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Prayer, punishment or therapy? Being a homosexual in India

By Vinay Chandran

Why is medicine so obsessed with 'curing' homosexuality? Why is the homosexual such a threat to society? Why is the homosexual limited to choices between prayer, punishment or therapy?

You can’t be a homosexual in India

In India, a self-identified homosexual gets used to being judged and condemned through three morality-tinted glasses: religion, law and medicine. Religion demands, law pronounces and medicine reinforces guilt. Homosexuals have faced discrimination for a long time, both as illegal citizens in India (criminalised through the archaic Section 377 introduced under British rule) and from oppressive religious beliefs that deny their right to exist. Medicine, that considers homosexuality to be a mental illness, assures millions of homosexuals that they can be cured by simple behaviour therapy. But what it really does is produce more individuals with shattered self-esteems and low self-confidence. A vicious cycle of dependence is thus created with medical practitioners asserting that homosexuals are actually individuals with low self-esteem, or worse.
This article seeks to explore a few questions around homosexuality: Why is medicine so obsessed with ‘curing’ homosexuality? Why is the homosexual such a threat to society? If life for the homosexual is limited to choices between prayer, punishment or therapy, where’s all the good stuff?

Therapy? What therapy?

The homosexual movement that emerged in the West in the mid-20th century challenged traditional notions of sexual desire. Backed by extensive studies like those of Alfred Kinsey and Havelock Ellis, the movement initially used the soft approach in attempting to ‘mainstream’ homosexual concerns. When oppression and violations persisted, the movement adopted a proactive stance, challenging the attitudes of those in authority. The period during the riots that erupted in New York in the late-1960s, after police raids on the Stonewall Inn (a gay bar), is still remembered as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the West. Patrons of the bar resisted arrest and humiliation by the police. The aggressive stance that homosexual rights activists adopted demanded a change in attitudes and brought world attention to the rights violations that the community faced. Apart from changes in legal and social attitudes, the movement sought to wrest control from psychiatry, by demanding that homosexuality be deleted from the list of diseases that needed cure. Having achieved this in 1973 in America, the movement gradually took on debates around gay marriage, adoption rights and other issues. Currently, therapy and cures for homosexuality find major backing largely from religious groups alone.

In India however, the homosexual movement is still very young. While social attitudes are slowly changing and the anti-sodomy law is being challenged, mental health professionals in many places still offer therapy to homosexuals. The therapy offered goes by names like ‘aversion therapy’ or ‘conversion therapy’ -- all part of behavioural therapy. These therapies are given to homosexuals who are ostensibly not happy with their own sexual identity. This distress over one’s identity is called ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality’ within the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10, World Health Organisation), which is the one referred to largely by Indian medical professionals.

In aversion therapy for homosexuality, the ‘patient’ is shown same-sex nude images. When the patient feels aroused at the images, an electric shock is administered through electrodes attached to the wrist. Then, the patient is shown nude images of the ‘desired’ gender. No shock is administered at this time. The objective of the therapy is fairly simple: to help the ‘patient’ associate same-sex desire with pain. The therapist hopes that the person will eventually associate pleasure with cross-gender attraction and thereby become ‘normal’.

Other therapies co-exist with behaviour therapy. Due to the belief that homosexuality is often seen alongside schizophrenia, many homosexuals speak of being provided psychiatric drugs used routinely to treat schizophrenia or epilepsy in order to ‘cure’ their homosexual desires. Male homosexuals who are effeminate have spoken of being given hormone injections or medication to increase their ‘masculine’ behaviour. Religious therapy, where prayer and faith alone are used to ‘convert’ homosexuals, also finds several takers. All these therapies see homosexuality as something to be changed; an aberration to be treated, not a desire to be encouraged.

The origin of therapies

The move to control or alter human sexual desire is not a recent phenomenon. The realm of sexual desire has been tightly controlled by a series of self-titled authorities for centuries. While religion and law compete with each other every year to reach newer and more sophisticated levels of moral control, medicine has a more complicated history. Beginning with Richard Krafft-Ebbing’s classification of various sexual desires as perversions and diseases (Psychopathia Sexualis, 1894) and Sigmund Freud’s more ambivalent attitude, sexologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals have vacillated between condemning homosexuality as a disease and calling homosexual desire normal. However, Sandor Rado and Bieber, in the early 20th century, took a more vehement stance against homosexuality, believing it to be caused by pathogenic families, or as a result of phobic responses to heterosexuality. They believed that homosexuals could be treated and cured of their ‘condition’. Then followed decades of experimentation, which included transplanting testicular tissue from heterosexual men into homosexual men (who had been castrated); hypothalamatomies, where the hypothalamus or parts of it was surgically removed; and hormone treatments, since homosexuals were considered to be either inadequately masculine or overly masculine. Of course, none of these therapies were successful and resulted in individuals whose sense of self-value was completely destroyed.

But it was physiologist Pavlov’s experiment on ‘classical conditioning’ that was the source for behaviour therapy that gained popularity and a hegemonic status in the 20th century. We’ve all read about Pavlov’s dog, which salivated when a bell rang though no food was provided, after being conditioned to that response by repeated exposure to food while a bell was rung. Psychiatrists and counsellors used this in order to make homosexuals reduce homosexual desire and increase heterosexual desire. No one has yet asked the question: if homosexuality is constructed as a deep psychic process involving pathogenic families or phobic responses to heterosexuality, how does a therapy that addresses only the behaviour of the homosexual succeed in changing orientation?

