Inside a retreat centre, in the summer of 2019, Alex (name changed) was given a small mirror and instructed to look into it while confessing his sins. “I am a sinner. I am a homosexual. I can never enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus hates me. I must change,” he said, with a guilty expression. Alex says he was one of thirty inmates admitted for conversion therapy at the Parithrana retreat centre in Adichira, situated on the Kottayam-Ettumanoor highway in Kerala, southern India. Parithrana, which translates to “the house of redemption,” was established in 1990, and is run by the Vincentian Congregation of India. In July 2019, Alex got the contact of the retreat centre through a friend. According to Alex, his internalised homophobia had urged him to turn himself in for a ‘correction’. When he contacted them, the retreat centre officials permitted him to join a 21-day course and asked him to bring with him a copy of the Bible, a notebook, and a white shirt.
The secretive gay conversion centre, an offshoot of the Parithrana retreat centre, was an auditorium situated at a secluded location, miles away from the retreat centre, says Alex. After paying the fees of Rs 25,000 and signing the consent form, he was taken to the auditorium. “We were required to tell our name, age, location, sexual orientation (whether gay or bisexual) and conclude with the sentence, I am a sinner,” he says. The inmates came from various religions and included men and women in the age group 18 to 27.
“We were not allowed to interact with or touch each other. We were advised to pray with rosaries in front of a photo of Holy Mary during our free time,” Alex recalls. Every day, a new pastor held the counselling session—most of them claimed to be qualified psychologists or psychiatrists and claimed that they were formerly gay and had subsequently been “corrected” when they embarked on the path of Jesus. Male inmates were instructed to do “masculinity boosting and confidentiality exercises” every day between 8.15 and 9.30 am. “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,” Alex recalls.
After finishing the course, Alex suffered from severe pangs of guilt and began breaking down regularly. He tried to live as a heterosexual but couldn’t succeed. He claims that the retreat centre staff had recommended the inmates to administer testosterone in the future. Months later, Alex tried to track down other inmates who had attended the conversion therapy at the centre with him. He found that most of them had run away from home, a few had died by suicide and another inmate was in jail for killing his father and mother. “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,” he says.
The quackery of ‘conversion therapy’
What Alex describes is an illegal practice—known as ‘conversion therapy’—that several queer people are subjected to in order to ‘cure’ them of their sexual orientation or gender. According to a report published on the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner’s website and presented in 2020 by an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IESOGI), conversion therapy is defined as an “umbrella term 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 at changing people from gay, lesbian or bisexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”
Common methods used for ‘conversion therapy’ include hormone therapy, chemical castration, surgical castration, masturbation reconditioning, electric shock to genitals, nausea-inducing drugs, corrective rapes, and covert sensitisation methods. The first reported case of this in India was in 1977, when mental-health professionals at the Institute of Mental Health, Madras, treated four young adults using the anticipatory avoidance technique.
There is enough scientific evidence to prove that this is not effective—and enough lived experience of queer people to show that it’s not desirable either. At least 98% of 8,000 survivors in over 100 countries, who participated in a survey for the IESOGI’s study, stated that the therapy had caused them physical or psychological damage; 5.9% of the survivors reported depression, 4.5% reported suicidal thoughts, 2.9% attempted suicide, 1.8% faced permanent physical harm.
‘A cis-hetero fantasy’
Ann Marie (name changed), a trans woman who was forced into conversion therapy in 2014, calls conversion therapy a ‘cis-hetero fantasy’.
Ann was taken to a rehabilitation centre for addicts in Thiruvananthapuram, for a three-month treatment in 2014. This, after her family believed a rumour that she had joined the hijra community in Bengaluru, and had begun to abuse drugs. The website of the organisation—which hasn’t responded to TNM’s calls and emails—claims that the main source of the budget for the centre is a grant from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India.
Ann, who was discharged in September 2014, describes the centre as being specifically designed to torture vulnerable individuals. It was surrounded by a wall at least four metres high. “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,” she says.
During the treatment, she was never once taken for a consultation with a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. Advised by an elder inmate from Delhi, she decided to act as an obedient inmate to ease her treatment. Upon her insistence, Ann was allowed to meet the clinical psychologist with whom she came out about her gender identity, but she was not heard.
