Lesbian couple alleges Conversion Therapy, Kerala High Court issues notice to Kozhikode hospital

The case sheds light on the prevalence of conversion therapy, a practice still prevalent in India despite its condemnation globally.

ByK A Shaji

Published Mar 22, 2024 | 9:29 AMUpdatedMar 22, 2024 | 9:29 AM

Kerala High Court lawyer bribe

A lesbian couple has brought their case to the Kerala High Court, alleging that their parents forced them to undergo conversion therapy to alter their sexual orientation. The two petitioners were assigned female at birth.

The second petitioner citing that her partner, the first petitioner, has a mental illness, alleged that the first petitioner was subjected to illegal and forced treatments, including injecting with pharmaceuticals and medicines against her consent at Manohar Hospital in Kozhikode.

In response to their plea, Justice Devan Ramachandran has summoned a hearing in two weeks, issuing a notice to the hospital administration.

The case

The petitioners, a lesbian couple, both from same community, have been in a committed relationship, living together for over three years. They have faced opposition from their families, all of whom disapprove of their relationship.

They claim that their parents and other family members subjected them to psychological and physical abuse and were coerced into living apart.

The petition states that their parents reported their father missing, prompting the filing of a First Information Report (FIR) and subsequent court summons.

Additionally, the Judicial First-Class Magistrate Court approved the petitioners’ shared housing after hearing arguments from all sides.

The petitioners further claimed that one petitioner had challenged her parents’ unlawful detention in the High Court (WP (C) No. 555 of 2023) and had successfully argued that her imprisonment was lawful.

The petitioners now claim that she was administered medication during her court appearance, impairing her vision.

According to the petitioners, the first petitioner underwent conversion therapy against her will at Manohar Hospital. Allegedly, physicians believed that medication could cure homosexuality, which they deemed sinful.

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‘Conversion therapy, a violation of fundamental rights’

The case sheds light on the prevalence of conversion therapy, a practice still prevalent in India despite its condemnation globally.

A plea was filed alleging that the hospital’s practices violated the Mental Health Act and the petitioner’s fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

The first petitioner allegedly endured unlawful conversion treatment and inhumane medical practices, prompting a complaint against the facility to the Indian Psychiatric Society.

“Conversion therapy violates basic rights of the people and lacks scientific backing. The use of coercion in such therapy is a crime, may violate fundamental rights and is unconstitutional,” the plea stated.

Familial pressure leads to numerous unregistered institutions subjecting such individuals to corrective or conversion procedures under the guise of mental health care.

The petitioner claimed that she was coerced into undergoing conversion treatment and that she was not provided with sufficient information about the medications she was prescribed, citing medical studies to challenge its legality and efficacy.

They have hence sought a ruling against the unconstitutional practice, which is also a violation of basic rights of a person to change their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression through medical treatment.

Calling for regulations prohibiting conversion therapy, the petitioners have also demanded accountability from the hospital administration for implementing the coercive conversion therapies.

Ongoing practice, social stigma

Anjana Harish, a 21-year-old bisexual from Kannur, Kerala, was subjected to conversion therapy while in a mental health institution in 2020.

Anjana passed away in May of that year as a result. Her death sparked nationwide concern and agitation, highlighting the ongoing practice of conversion therapy targeting members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Anjana’s family allegedly coerced her into undergoing conversion treatment after she came out as bisexual.

She was admitted to a mental health facility where she received de-addiction treatment alongside heavy medication.

Also Read: Medical commission comes down heavily on conversion therapy, activists welcome the move

The research

A recent study that was part of a thesis submitted by Dr Sreya Mariyam Salim, a Post Graduation in Psychiatry student at the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, revealed that over 45 per cent of LGBTQIA+ persons in Kerala have undergone conversion therapy.

The practice claims that it can treat queerness. Conducted with the assistance of Queerythm, a gay welfare group, the study delved into reasons for undergoing conversion therapy, the name of the doctor who performed the treatment, methods used, and assessed mental health indicators such as suicidal thoughts, sadness, and anxiety.

Under the supervision of doctors Dr Lallchand Anilal and Dr Anil Prabhakaran, Sreya found that individuals subjected to Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), or conversion therapy, experienced significant suffering and warranted mental health support.

Despite challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey of 130 individuals revealed that 45.4% of them had been through conversion therapy, significantly higher than in the US and Canada.

Among cisgender people, 48.5% of men and 28.5% of women have reported undergoing conversion therapy at some point. Most subjects were between 21 and 30 years old, who had undergone the procedure. The study included two people aged 60 or older.

The average age of initial exposure for persons who underwent more than one conversion therapy session was under twenty. The study also highlighted the influence of religiosity on conversion therapy practices.

“The strictly conformist framework of Indian society and the social stigma associated with gender and sexual minorities,” the study suggested, could account for the prevalence of conversion therapy.

Addressing conversion therapy in India

According to Sreya, the lack of evidence on conversion therapy’s prevalence and consequences motivated her to do her research on the technique.

“We could not find a study in the Indian context, though we had heard of cases of the LGBTQIA+ community being subjected to conversion therapy,” according to her.

“Seventeen per cent of Indians do not identify as heterosexual, according to a poll by Ipsos (2021). Our study’s participants could use social media and benefit from support groups. The actual number of people undergoing conversion therapy might be significantly higher,” Sreya speculated.

Although there is no outright ban on conversion therapy in Kerala, the welfare organisation Queerala has petitioned the High Court to do away with the practice and establish standards for the treatment of LGBTQ individuals.

To put an end to conversion therapy, the High Court in December 2021, urged the Kerala government to enact regulations.

In another case, a lesbian woman was compelled to undergo conversion therapy, but the Supreme Court suspended the High Court’s ruling in early February. A notice of disciplinary action has been issued against conversion therapy attempts in Tamil Nadu.

Participants revealed that doctors, psychiatrists, and religious leaders were the most common practitioners of conversion therapy. A large number of medical professionals are involved, as we discovered.

Sreya stated that specialists performed at least 30% of the procedures. It is not uncommon for mental health experts to often advocate for conversion therapy among LGBT individuals.

According to the research, psychotherapy was the most often used form of conversion therapy.

Impacts and Implications

The global prevalence report on conversion therapy categorizes various approaches to SOCE as medical, faith-based, psychological, or punishment-based (Adamson et al., 2020).

The research also documented alternative forms of SOCE, including coercing oneself into heterosexual interests, prayer, medication, surgery, and hormone therapy. Despite frequent coercion by family members, our study found that 47.5% of cases are self-initiated.

“There is a lot of internalised stigma from societal and familial pressures,” said Sreya. Intense religious devotion also seems to trigger such treatments.

The research examined the psychological impacts of conversion therapy on LGBT people, revealing that 39% experienced severe discomfort and over 25% experienced severe distress.

Nevertheless, the study failed to establish a definitive correlation between a history of conversion therapy and symptoms of anxiety or depression due to the limited sample size.

While wishes of death and self-harm were more prevalent among those who underwent the therapy, the difference was not statistically significant, says the study.

The study emphasizes the need for legislative action. In addition to offering resources to individuals who have survived conversion therapy, it recommended the incorporation of Queer Affirmative Clinical Practice into medical school curricula.

Collaboration among community members and professionals is also urged to support survivors of conversion therapy.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)