be.” In March 2020, she managed to escape her home, after which her family filed a missing-person report. She appeared before the magistrate and stated she wanted to stay with friends. She was in Goa when Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. The trauma of excessive medication and torture during the conversion therapy left her broken, and she killed herself.
The legal battle against conversion therapy
The Indian Psychiatric Society and the World Health Organisation never classified homosexuality as an illness. The World Psychiatric Organisation had stated, “There is no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed.”
In 2020 Independent Forensic Experts Group stated, “conversion therapy is ineffective and harmful. The likely harm of conversion therapy cannot be outweighed by any clinical benefits, as there are none. Offering conversion therapy thereby constitutes a form of deception, false advertising, and fraud.”
In 2020, the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) issued a statement and asserted its 2018 statement on homosexuality. Further commenting on conversion therapy, it said, “All forms of ‘treatment/therapy’ (including individual psychotherapies, behaviour therapies like aversive conditioning etc., hypnotherapy, group therapies, pharmacotherapy, physical treatment methods like ECT etc. or milieu treatments) to reverse sexual orientation are based on the premise that is erroneous: that such orientations are diseases. Moreover, there is no scientific evidence at all that attempts to convert a person’s orientation succeed in any manner.”
In both NALSA and 377 judgments, the Supreme Court had categorically called conversion therapy illegal. The NALSA stated, “No person may be forced to undergo any form of medical or psychological treatment, procedure, testing, or be confined to a medical facility, based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Notwithstanding any classifications to the contrary, a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not, in and of themselves, medical conditions and are not to be treated, cured or suppressed.”
Anjana Harish’s death triggered discussion over conversion therapy in Kerala. Ahana Mekhal, the program coordinator of Sahayatrika, had filed a complaint urging police to investigate Anjana’s claims about conversion therapy. Still, it is unclear if any progress happened on the complaint. Queerala, an LGBTQI community organisation, and Raghav, a trans man and activist, filed a petition in Kerala High Court. In the petition, they sought a ban on conversion therapy and action against those who practice it.
The connection between religion and conversion therapy
In the majority of the cases where LGBT people were subjected to conversion therapy are linked to one or the other religion. In one of the cases where a 37-year-old Sebastian (name changed) was taken to Dr Joseph P Anto, a clinical psychologist at the Thrissur Elite Mission Hospital in Kerala, claimed that homosexuality is considered a sin in Christianity. He further alleged that he had ‘cured’ many people earlier. Sebastian said, “When I requested the doctor to convince my family about my sexual orientation, he refused and asked me to change as I was the one who deviated from the normal path.” Anto was also a priest.
Muhammed Unais, a gay Muslim activist, was confronted by a Muslim cleric who also claimed to be a psychologist. He told Unais that homosexuality is a sin and narrated Islamic principles to support his claims. The cleric mentally harassed Unais with accusations and questions. He claimed that according to the Bible and the Quran, God had destroyed the cities of Gomorrah and Sodom because the inhabitants were guilty of sins, including homosexuality. When Unais tried to counter his claims based on alternate interpretations by modern Muslim scholars, the cleric called those scholars “Kafirs,” or non-believers.
In Anjana Harish’s case, Hindu Democratic Front had aided her parents in alleged conversion therapy. On several websites, she was described as, “Anjana Harish, hailing from a traditional Kerala Hindu family, used to pursue BA in Malayalam literature from the Government Brennan College, Thalassery, Kannur.
The starry-eyed girl had a passion for literature and used to attend literature festivals. The gullible girl fell into a bad company of anarchists, Urban Naxals and jihadists. Activism had gone into her head. She openly declared that she was a queer person and participated in the ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign sponsored by the Left.”