My sex is better than your sex

A simple examination of behavioural therapy to cure homosexuality shows that it revolves around one fundamentally uncontested assumption: the normality of heterosexual desire. Heterosexual desire is seen as being the object of all sexual development. Every child is expected to grow up to become heterosexual. Any deviation from this norm meets with severe disapproval, punishment or therapy. Every system in society struggles to enforce this norm. The religious origins of these assumptions are fairly obvious, as is the enshrinement of these religious beliefs within law. But for medicine or science to claim to have scientific proof for the possibility of treatment and cure of homosexuality is simply hypocrisy. To study homosexual desire with heterosexuality as the frame-of-reference and then find homosexuality abnormal is not a scientific conclusion, it is wanton disregard of the truth about homosexual lives. This belief is simply heterosexism in practice.

Heterosexist morals, heterosexual cultures

This pathologisation of homosexuality by considering heterosexuality normal has led to numerous problematic responses from the medical sector in India. A short study on the medicalisation of homosexuality conducted in Bangalore (see reference) with various mental health professionals (including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, sexologists and lay counsellors) recorded several such responses. From setting forth origins and consequences of homosexuality to moralising about sexual relationships, many mental health professionals in India speak from very conservative positions. When these practitioners, restating public opinion, describe homosexuality as immoral and unnatural, it betrays their connections with religion that has coloured their personal opinion. Believing that there is a natural process of sexual development, preordained by a higher force (whether God or Nature) that should be enforced, conflicts with an essential need for medical objectivity. No counsellor who believes that homosexuality is unnatural can truly be of any help to a homosexual client in distress –– objectivity here is relegated to farce. The other major opinion within the medical sector and in society is that oft-repeated sentiment that homosexuality is a purely ‘Western’ import that neither exists nor belongs in ‘Indian culture’. Considering that the legal and moral controls on homosexuality that exist in India were put in place, not by the Indian government but by the British rulers in the 18th century, the opinion only betrays an ignorance of Indian culture.

When homosexuals visit mental health professionals bearing the burden of a society that refuses to acknowledge their desires, their distress is not settled with reassurance and empathy. Instead there is a reaffirmation of social morals from the counsellors. One response by a Bangalore-based psychiatrist represents the attitude that most counsellors display in such a setting. When asked why a cure for homosexuality was being offered, he responded that it was not his job to tell his patient that it was okay to be gay and that therefore a homosexual who came to him in distress over his identity obviously needed his help. There is no examination of the cause of that distress. If social values oppress the homosexual, why should the homosexual be the one to change and adapt to society? Why can’t the oppressive values of society be changed? Such clinical responses actively contribute to degrading the status of a homosexual in society.

Until we educate ourselves to understand the benign possibilities of sexual desire, the heterosexist aspects of religion, law and medicine are not going to give up. The skewed constructs of morality, legality and normality continue to operate in our daily life, and need to be challenged.

In the last few years, however, science has shifted its focus. Instead of attempting to redefine and understand the history of the word ‘normal’, it attempts to read the origins of homosexuality in our genes, throwing up a whole new twist and struggle within the gay rights movement.

The hunt for the gay gene

The discourse around origins of homosexuality is as old as the phobia against it. Mental health professionals have put forth an astonishing amount of theories for the ‘cause’ of homosexuality, never looking at the possibility of whether this also applied to heterosexuality. The most striking theories come from a couple of psychiatrists in the study quoted above. These professionals mentioned that there were possibilities of discovering which gene in the human DNA sequence determined sexual preference. Once this is discovered, by scientific means much like the suppression of other genetic flaws, this ‘gay gene’ too could be suppressed. This theory naturally raises arguments of whether we can find a genetic predisposition to the kind of person we will be attracted to. But the dangers of such a theory are easily foreseen. We can imagine a future where the creation of the ideal man or woman includes the suppression of ‘socially unwanted’ desires, reminiscent of so much sci-fi literature. Holocaust, anyone?

So where does that leave us?

The gay rights movement that originated in the West with a rebellion against oppression by the police, state and society has yet to accomplish much of the same in India. Violence against homosexuals and hijras has been recorded through various human rights documents that advocate a sea-change in the attitudes of law and law-enforcers. Is it all gloom and doom, though? Admittedly, the movement has taken many steps forward, and there is hope in the way mental health professionals have been reacting. Many professionals proactively get updated on advances in the world on gay and lesbian rights and know both the futility and danger that aversion therapy can bring to homosexuals. They advocate, alongside rights activists, the removal of homosexuality as pathology from mental health.

In addition, homosexual support groups have emerged as part of the larger movement, offering safe spaces for men, women and others to become comfortable with their identities. Rather than pathologising their lives, support groups offer homosexuals a space to express thoughts and feelings without making them feel like they need to change. This is where the good stuff is; it is really from these spaces that homosexuals can draw hope. It is time we abolished the prayer, punishment and therapy framework for all things sexual. It hasn’t worked before, and it never will.

(Vinay Chandran is Executive Director of Swabhava Trust, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation in Bangalore. He works with concerns around sexualities, masculinities, sexual health and HIV/AIDS, dividing time between counselling on Sahaya (a telephone helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and others), research, training workshops, documentation and other projects. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Narrain, Arvind and Vinay Chandran (2003), It’s not my job to tell you, it’s okay to be gay: Medicalisation of Homosexuality: A research report, supported by Sarai, New Delhi
Bayer, Ronald (1981), Homosexuality and American Psychiatry, Basic Books, New York

InfoChange News & Features, February 2006