The experience left her traumatised. “I was just being angry with everybody and broke random things at home. Most of the days, I woke up with a start,” she says.
In January 2015, she left for Qatar, to take up a job. “For six months, the trauma haunted me. I did not feel emotional attachment and excitement for six months. I became unemotional and lacked confidence,” Ann says.
Taking the illegal practice to court
Many leading psychiatric organisations have referred to conversion therapy as illegal. The Indian Psychiatric Society and the World Health Organisation do not classify homosexuality as an illness. In 2016, the World Psychiatric Organisation stated, “there is no scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed.” In 2020, the Independent Forensic Experts Group declared that offering conversion therapy is a matter of deception, false advertising and fraud. The Kerala branch of the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) stated, in May 2020, that any attempt to treat a person to change sexual orientation or gender identity is unjustifiable and illegal.
The death of Anjana Harish—alias Chinnu Sulfikar—put the spotlight on conversion therapy in Kerala last year. Twenty-one-year-old Anjana was queer, and died by suicide on May 13, 2020 at a resort in Goa. In a Facebook live on March 13, she had narrated the details of an ordeal—stints of forced conversion therapy for two months at the end of 2019, at Dr NS Mony’s Clinic in Coimbatore, Shalom Institute of Mental Health and Research in Palakkad, and Karuna Sai Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. “Owing to the medications and injections forced into me, the person named Anjana Harish has now ceased to be,” she said on the video. Following her escape from her home in March this year, her family filed a missing-person complaint. She appeared before the magistrate that month and stated that she preferred to stay with friends. Soon after, she went to Goa with friends. Stuck there for months due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and still reeling from trauma due to excess medication, Anjana killed herself.
Anjana’s case triggered discussions around conversion therapy in Kerala. Following Anjana’s suicide, Ahana Mekhal, the program coordinator of Sahayatrika had filed a complaint with the Palakkad police superintendent requesting him to investigate Anjana’s claim of being subjected to conversion therapy at Shalom Institute in Palakkad. The police are yet to respond.
Meanwhile, following an increase in incidents of conversion therapy, Queerala, an LGBTQI community organisation, and Raghav, a trans man and activist, filed a writ petition at the Kerala High Court seeking a ban on conversion therapy and action against those practicing it. “Every time a case of conversion therapy arises, queer organisations contact IPS or psychology circles to intervene, and they do so. A strong law against conversion therapy is the most practical solution to contain it,” Raghav’s lawyer, Ferha Azeez, says. “We submitted survivors’ testimonies to substantiate the case. Collecting evidence on conversion therapy is hardly impossible. We impleaded two more petitioners in the case to give the court an idea that many people were subjected to the therapy,” she adds.
Advocate Smruthi, who is appearing for an impleader in the case against conversion therapy, says that even though there is not a blanket ban on conversion therapy, the Supreme Court’s historic NALSA and 377 judgments respectively said that conversion therapy is illegal and had urged mental-health practitioners to adopt views that reflect the changed medical position. The NALSA judgment states, “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.”
Religion cannot be delinked from conversion therapy
According to Psychology Circle’s general secretary, Sonu S Dev, many families of LGBTQI persons tend to prefer religious institutes and exorcists when pushing their relatives into conversion therapy. And while the intent of conversion therapy itself is violent, methods used by religious institutions and practitioners add to the violence faced by survivors.
In Anjana’s case, it was the Hindu Democratic Front that aided her parents in forcing her into conversion therapy. One of the ‘Action Plans’ of HDF is “To actively promote Hinduism and Hindutva through social media and digital platforms.”
HDF’s website says that the group actively helped the family of Anjana Harish, “hailing from a traditional Kerala Hindu family.” “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 is a queer person and participated in ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign sponsored by the Left,” the site says.
Advocate Smruthi recounts an incident she knew of, where an Ayurvedic practitioner from Guruvayoor had suggested to a 21-year-old girl a massage treatment and allegedly assaulted her to correct her sexual orientation. The practitioner was later arrested by the Kerala Police.
