One late morning in September 2018, Div, a 17-year-old, queer transfem person, accompanied her parents to a temple on the outskirts of Pune city in Maharashtra, to be “fixed”.
What happened there left her scarred for life.
Div’s parents had already been trying to change her: for the preceding three months, Div had been taking sessions with a Hindu baba who sought to convert her gender identity. Assigned male at birth, Div realised early in childhood that she did not fit into the constraints of the gender binary. At school, she was heavily bullied by both teachers and fellow students. “I was too masc to play with the girls and too fem to be friends with the boys,” she said on video call.
That morning in September, Div, along with her parents, the baba and a few other men climbed up a hill near the temple. Once there, the baba made Div sit inside a circle, on the circumference of which the men poured out petrol. Div’s parents stood nearby, watching. The men set the ring on fire.
Next, one man set fire to a large pumpkin and placed the burning vegetable on top of Div’s head. Then, with a sword, he swiftly sliced the pumpkin vertically in half, with one stroke. “I was scared for my life,” she recalled thinking to herself. “Am I getting burnt to death? Are my parents sacrificing me to god?”
The blade was very sharp, and Div felt a sharp pain as it struck her scalp slightly. Some blood oozed out from the wound, and a tuft of hair was cut off.
But she did not cry. Instead, she pretended that the grotesque ritual had worked on her, and that she had been cured. She jumped out of the circle, even as the fire burned on. Then, Div proceeded to leave the hilltop calmly. She had sensed that if she created a ruckus, she would be made to remain in the temple complex. “I was grateful I did not die,” Div said. “I thought I was getting murdered.”
Div had had misgivings about the baba for some time. In sessions with the baba before the temple incident, he instructed her to wear lockets and bracelets, and gave her powders to put in her food, which would leave her feeling tired. From the start, Div said, the baba’s physical contact made her uncomfortable.
“It was disgusting to be around him,” she said. “He was very weird in a sexual way.” But Div never said anything about it to others because she didn’t think they would believe her.
A few months after the hilltop incident, the baba was accused of sexual harassment and revealed to be a dhongi – an impostor. Following this, Div’s parents stopped making her take further sessions with him.
But Div had already suffered immense trauma. About a month after the incident Div attempted to take her life by consuming her sister’s sleeping pills – she was rushed to the hospital just in time and survived.
The horrifying ritual that the baba performed on Div falls under the umbrella term of conversion therapy, or conversion treatment. Eight years after a Supreme Court judgment, known as the NALSA judgement, legally recognised trans persons as being of a third gender, and four years after a part of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was repealed, effectively decriminalising homosexuality, such practices continue to be widespread across the country.
Queer activists and mental health practitioners are averse to legitimising conversion practices by referring to them as therapy or treatment, and instead prefer the term Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Change Efforts. They hold that such practices, which pathologise gender identities and sexual orientations, are unscientific in nature and intent and are rooted in homophobia and transphobia.
While there is no specific research looking at the prevalence of conversion practices in the country, Dr Shruti Chakravarty, chief advisor at the mental-healthcare funding and advocacy agency Mariwala Health Initiative, noted that oral testimonies, and discussions within the queer community and with mental health practitioners indicate that they occur at a high frequency.
“I would say about 80% of queer persons undergo it, depending on what you think is conversion practice,” said Chakravarty, who also leads the queer affirmative counselling practice at the initiative.
She explained that alongside medical and therapeutic practices, there also exist “socially driven conversion practices”, such as “forced heterosexual marriages and forcing trans persons to wear clothes of the gender that they were assigned.” Other extreme practices, as listed in a 2020 report by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, include corrective rapes and electroconvulsive shocks.
Further, the report categorically states that conversion treatment by its very nature is “degrading, inhuman and cruel and creates a significant risk of torture”, and that it “provokes profound psychological and physical damage in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender-diverse persons.”
PhD researcher Rianna Price, who is studying the history of psychiatric discourse on the “treatment” of homosexuality in India, notes that conversion efforts first emerged from aversion techniques used by psychiatrists to treat addictive behaviours – whenever a patient indulged in undesirable behaviour, they were subjected to stimuli that would cause discomfort.
In a prominent instance of this so-called treatment, from 1977, the Department of Psychiatry at AIIMS conducted an experiment on six queer persons to “sexually reorient” them using aversion therapy. The six participants were administered electric shocks as they were asked to “activate sexual feelings”, while being shown attractive photos of people of their gender. They were also made to listen to their favourite music that had “sexual-emotional” content, while they were shown photos of the opposite gender, in a bid to reinforce feelings of sexual attraction. In 1983, this study was published as a successful experiment in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
Over the years, however, there have been some shifts in the official position on homosexuality.
