Vinay Chandran: No need for treatment
A year after re-criminalization, mental health emerges as an important concern for LGBT youth
As a peer counsellor on Sahaya, a phone helpline that provides counselling for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other gender and sexual identities (LGBT), I often come across cases of clients who have been blackmailed. One such incident involved AB, a 21-year old engineering student who went on a date with another gay man.
In the hotel room the two had rented, AB came out of the shower and found that his companion had left after stealing his bag. AB said his shock at the theft was greater because he had lost a laptop that was on loan from his college. Although fearful of the repercussions, he went to the police to register a complaint. The officer on duty took down the details and asked AB to return two days later.
When he went back, the officer told him they had found the laptop. But rather than hand it over, the officer said he knew what AB had been up to in the hotel room with the other man. Threatening to arrest him, the officer demanded Rs.25,000, AB told me. He feared that his parents would find out about his sexuality and that his college would expel him. AB required serious psychosocial support.
This case represents what happens to several LGBT people who approach the police around the country. Emboldened by a law like Section 377, policemen can easily take on the role of extortionists themselves.
Over the 14 years that I have been a counsellor, I’ve seen increasing incidents of violence against, and extortion from, LGBT people. Reports, such as those published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties—Karnataka, provide details of the harassment faced by transgender communities.
My work with counselling clients often involves convincing them that although the law exists, it criminalizes all sexual acts that are not penile-vaginal and, therefore, a majority of society—not just LGBT people—would fall under the purview of this law. But considering that this particular section is abused by both, extortionists and the police, with threats of disclosure, prosecution and blackmail, there is little hope in hiding behind the technicality of the law.
Most of us had no hope that we would see Section 377 challenged in our lifetime. In 2009, the Delhi high court read down the law to not apply to consenting adults. Suddenly, it felt like freedom for the entire LGBT community. Four years of enthusiasm ensued. The public learnt that the change in law did not dismantle the family unit or lead to a breakdown in society. I saw many young LGBT people come out to family, friends, workplace colleagues, college faculty and so on. The empowerment appeared infectious.
Then, in December 2013, the Supreme Court declared that the LGBT population was a minuscule minority with “so-called rights” and there was no evidence of the supposed prosecution or persecution, thus the law could not be read down. Additionally, it retained the technicality that the law applied to all people alike, LGBT or not.
The months that followed have made it clear that the fears of LGBT people were not unfounded. Arrests have been made under Section 377, and personal details have been thrown open to the public. This has only increased anxiety and driven many underground. The most recent incident occurred in Bengaluru, when a tabloid broke the news that a woman had secretly filmed her homosexual husband having sex with a man in their home. The newspaper revealed the name of the man’s company.
I have seen cases of depression among LGBTs due to their fear of being outed at the workplace and rejected by their families. Recently, the father of XY, a young gay man, asked me to “cure” his son; he was worried about what his relatives would think. I counselled him that XY’s homosexuality was not a disease. I suggested that the father accept his son’s sexuality, but the father appeared heart-broken. In another case in April, OP, who has had repeated arguments with her parents about her sexual and gender identity, faced a new threat from them. OP’s father mixed a herbal concoction in her food that he believed would “cure” her. OP fell violently ill.
There are medical practitioners in India who still believe that homosexuality is treatable, and that the person can be “converted” to bisexuality to ensure marriage. This, despite the fact that both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) followed by mental health practitioners globally, don’t approve of “treatments” for homosexuality. There are also medical practitioners who treat the transgender community with contempt, even though the Supreme Court has recognized transgenders as a third gender.
However, there is hope. Indian mental health institutions that had earlier been vague or quiet about sexual and gender identity defended the community after the December verdict. An editorial in the Indian Journal Of Psychiatry (IJP) in January did not mince words: “The Supreme Court judgment, which upheld Section 377, is value-laden and seemingly allowed personal ideological views to determine the interpretation of statutory law. The ruling has disregarded the constitutional vision of an equal and inclusive society and has violated the fundamental tenets of India’s Constitution.” The editorial also stated that “psychiatric, psychoanalytic, medical and mental health professionals now consider homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality.” (The Reversal Of Gay Rights In India, IJP).
In February, the Indian Psychiatric Society released a statement on its website, stating, “Based on existing scientific evidence and good practice guidelines from the field of psychiatry, Indian Psychiatric Society would like to state that there is no evidence to substantiate the belief that homosexuality is a mental illness or a disease.”
These responses from leading mental health practitioners indicate a huge shift in attitudes towards LGBT people.
My own affidavit, attached to the review petition against Section 377 in the Supreme Court, detailed how the sudden reversal is not only detrimental to the rights of our communities, but also wreaks havoc on the mental health of its members. I wrote about KL, a 29-year-old gay man who told me that when his parents watched the news about the Supreme Court decision, his mother told him she hoped that no mother ever had a child like him. Having been close to his parents in childhood, this sudden disgust shook KL emotionally. The stress from these confrontations depressed him and he was forced to leave home. His anxiety and conflicts with his family remain.
There is no easy way to treat the fear of persecution, anxiety and other mental health concerns of LGBT people in a context where the law and socio-political environment are hostile. My goal as a counsellor is to ensure that my clients are comfortable with their gender or sexual identity and build their own support system of friends, community and family members. Unless more and more LGBT people are comfortable with their own identities and come out, legal or political change is unlikely.
Vinay Chandran is a counsellor and executive director of the Bengaluru-based Swabhava Trust, a non-governmental organization working with sexual and gender minorities.
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