By Mehak Walia
Artwork by @parambanana
*Trigger warning - suicide, abuse, trauma*
Even though Ahaan was born and brought up in Delhi, he had a hard time facing his family and finding his identity as a gay child, He recalled his childhood as a tear slipped down his eye. “I am constantly on a tight rope walk. Mental health in India is an extremely wet piece of clay and if you have been "inducted” into the school of two genders and come from a very conservative background. When I grew out my hair and wore ripped jeans, my parents just thought it was just a phase because of movies. Eventually, a close friend of mine who knew how I felt, got me my first eyeliner, which was my first milestone. My mother threw it out.
My brother then, walked in on me watching gay porn one day and that was the end. It started with being beaten, then, came the pleading followed by the word disgrace being used a lot. My parents forced me to pray to God for forgiveness and offer fasts. Add to that the self-flagellation I put myself through.” He explained with a deep and painful sigh.
Ahaan is one of a few people with who I had the opportunity to speak about the realities of growing up as part of the LGBTQI community in India and the unique cruelty of conversion therapy.
What is Conversion Therapy?
Conversion therapy also commonly known as ‘CT’ is 100% discredited “treatment” (read: social evil) that purports to change or undo the sexual orientation of an individual from the LGBTQIA community. These individuals are subjected to torturous, hyper-religious, harmful and discredited practices and treatments that force them to step back into the closet, repress their real identities and live a lie for the rest of their lives, out of pure fear.
Unfortunately, despite an abundance of scientific evidence to the contrary, this barbaric and painful practice continues to flourish in India. It haunts a lot of people to their core causing identity issues, depression and suicide rates to reach an all-time high.
In an era where people all around the world are coming out of the closets and establishments are struggling to create a safe space for individuals who identify themselves under the LGBTQIA+, these therapies are a constant reminder of the shame and prejudice associated with conforming to anything that doesn't suit the binary gender standard.
Once people are subjected to these traumatic experiences, they are scarred for life. Feelings of dread, rejection and pain have often been cited as leaving a permanent mark, causing many to either rush back into the closet and/or end up with addictions, depression and other chronic mental and physiological diseases or bite the bullet to an early grave. In the US, the UCLA Williams Institute estimated that LGB people who had undergone conversion therapy were 92% more likely to suffer from suicidal ideation, 75% more likely of planning to attempt suicide, and most tragically 88% more likely of having attempted suicide.
To make it worse, the industry is both unregulated and unrestrained - there isn’t just one type or form of conversion therapy. There are different ways that people from different backgrounds try to employ to ‘cure’ their children and save their family the ‘shame’ of being associated with someone from the community- no matter how this affects the person in question. From witchdoctors and exorcists, all the way to forced marriages, psychotropic drugs, shock treatment and corrective rapes; everything is still hiding in the deep, dark alleys of our country.
Ahaan’s experience was an eye-opening one for me - new to the world of conversion therapy, I hadn’t realized how prevalent his experience was, and unfortunately, how painfully representative I would find it in so many iterations of conversion therapy across the country. , “It did not stop there,” he went on to tell me, “the day my parents saw me talking to a boy that was openly gay, they walked me to that clinic and I had to do it, there was no option. I went there every week for a month, to begin with, and then slowly, every other day. It still gives me the chills. I was manipulated and taught how my gender was wrong, they were trying to convert me into a homophobic man by showing me tapes, using electrocution on me and hitting me- The wounds have healed but the scars are always fresh because it's my own family that did this to me. I had two options when my parents took me there,
"i could resist and fight for the approval of my identity or I could grow up without that piece of me. I chose the second one and moved out as soon as I could, getting secretly in touch with people who were similar even if it was over social media. Revisiting hurts but even through the pain, I have never felt more comfortable in my skin. But, it was a long and painful journey.”
Staring into the Void
Aanchal was born and brought up in Nashik, Maharashtra, she was always the apple of her parent's eyes till she finally wasn’t.
Recalling this time of her life, she took a deep breath and started, “I was well into my teenage and we girls were beginning to embrace the power that wearing skirts gave and the boys had started to tease. It was very innocent. I had a few friends over with the excuse of a project and I think my parents heard some of that. And, out of the blue, they changed my school. Now mind you, this was a school I had attended from the very beginning and my parents had known all my friends and their parents for a long time. Ironically, I was in an all-girls school now. That was probably the tipping point of my puberty.
Attraction and beauty were generalized towards pictures of sleek looking men. And here I was in 'like' with the other kind, completely unable to understand what the feelings meant. I met someone similar to me there for the first time in my life and we spent a great deal of time together. We even had our first kiss. It was so magical, I thought I could cry. But everyone was always talking about it as if a pair of boys or girls could never be a couple. I figured maybe that's a normal occurrence in a girl’s school and left it at that till, I felt like I couldn’t hide it anymore, it felt heavy you know? I decided to talk to my parents about it.”