In 2014, for instance, after the Indian Psychiatric Society’s former president Dr Indira Sharma made controversial statements about queer people, arguing that they make people uncomfortable by bringing their “talk of sex to the roads”, the society issued a statement declaring that homosexuality was not a mental illness or disease. Chakravarty recalled that the 2018 reading down of section 377 also created a buzz in mental health circles and prompted an uptick in the provision of queer friendly therapy to queer persons.
But she emphasised that this did not mean that mental health services had decisively moved away from conversion practices. “Even today, it’s far easier to find someone who’s willing to change a person’s sexuality than someone who’s willing to say it’s natural and normal,” she said.
In February this year, the Indian Psychiatric Society started an inquiry against its member and popular psychiatrist, Dr Deepak Kelkar, who has over 1 million YouTube followers, and who claimed in some of his videos that homosexuality was a disease that could be cured by therapy.
The fallout of such views is that conversion efforts continue to be inflicted on queer people across the country.
In a recent instance, from 2020, a bisexual 21-year-old student named Anjana Harish, from Kerala’s Kannur district, was subjected to conversion therapy at a mental health facility. Harish died by suicide in May that year, sparking a furor across the country.
In response, several mental health groups issued official statements denouncing conversion therapy and calling for an end to the practice.A petition initiated by the counsellors working at the Mariwala Health Initiative stated, “All bodies, genders and sexualities are normal. There is nothing to cure or treat.” To date, it has received over 1,900 signatures
After the incident with the baba, Div recounted, she fell into a deep depression. “I just stopped showing emotions, I stopped talking to everybody,” said Div, who uses the pronouns she and they. This led her family to seek more support.
The first psychiatrist Div met at this point pretended that Div’s sexuality didn’t exist. “He told me it’s all in your brain,” said Div, speaking with long pauses. “You’ve just been on your phone too much. You are in Western culture, and we are not Western.”
The idea that people who are LGBTQIA+ are so because of Western influence is a prevalent myth. But Dr Ketki Ranade, who prefers being called KP, a faculty member at the Centre for Health and Mental Health at TISS, Mumbai, noted that there was historical writing from ancient Indian texts that captured the presence of “fluid genders and sexual attraction across all genders including same genders”.
As Ruth Vanita writes in the preface to the book Same-Sex Love in India, which traces a literary history of homosexuality and gender diversity in pre-colonial India, “Our study suggests that at most times and places in pre-nineteenth-century India, love between women and between men, even when disapproved of, was not actively persecuted. As far as we know, no one has ever been executed for homosexuality in India.”
These writings, KP said, “suggest that Indian culture was actually quite sexually permissive. It was the influence of the British colonial rule that sought to regulate and moralise sexual conduct to the extent of criminalising same-sex sexuality.” They added that this “made homosexuality and being trans, or trans expression, a taboo. So, it’s actually Western influence that has made us more repressed.”
The next psychiatrist that Div saw put her on heavy medication, prescribing seven or eight pills a day, which numbed her entirely, and left her with no energy.
“I was like a living dead body, I didn’t laugh,” she said. “I was scared they could take me anywhere they wanted, and I wouldn’t even be able to lift up my phone and call someone for help.”
The psychiatrist also suggested that Div stay for some time at a mental health institution. “She told me that if I stayed tied up every day for six months, I would be fixed, because I wouldn’t have access to the internet,” said Div.
The third psychiatrist was more accepting, but still not quite helpful. She repeatedly told Div, “It’s okay to be you.” Div said that this was unhelpful, and that what she needed was someone to support her through her trials. This psychiatrist also made Div continue the numbing medication for a year.
Div’s experience underscores an important concern of activists – it is not enough for therapists to be queer friendly; they need to be affirmative. That is, they need to be cognisant of the specific kinds of oppression and marginalisation that queer communities face, and work with clients to address those problems. This view arises from the theory that marginalised people face unique stressors in their lives, which the American psychiatric epidemiologist Ilan Meyer termed “minority stress”. In the case of queer persons they comprise “experiences of prejudice, expectations of rejection, hiding, concealing, internalized homophobia and ameliorative coping processes”, according to Meyer.
As a resource book on Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice published by the Mariwala Health Initiative notes that among other requirements, affirmative therapists must work to “deconstruct the influence of heterosexism and cisgenderism” in therapeutic practice and in the lives of their queer clients, educate themselves about protocols in working with queer clients and be “self-reflexive” about their own beliefs and practice.
