On June 7, the Madras High Court explicitly called for an Indian ban on conversion therapy, the pseudo-medical practice that falsely professes to be able to change the sexual orientation of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The court, in its ruling on S Sushma v Commissioner of Police, also demanded legal action against those who practise it. In doing so, it echoed the United Kingdom’s pledge in May to outlaw conversion therapy, a move welcomed across the board as a significant step in the fight against homophobia, eroding the misguided and unscientific notion that sexuality can be altered through external intervention. As we mark Pride Month, India, too, must take decisive and meaningful action to end this vicious and medically baseless practice.
There can be no doubt that conversion therapy, in which victims are subjected to various forms of physical and emotional abuse, is deeply harmful. A study by the UN’s independent expert on gender violence and discrimination found that a shocking 98 per cent of those who undergo such therapy experience lasting damage, including depression, anxiety, permanent physical harm and loss of faith. Behind a smokescreen of science or faith, quacks of all stripes offer services that promise to change sexual orientation, entrenching the false belief that non-heterosexual orientations are somehow unnatural or immoral.
It is time for India’s own reckoning with this dreadful form of discrimination. With cases being reported in at least five states, it is evident that a number of Indians have become victims of conversion therapy. We have already seen its ghastly effects in the form of the tragic case of Anjana Harish, a young woman who committed suicide in Goa last year after detailing the physical and mental anguish she was subjected to as part of an attempt at conversion therapy. Hers was just one more case in the long and shameful history of the persecution of LGBTQIA+ people in India.
Laws and attitudes toward homosexuality have evolved in recent years. The Indian Psychiatric Society has already declared that non-heterosexuality is not a mental illness and cannot be changed by external attempts, and Section 377 no longer applies to consensual homosexual sex. But these positive steps are far from enough. Current legislation, such as the Mental Healthcare Act, does not provide adequate protection against conversion therapy, since although the act bans medical treatment without consent, victims may consent to conversion therapy when administered by medical professionals because they have internalised a misplaced belief that they are abnormal. In addition, a person’s sexuality does not categorise them as mentally ill, making the act inadequate for protecting the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. This means that there is at present no law banning conversion therapy in India, allowing quacks to continue their false, harmful practice.
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It is evident that special legislative action is required to protect LGBTQIA+ Indians against the real and lasting damage that conversion therapy poses. This is why, in April, I (Tharoor) wrote to Smriti Irani, the Minister of Women and Child Development, seeking a series of measures to discourage conversion therapy. These include imposing professional sanctions against medical practitioners who engage in conversion therapy, considering its harmful, pseudoscientific, and unethical nature; banning conversion therapy involving minors, who cannot consent to any such procedure; banning advertising of conversion therapy, with the aim of reducing its prevalence and decreasing its social acceptability; and banning the most egregious forms of conversion therapy, which involve such repellent practices as the use of physical abuse, food deprivation, and homophobic slurs.
Such legislation would not be unprecedented. State and national-level laws against the practice have already been passed in several countries, including Germany, Canada, Malta, Australia, and the United States. India must implement the suggestions of the Madras High Court and follow in the footsteps of these nations.
Some people will always show prejudice, fear, and loathing towards those who are different from them. But this particular form of discrimination is clouded by false claims to medical legitimacy. The medical community vociferously condemning the practice is welcome, but it cannot in itself stop the baseless, destructive problem of conversion therapy. Outlawing the practice in India would legally prevent the forced administration of medication and the physical and mental abuse that characterises conversion therapy. It may help prevent future tragedies like Anjana’s. Fewer LGBTQIA+ people will be subjected to pain and anguish merely for being who they are.
India’s recent steps toward treating all people equally are laudable. But each ghastly case of discrimination reminds us of the horizon stretching out further. Conversion therapy, barbaric and baseless, must be eradicated from India. Those yearning to breathe free must not be strangled as they too often are.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 10, 2021 under the title ‘Do no harm’. Tharoor is MP for Thiruvananthapuram and an author. Sharma works on research and policy at Tharoor’s office.
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