She further added with a pained sigh, “Unfortunately, their reaction was in no way accepting, the next thing I know- they did a few prayer meetings at home I was meeting men and, being forced to tie the knot. It was a great big Indian wedding. My parents wanted everyone in their circle to know and by the end of it, half the city probably had heard anyway. What happened after the marriage was however another story. It wasn't how movies make it out to be. He wasn't dramatically abusive or ignorant or someone mean. He just couldn't ever fill this dull void inside of me that the girl from school had left. Eventually, it began to show, ergo the pressure of taking upon motherhood. I did my best to avoid it though. By then, everywhere I went, I was someone's wife. It took me a long time to l get out of the rut. There used to be a lesbian couple living in the neighbourhood. They used to introduce themselves as family, cousins or something. Gossip, the wildfire that it is, eventually reached me.
The first time we met and talked in private, they weren't that forthcoming but I think they knew and I tried hard to not cry in front of them. I managed to get back to the house and lock myself in to cry later that day. When I came out, I knew this wouldn't work anymore. My family's biggest question was- did anything go wrong? Because according to them, nothing did. I did everything in my power to get out of my old life as quickly as I could though. Got a job, moved to a different part of the city, started dating, proudly and admittedly wrote- would like to date women only on my profile. It's been years since I did that. I have since, moved out, got a job, and have a home. My parents know that they don't have control over me so they know they have to be nice to be a part of my life. And my partner and I are co-living for a while now and... It's not a fairy tale ending but to me, this is as perfect as a happily ever after.”
The Church of Suppression
Jennifer was born in Mumbai but brought up in Goa, a part of the country usually associated with progressiveness and “westernism.” Many perceive the predominantly Christian traditions of the community to lend itself well to accepting more progressive socio-cultural norms, however, in the case of conversion therapy and LGBT acceptance, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, statistics from the same UC Berkeley report cited earlier points out that in the US, “4 out of 5 people who received conversion therapy received it from a religious leader.” In the case of Jennifer, the religious community was far less about sanctuary and much more about misconstrued perceptions of “sin.”
She still remembers the day it all changed - “The thing about life is that you cannot ever tell how it’s going to twist and turn. I learned this pretty late because the twists were a total shock to me. I still remember walking to the beach and admiring how the hot summer sun was. The next thing I know, I see her. She was running around in the water with her friends and her laughter seemed like the most beautiful melody I’ve ever heard. For the first time in my life, I completely froze and felt complete. I couldn’t understand this feeling. I had no clue what this was.
I decided to just walk away and forget it until I couldn’t anymore. I was dreaming about her and hoping I could talk to her and maybe meet her. I was just 16 and this was very confusing to me. So, I decided to go back to the back in hopes of seeing her and well, to my luck, I saw her there. She was interning at a shack and I couldn’t help but walk up to her and just, confess everything. She was older than me so she flashes a kind smile and offers me some fries. She then had a conversation with me and helped me realise that I was into her because I might be into women, The word lesbian was used a few times and well, this caused me to go home and search more about the same and well, it just felt right. I went back the next day, took her to my favourite spot, told her how I felt and, just kissed her. It felt like my heart was complete, this feeling, I can never forget it. I cried so much after it and she was nice enough to hold me and be there for me. I hadn’t felt this way about anyone before and I used to tell my mother everything. We were very close. So, I went up to her and made the biggest mistake of my life. I confessed how I felt and watched my best friend turn into this heathen, right in front of my eyes.”
She paused and sniffled as she continued, “It’s still hard to talk about this, you know? My mother pulled me inside the house and banned me from going to the beach and seeing the only woman who had ever made me feel complete. She then locked the door of my room and called my father. Together, they decided that I was probably being manipulated by the girl at the beach- they ringed the church and called our family priest over to examine me, assess the situation and find an answer to this ‘problem’. He decided that I needed to invite God into my life again to wash off this sin. My parents agreed and I was baptized the very next day and then again, the day after that and also the day after that, I was forced to attend all the prayers and was pushed into the holy water again and again till I jumped back into the closet and stopped talking about the woman I met.
This kept happening till I turned 18 and walked out on them, I made the decision to leave and live my life like I wanted to. I started working, moved to Pune and started dating. I met my partner online on Tinder and well, we’ve been inseparable since. I still have nightmares of the horrors I had to face but fortunately, I have her next to me, to hold my hand till they pass. I haven’t tried to contact my parents and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just too scarring. I cannot,” she completed with tears held in her eyes.