Div said she initially agreed to conversion efforts because she wanted to be “fixed”. Mental health practitioners are often asked about the possibility of such situations, in which queer people say they want to become heterosexual or cisgender. In such instances, KP said, it is important for the therapist to ask what might drive a person to harbour such a desire. “The answer is all the impediments they face in being themselves, which can be worked upon in a therapeutic context and in real life,” said KP. “We need to find the obstacles in people’s life that prevent them from being who they are and remove them.”
After four years of struggle, Div eventually found a queer affirmative therapist, who was recommended by her friend. “She is helping me grow into a person who younger me would be proud of,” she said. “She helps me be okay with my identity and sexuality. Day by day I see that I’m healing from my trauma.”
Not every queer person undergoes experiences as physically harrowing as Div’s. But many have to fight other kinds of efforts to change them, typically different forms of coercion from their families and mental health practitioners.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mani from Mumbai, who identifies as a man, was assigned female at birth. He first came out in 2014. While school went by without much incident for him, he recounted that he faced extreme harassment and transphobia in his college, which affected his studies. At home, his father grew distant from him, unable to accept Mani’s true gender identity. Soon after Mani finished college, he had a heated discussion with his mother about his gender identity and left his parents’ home for one-and-a-half years. He returned home only after his mother apologised and said that she didn’t want to lose touch with her only child.
Mani remains close to his mother. But over the years, she too has tried desperately to persuade him to seek “help”. Mani faced conversion efforts not only when he met counsellors of his mother’s choice, but also when he sought counseling of his own volition.
I met Mani at the end of July at a café near his workplace. Despite the troubles he has had to navigate, he remains cheerful and easygoing, and has found significant professional success.
Over tea, he recounted the first of his experiences with attempted conversion. Struggling with his gender identity in college, he approached a counsellor that a friend had recommended.
The questions that the counsellor asked Mani made him very uncomfortable. She asked him to close his eyes and said, “Imagine you’re in Goa and...tell me a nice colour for a bikini?”
Mani replied, “Red.” The counsellor continued, “A girl in a red bikini in Goa is walking out of a pool or beach toward you. What would be your reaction?”
Mani imagined the situation and then replied naturally, “Nothing. I guess I would appreciate her and then forget about it.” The counsellor was not satisfied and proceeded to repeatedly ask him the same question.
Finally, Mani lost his temper, “Do you want me to say I’ll jump or pounce on the girl?” he asked the counsellor.
He had judged her accurately. The counsellor replied that if Mani was male, he would “go into a lust zone and not just stop at looking at her”, Mani recounted. Therefore, the counsellor said, “I feel you’re not that much of a guy.”
This was Mani’s first ever experience seeking mental health support, one that left him thoroughly confused. While he laughed as he narrated the incident to me, at the time, he said, it had intensified the gender dysphoria he was already dealing with.
Twenty-seven-old Yohann, a trans man from Mumbai, recounted facing a similar situation when he first sought help, from a renowned psychiatrist in the city.
As with the therapist Mani met, this one’s line of questioning also revealed stereotypical ways of thinking about gender roles, which were couched in the framework of therapy. When Yohann told the psychiatrist that he was a trans man and was dating a woman, the psychiatrist asked him if he thought the girl should depend on him for everything, and if he should provide for her entirely. Yohann replied in the negative to both answers.
She then asked, “Do you think it’s okay for her to work and earn her own money?” to which Yohann replied in the affirmative. It seemed to him that the therapist felt that his non-conventional responses raised questions about his gender identity. And indeed, after the questions, the therapist repeatedly told him that he was not a trans man and instead just liked “cross-dressing”.
Yohann was left feeling miserable – he not only stopped seeing the therapist, but also gave up on seeking all mental health support for some time.
A few years later, extreme suicidal feelings led him to another therapist who was more accepting of his identity, but despite this, repeatedly used female pronouns to refer to him. The therapist also insisted that he come out to his conservative father, because she thought he “deserved to know”.
“She didn’t consider the fact that I wasn’t and am still not ready to come out to my family for fear of abandonment and conversion therapy and also mental, emotional and physical harm,” said Yohann. “Both these experiences made me lose faith in the mental health care system, until I found out about queer affirmative therapy.”
Yohann finally approached Guftagu Counselling and Psychotherapy Services, which he learnt about from a fellow trans man who worked there, and which offered queer affirmative therapy. The therapy has made a huge difference to his life. “It made me feel like I’m not wrong for being queer, and that I also deserve to live a happy and normal life just like any other person,” he said. “It has really helped with my confidence and mental health.”
