Blind belief & bizarre rituals: Christianity isn’t the only religion pushing conversion therapy

Nov 24, 2019 Delhi queer pride parade 2019 with LGBTQ community members and supporters. Delhi pride parade is organized every year to recognize LGBTQ rights in India
Nov 24, 2019 Delhi queer pride parade 2019 with LGBTQ community members and supporters. Delhi pride parade is organized every year to recognize LGBTQ rights in India Photo: Shutterstock

Sahil (17, name changed on request), a gay teenager from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, was aware that his family would never accept his queer identity. But he did not expect that the day after coming out to his family, he would be tied with iron chains and locked up in an eerie shelter as smoke from incense sticks gave him trouble breathing.

Coming from a typical middle-class educated Indian family, Sahil had not expected his parents would believe in homophobic superstition. Both his father and mother are high school teachers and presented themselves as progressive parents. But the profoundly ingrained homophobia and blind belief in superstition drew them to a local exorcist who claimed that he could cure Sahil’s aversion with a three-day-long ritual.

Related: Does an Indian transgender person’s caste change their experience of being trans?

Sahil recalls, “I was repeatedly asked what devil is possessing me. They were making me eat some kind of ash and recite mantras. I was so traumatized in a few hours that I started believing I was under some kind of possession and my queerness could be cured.”

He told LGBTQ Nation that six years later he has become financially independent and is happily living with his partner in India’s capital Delhi. He is no longer in touch with his family and believes that they are responsible for his life-long trauma.

When Superstition Replaces Science

 Superstition is not inherently an Indian phenomenon. Whether it’s breaking a mirror, an owl sighting or the crow’s caw, different societies have attached meanings to innocuous circumstantial events. Such practices are often linked to fear. But when superstition takes extreme form and is combined with deeply entrenched homophobia, queer people are stuck in a nightmare – especially young children.

While India is a country of rich culture and traditions, it is also home to many superstitious practices and charlatans disguise themselves as religious or spiritual leaders. While the Christian church in America and Europe is an organizational institution, the Indian spiritual sector is highly unregulated owing to the country’s religious and cultural diversity. What goes on behind the closed doors of priests and gurus largely stays mysterious.

Anything different from the usual heteronormative gender binary is considered devilish or shameful by a large section of Indian believers.

In 2013, Baba Ramdev, a well-acclaimed yoga guru and business person in India guaranteed that he could “cure” homosexuals with yoga. While his statement proved to be misleading and unscientific, many queer parents fell for his claims.

Saral (20), a young transwoman, remembers a painful experience when she was taken to a Swami Ramdev Ashram (a place of spiritual practices) in November 2020.

“They (family members) booked a seven-week program costing 20,000 rupees ($253),” she told LGBTQ Nation. “There was a generalized treatment consisting of a diet regulatory program, Ayurveda massage sessions, and yoga.”

Although there was no direct claim of “curing” homosexuality by Ashram authorities, her family had hoped that they could stop Saral from continuing her gender reaffirmation process.

During the treatment, Saral told one of the facilitators who claimed to be a “natural sciences doctor” that she is a transwoman and that nothing can change her true identity. The doctor confirmed that it was only a wellness treatment and wouldn’t change her gender identity.

Arati Kedia, a mental health practitioner based in Mumbai, believes that this homophobic superstition has a lot to do with the fear of the unknown bolstered by cultural and regional legends.

“People use religion or any other powerful thing to lie back on for their phobia of people who do not fit in the normative standards of Indian society,” she told LGBTQ Nation.

Elaborating on this fear, she added, “If there is something – a supernatural power or anything – that could turn you into a good fit with the norms of the society and not outcast you as different, some people who are conditioned in a particular social setting would indulge in bizarre unscientific things to fix that difference.”

Neela Devi (63), an Indian mother of a young gay boy, went through the same cycle of homophobic superstition when her son opened up about his sexuality to the entire family. Her first instinct was to go to a doctor and find some solution to what she considered a problem. But when a psychiatrist told her that homosexuality cannot be cured, she resorted to superstition because she has “a strong belief in God’s powers.”

“I brought a black cloth with mustard seeds stitched in it from a local pandit [a Hindu priest] and tied it to my son’s right hand. Looking at his horoscope, he told me that my son’s time would be distressful for a few years. I hoped that his desires would change but I was wrong”, Devi said.

Ten years later, she told LGBTQ Nation she is still not able to accept that her son is gay.

Unacknowledged and Unregulated

In a 2015 investigation, Delhi doctors were exposed for practicing conversion therapy using seizure-inducing drugs, hormones, and even electric shocks in an attempt to “cure” homosexuality. Despite homosexuality being decriminalized in September 2018, the colonial legacy of conversion therapy continues to persist around the corners of India.

Conversion therapy came to India using electroconvulsive therapy as well as a program of behavioral therapy meant to remove fear or anxiety of the opposite sex. People were shown erotic or pornographic same-sex photographs they had chosen themselves. They were given an electric shock while looking at the pictures, attaching pain with the emotions that the doctors wanted to remove.

In June 2021, the Madras High Court banned gender/sexuality conversion therapy in a groundbreaking judgment – the first time an Indian court gave a decision on conversion therapy. The judgment prohibited “any attempt to medically ‘cure’ or change the sexual orientation of LGBTQIA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender.”

But here is a question yet to be answered. Is religion-based conversion therapy covered along with medical attempts included in the ruling? It is still not clear.

Speaking to LGBT Nation, Rohin Bhatt, a lawyer and queer-rights activist, emphasized that the conversion therapy law should be extended to cover spiritual or religious intervention other than medical conversion also.

“We have seen some positive judgments like the Madras High Court recently. But the cases of superstition involving homophobia do not come into the limelight much,” Bhatt said.

With LGBTQ children facing hostility from non-supportive family members and fraudulent claims of supernatural powers from supposed religious leaders, it is beyond time for India to recognize that a ban on medical conversion therapy isn’t enough. It’s time to shut down the unregulated practitioners too.

Aman Singh (he/him) is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on the issues of oppression and marginalization. He tweets at @speaks_aman

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