The ‘Magical’ Prayers
Rishabh was born and brought up in Delhi, he lived with his orthodox Hindu family and never knew that they would become the reason behind his pain. He, unfortunately, wasn’t one of the lucky few who made it. He killed himself in the painful year of 2020 and his best friend Anya shared his story with me, in his memory.
She sat up straight and said, “I think he would be proud and glad that I’m doing this, he was always a strong man and his story deserves to be told. Rishabh was a great guy, I knew him since we were 9, we met at school and became the best of mates. There was no separating us. I was in his class till the very end of school and we lived like 10 minutes away. So, I was there when the new exchange student showed up in school, he smiled at Rishabh and when I looked over at him, I could tell something had changed. I had never quite seen him smile like that. He was almost blushing and well, it was the cutest I had ever seen him look. So, I leaned over and asked him what was up, he had no clue and he was confused but well, I think I knew there and then but, I didn’t want to force him out of the closet. So, I just smiled and waited for him to tell me.
A few days later, he rushed up to me and pulled me aside during lunch, he was hyperventilating and seemed smiley at the same time, I got him water and helped him calm down after which he told me that he kissed him, I laughed and hugged him. I told him I was aware and that I love him. I was genuinely glad that he found himself and that he was walking on the road to acceptance, he deserved that. I think we all deserve that, no?”
Her face turned sadder as she spoke the next line, “His parents didn’t agree to that. He worked up the courage to tell them and I still regret that I motivated and encouraged him to tell them, he really shouldn’t have. The day he told them, his phone was taken away, they forced him to get off all social platforms and even skip school. The following days, he was subjected to a lot of prayers, his parents called over pandits from the temple who would make him sit in front of the burning coal as they prayed on it and hit him with a set of peacock feathers continuously till he broke down into tears and a series of coughs. This happened for weeks, The pandit had told his parents that he was being manipulated by the supernatural forces which were causing this change. And his parents? They blindly believed the pandit and let him hit their son and subject him to brutalities under the pretence of ‘magical prayers’ just because he was trying to step out of the closet.
I remember meeting him when I could and I remember seeing the marks that they gave him as well as the marks that he gave himself. I tried to tell my parents and asked them to help him, but they said they wouldn’t interfere. A few months later, I got a call from him and he seemed better, he smiled, remembering every crazy thing we’ve ever done in life. Little did I know that he was just trying to say goodbye. The next day, I got a call from his mother who told me that he had jumped to his death. I was cold. The blood drained from my face and I cried for days. He didn’t deserve all of this just for trying to live his truth and love the way he wanted, did he? Once I calmed down, I pledged to never let this happen to anyone else, me and a few friends started an NGO last year to help the people who face these problems. We also put a petition in court to ban CT, we hope action is taken soon, nobody deserves this.”
The Progress Made So Far
The Indian youth is very vocal about issues faced and the malpractices in the society, this bodes well for everyone because their voices together are finally able to bring forth, the much-needed change that people have been craving and struggling towards. Slowly and steadily, the community is getting out from this dark cloud, one state at a time.
Tamil Nadu is set to become the first Indian state to ban ‘conversion therapy’ following an unprecedented and progressive judgment by the Madras High Court on Monday, aimed at making society more inclusive towards the LGBT+ community. The order was issued by Justice N Anand Venkatesh on a plea filed by a lesbian couple whose relationship was being opposed by their parents, He issued far-reaching guidelines aimed at mainstreaming LGBTIQA+ persons — from prohibiting attempts to “medically cure” persons belonging to the community to seeking changes in school and university curricula and recommending awareness programmes for judicial officers, police and prison officials.
The Kerala high court also spoke up recently, they said that, if medically conversion therapy was possible, then guidelines for the same were necessary and directed the Kerala government to look into the matter and if necessary, constitute an expert committee to study the issue. This move would also prove the invalid basis of this social evil. “Based on the study report, respondent 1 will frame a guideline and produce the same before this court within five months,” Justice P V Kunhikrishnan said and listed the matter for further hearing on May 18, 2022.
Many other states have pleas like this waiting to be heard, it’s about time that we bring this issue into the light and make necessary moves. The Pride movement in the country deserves to shine with rainbow sparkles and it’s time that we make sure this happens. After all, Love is love- isn’t it?
*The names used in the accounts have been altered to protect the privacy of the people included*
About the author
Mehak Walia is a writer who loves to use her words to create the rare merge of storytelling, correctness, readability and clarity. She has also written four fiction books and has been a part of various anthologies - short stories and poetry. Follow her on Instagram at @mehakwalia28