But often, even after queer people find mental health practitioners that are supportive, their families continue to try and manipulate them. During the lockdown in 2020, Mani’s mother attended a one-month introductory online course on general counselling to be able to counsel Mani. When the lockdown was lifted, she took Mani to meet her teacher for a counselling session. They ended up speaking for two hours, and by the time they walked out, and Mani’s mother came up to meet them, the two had developed a friendly equation.
The teacher asked Mani’s mother, “He is a good man, why do you want to change him?” This pleased Mani, even as he saw his mother start to sulk.
A few days later, he realised the teacher had “played a double game”. His mother explained that the teacher had privately told her that it might have been possible to change Mani when he was younger, at the age of 12 or 13. But after the age of 25, the teacher said, it was difficult to convert people because they would simply refuse to listen to others. Mani’s mother then scolded him saying, “It’s your fault that you didn’t tell us and now we’re unable to change you.”
Reflecting on the experience, Mani said, “It was his strategy to make me feel like he’s on my side, and then maybe try to change me again.” Mani did not meet the teacher again.
Eventually, Mani saw a queer affirmative therapist for a few months, an experience he found helpful. His primary concern is to get his mother to accept him as he is – he lives with her, and is attached to her, but also finds the experience suffocating. The therapist “made me feel okay about choosing myself over other people, even my mom,” he said.
Mani wants to medically transition and take masculinising hormone therapy. At one point, he realised it would be beneficial for his mother to see a queer affirmative therapist, but when he brought it up with her, she refused outright.
“Families of birth are often homonegative or transnegative and a site of a lot of violence,” explained Jagruti Wandrekar, psychologist and co-founder of the queer therapy group SAAHAS. “Using queer affirmative approaches helps people unlearn a lot of guilt that they internalise.” She added, “We prepare them for dealing with a lot of frustration and resentment they face and building a family of choice” – a common term used in queer culture to refer to a group of supportive people that an individual might surround themselves with as their family, as opposed to families of origin, who are often not accepting of a person’s queer identity.
Sometimes, parents of young queer people coerce them into some forms of conversion treatment even if they haven’t come out.
Twenty-three-year-old activist Rishi, who lives in Pune and identifies as a nonbinary trans person, recounted that one evening when she was 15 years old, her parents told her, “We’re having a lot of fights at home, let’s go see a counsellor.” They took Rishi to a private hospital, where she met with a psychiatrist.
Over a video call with Scroll.in, Rishi recounted that she told the psychiatrist that she was queer and requested him to keep her gender identity and sexual orientation a secret, worrying that she would be thrown out of the house. The psychiatrist agreed and suggested that they tell Rishi’s parents that her testosterone levels were low, and that that was the reason she behaved in a conventionally feminine manner.
After some hesitation, Rishi decided to go along with the story. And so, they returned to Rishi’s parents – the psychiatrist recommended that Rishi join a gym, saying her “testosterone levels will rise, and after six months or so, things should be fine”, Rishi recounted.
Privately, the psychiatrist also suggested to Rishi that she join a dance class if she “wanted to express herself”. This upset Rishi, who felt he was stereotyping her. Eventually, she joined the gym for a few months, but did not take a testosterone test. When she left the gym after the six months, her parents repeatedly asked her to return – but Rishi refused.
A few years later, Rishi’s parents redoubled their efforts to “treat” her. In 2017, she was taken to see Nawnath Gaikwad, a hypnotist and counsellor in Pune. At first, she recalled, he told her, “I can help you do better in life, in your career and studies.” By now, Rishi had a supportive community and was also engaged in activism, so she replied, “I’m comfortable with who I am, I don’t need to be changed.”
Rishi recounted that Gaikwad then said, “But I have helped people change their gender and sexuality,” and that he claimed he could hypnotise her so that “it’ll become a part of you, so that you can have a normal life.”
Gaikwad did attempt to hypnotise her, asking her to close her eyes and focus on his voice. But Rishi refused to submit to the process, remaining focused on her own inner voice. She spent an hour and a half at the office and left unaffected – her parents paid Rs 6,000 for the session. Believing he could still help her, the hypnotist asked her to return, but Rishi never did.
Apart from struggles in heteronormative spaces, Rishi also had to fight marginalisation within queer spaces because of her identity as a Dalit. “Very few people talk about caste in queer spaces, and when they do, they are uncomfortable about it,” Rishi said.
