India is one of the worst-hit countries by the pandemic, only behind the United States as the country with the most number of COVID-19 cases. But the pandemic also marked the beginning of a nightmare for some queer youth forced to lockdown with parents who do not support their LGBTQ+ identities.
Reema*, a 20-year-old trans woman, moved in with her parents in Delhi after the pandemic hit. “To appease my parents, I dress like a man and talk in a deeper voice with no hand gestures. My old clothes and makeup are hidden away. I don’t feel like myself anymore,” Reema told VICE World News. On weekends, she is taken to a spiritual healer to “convert’” her trans identity.
According to a UN report last year, so-called “conversion therapy” is based on a false and unscientific belief that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity can or should be changed. The UN has called for a global ban.
Conversion therapy in India is not illegal and there are no regulations around it. It is practised by mental health institutes and religious healers. “Therapies” can include electric shocks, beatings, and forcibly injecting hormones. These approaches go back to the 1970s and 80s when the Indian Journal of Psychiatry carried articles on the “use of shock therapy to cure homosexuality”.
On May 12, 2020, 21-year-old Anjana Harish, a vocal queer rights activist and a queer woman, was found dead in Goa. She left a livestream on her Facebook profile, blaming her suicide on the abuse she faced at a conversion therapy centre where her extended family admitted her.
After the tragedy, Rajashree Raju, a member of the LGBTQ+ activist group Queerala, filed a petition in the Kerala High Court to ban conversion therapy. The court is expected to announce a hearing date after May 15.
“At first, we didn’t want to do it, but Anjana Harish’s death and the media coverage pushed us to file,” Raju told VICE World News. The two other petitioners in the case are survivors of conversion therapy.
The petition comes at a time when forced conversion therapy was exacerbated further by the pandemic. “We help queer folks connect to psychologists and psychiatrists from time to time, but during the lockdown, we were overwhelmed with calls,” Raju said. “We had crisis calls describing violence and sexual assault nearly every day.”
Mallika, a counsellor with Society for People’s Awareness, Care & Empowerment (SPACE), an NGO that works with young LGBTQ+ people on health and human rights, confirmed an increase in crisis calls during the pandemic. “We receive an average of 40-50 calls per day, but the number went up significantly during the lockdown to 60-75 a day. We had callers from nearly all regions of India,” Mallika, who only goes by her first name, said, adding that most calls were from young queer individuals who reported that their families were trying to push them back into the closet.
Representatives from the Humsafar Trust, a foundation that works for LGBTQ+ advocacy in India, confirmed to VICE World News that the number of calls they received also went up during the pandemic to the point of employees receiving crisis calls on their personal phone numbers.
Soham*, 23, is from the northern state of Haryana. The lockdown led to him growing closer to his parents and bonding with them. “I actually thought they’d accept my sexuality,” he told VICE World News over the phone. That was not the case. “They told me it [homosexuality] was a disease, and I should seek a cure immediately.” For Soham’s parents the “cure” was to find him a bride, which they are already working on. “I am reminded nearly every day of a distant relative who ‘used to be gay’ but became ‘normal’ after he got married and had kids. I don’t want to be anything like him,” he added.
Angelica*, who is 24 years old and based in the southern city of Bengaluru, can relate to Soham’s story. Angelica is one of many trans women in the country who hides her sexual orientation from her parents, for her own safety. “My parents have tried to change me ever since I was 14. I was drugged and taken to a psychiatric ward in Kerala for being ‘mentally ill’, but I wasn’t ill. I just wanted to be a woman,” she said.
Angelica spent two years in the psychiatric facility, where she said she faced violence, assault, and was forcibly injected hormones. “Someone told me to lie my way out, and I did.” Angelica left the facility a few weeks before her 17th birthday and moved to another city for college. “I think the question the world must ask is, does anyone get over the trauma of conversion therapy? For me, there is no end to this process of healing,” she said. Today, Angelica’s family constantly misgenders her and only uses the name they gave her at birth. She said her family is planning on taking her to a priest to “cure” her.
While not all parents of queer youth in the country react similarly, awareness and acceptance are still widely lacking.
Sweekar, the Rainbow Parents Association, is a group of over 150 parents of LGBTQ+ folks pushing back against conversion therapy by working with families. Sweekar means acceptance in Hindi.
“Parents [who] grow up in a heteronormative world are alarmed and shocked when their child comes out. Our doors are always open for parents like these. After all, there is an invisible pressure on these parents too to ‘fix’ their child,” said Dr Nilakshi Roy, a member of the group. “Sometimes parents ask the doctor, ‘why is my child like this?’ but nature has made us as we are.”
Progress – activists and experts say – can only begin if society recognises that there is no place for conversion therapy.
“We need to call conversion therapy what it is: curative violence,” Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a trans rights activist and researcher at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, said. She is also a co-author of an upcoming report that aims to capture data on conversion therapy in India. “The term ‘therapy’ implies that something can be treated, but it's the exact opposite here.”
For now, people like Reema are holding on to hope that things will soon change. “I don’t want anything more than freedom. I hope to be free someday.”
*Names of interviewees have been changed upon their request, for their safety and protection.
This story was produced by VICE. It was written as part of a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation supported by the Swedish Postcode Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.