Sanjo, former secretary of Transman Association of Kerala, shares another story in which a trans man was subjected to chathan seva (black magic) and entrapped inside his house. The trans man was first taken to an exorcist’s house and was subjected to six days’ pooja. As the effort did not succeed, his family did Koodothram (black magic) in front of his room and made him believe that if he stepped out of his room, he would be in danger. Once he tried getting out but met with an accident.
Thirty-seven-year-old Sebastian* was taken to Dr Joseph P Anto, a clinical psychologist in Thrissur Elite Mission Hospital, after he assured Sebastian’s siblings that their brother’s homosexuality could be cured. The psychologist, also a priest, told Sebastian that homosexuality is considered a sin in Christianity and he had treated many people earlier and most of them went on to lead a happy family life. “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,” he recounts.
“Much of the traditional understanding of gender and sexuality has been based on the interpretation of the holy scriptures,” Father Thomas Ninan, of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), said during a webinar organised by Aneka India. The experience of Muhammed Unais, a gay Muslim activist, resonates with Father Nainan’s words.
Unais (who uses they/them pronouns) went to a mental health institute in Malappuram (they want the institute to remain unnamed) in search of a job after it became difficult for them to survive in their hometown as a gay Muslim. Unais, who reached the institute with their father and a relative early in the morning, was confronted by a Muslim cleric, who claimed to be a psychologist. He argued that homosexuality was a sin and substantiated it with prophet Lut’s story and Islamic principles. The cleric mentally harassed Unais with lots of accusations and questions. According to traditional interpretations of the Bible and the Quran, God had destroyed the cities of Gomorrah and Sodom as the inhabitants were guilty of sins, including homosexuality. Only Lut and his righteous followers were spared from God’s wrath.
Unais countered this narrative with an alternate interpretation by modern Muslim scholars, such as Scott Alan Kugle, who argues that the inhabitants of Sodom were destroyed not because of homosexuality, but because of many misdeeds including burglary and rape attempts. According to this interpretation, homosexuality, like any other form of sex, is only forbidden when it comes to abuse, violation of public honor, and enforced without consent. The cleric dismissed Unais’s argument and called these scholars “Kafirs,” or non-believers.
How social change can be effected
According to Deepa Vasudevan, the co-founder of Sahayathrika, an advocacy organisation for queer women and transgender persons, legal advances are unfurling before cultural and social advances can keep up. “Changing people’s socio-cultural beliefs is a lot harder than changing the law,” she says. In 2007, Sahayathrika had surveyed psychologists and psychiatrists across Kerala on the subject of conversion therapy. Deepa recalls that many doctors she spoke with defended conversion therapy, saying that no matter what international laws say, homosexuality is not permissible in Indian culture.
During Aneka India’s webinar, the lawyer Arvind Narain asked: “How do we change—broadly put—societal morality into constitutional morality? How do we change people’s ways of thinking, which are filled with biases, prejudices, and contempt for LGBTQI persons, into an attitude founded on fundamental respect, for the dignity of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity?” His words echo the sentiments of many LGBTQI community members and activists, who believe the laws can only be effective by eliminating the social stigma surrounding the issue.
This connects to the idea that as we go forward, the consequences of ignoring survivors’ trauma must be accounted for. As Ann* says, “If I killed myself that would just be an end to it. I would just be another victim. If I managed to survive, I could continue to speak my story, share my experience with people who need to listen to it.”
Reactions of institutes named
When TNM contacted Parithrana retreat centre, they denied conducting any ‘specific sessions’ on LGBTQ conversion therapy. “We had conducted many retreat programs in 2019. We had at least one or two programs each month…We never organised a retreat program on gay conversion,” a representative of Parithrana management said over phone.
“See, the blessings people attained after successfully participating in a retreat program will vary from person to person. The concerned person might have attained a blessing. He might have corrected his sexual orientation. But we never did it (conducted conversion therapy),” they added.
(*Names changed to protect identity)
Ashfaque EJ is an independent journalist. This story was produced as a part of NFI Fellowship for Independent Journalists. The article first appeared on thenewsminute.com
Inside a retreat centre, in the summer of 2019, Alex (name changed) was given a small mirror and instructed to look into it while confessing his sins. “I am a sinner. I am a homosexual." #TheIndianSun #LGBTQIhttps://t.co/JxVQ3BiILN
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) April 6, 2021