Rishi described profiles she had seen on queer dating platforms that were explicitly bigoted. Among the preferences that she had seen people express, she said, were “no Dalits, or lower castes, I want upper castes only”.
Div recounted facing physical violence because of their caste location. The childhood incident that most haunts her today is of being beaten up by her principal in class for forgetting to carry her drawing book. This occurred, she said, because of both her gender and caste identity. “There were other students who had also forgotten their books, but one was Maratha, and the other was Brahmin, so they were not touched,” Div said. “The only person who got kicked was me: a Dalit and queer person.”
Recognising multiple marginal identities is a crucial part of queer affirmative therapy. “As therapists we have to recognise people’s caste, religion, and other identities in our work, simply because there is another layer of oppression they face because of it,” explained Wandrekar.
While conversion efforts remain prevalent across the country, there are some reasons to hope that they may eventually cease. Most recently, in August, the National Medical Commission announced that in compliance with directions issued by the Madras High Court earlier this year, it was declaring conversion therapy “professional misconduct”.
The court’s directions arose in a case that pertained to an incident from February 2021, when a lesbian couple from Madurai, whose parents opposed their relationship, escaped their homes, and fled to Chennai. There they received support from the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, an NGO, and the larger queer community of the city.
The couple approached the Madras High Court, seeking protection from their parents, who had filed missing persons complaints about them, as well as from the police, who had interrogated them at their new residence.
In an unprecedented move, Justice N Anand Venkatesh not only referred the petitioners and the respondents to queer affirmative therapy, but also underwent counselling himself.
In his order, the judge reasoned that, like most of Indian society, he was “not fully ‘woke’” when it came to understanding the LGBTQIA+ community. And so, he sought to conduct research and speak to members of the queer community to shed his own misapprehensions and deliver an order that arose “from the heart”.
The order, delivered in June 2021, noted that the case needed to be “be dealt with more sensitivity and empathy” and that it was telling of how society was still “grappling to come to terms with same-sex orientation”.
In the order, Venkatesh didn’t only confine himself to the petitioners who had moved the court – rather, he used the case as a means to address wider issues that pertained to the queer community.
The judge issued various directions to different state and Central bodies. For instance, he ordered the Home Department and the Ministry of Law in Tamil Nadu, the National Medical Commission, and the Central ministries of education and women and child development to conduct sensitisation and awareness programmes on queer issues with police and prison authorities in Tamil Nadu, as well as members of the state’s judiciary, physical and mental health professionals, parents of school going children and anganwadi workers.
The order also issued guidelines to the National Medical Commission, the Indian Psychiatric Society and the Rehabilitation Council of India to “prohibit any attempts to medically ‘cure’ or change the sexual orientation of LGBTIQA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender”, as well as to take action against any professionals who involved themselves “in any form or method of conversion ‘therapy’” – these actions could include withdrawing their licenses.
Venkatesh’s order emphasised the idea that society needed to adapt to queer people, rather than vice versa. Wandrekar noted that this was important, given that parents usually expected therapists to change their children. But queer affirmative practitioners often work with the parents to help them “process their feelings and connect them to resources such as support groups for parents of queer people,” she said.
In the Madurai case, the petitioners’ families had a difficult time accepting their daughters’ sexual orientation.
When Scroll.in contacted the two women through email, one of them responded, “Our families went to 2 to 3 counselling sessions, but they couldn’t understand us.” They firmly believed “that only family prestige is important,” she added. Nevertheless, the order was a vital one, she explained, one that helped “many of the LGBTQ people and couples to come out.”
According to KP, some of the education imparted by queer affirmative therapists can be used in other settings too. They said if educational efforts were undertaken with teachers, parents, the media, police and the judiciary, “then the demand for conversion treatment would go down”.
Such efforts are being undertaken slowly – though several challenges remain. KP mentioned that in October 2019, a teacher-training manual on the educational inclusion of trans and other gender-nonconforming persons was put up on the website of the National Council of Educational Research and Training. However, by November, it was pulled down after a complaint to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights from transphobic dissenters. Under the banner of a group of pro-bono lawyers called the Legal Rights Observatory, the complaint stated that the manual would “psychologically traumatise school students in the name of gender sensitisation”.
According to KP, this incident was “a classic case of moral panic and betrays deep rooted trans-prejudiced attitudes”. They added, “It is these very reactions of ‘don’t corrupt our children’ that lead to the exclusion of gender non-conforming children”. This, in turn, forms “fertile ground for parents, teachers and other adults to think that they need to seek cure for this ‘deviance’”.