India’s Queerphobic Medical Books To Get a Much Needed Makeover

“This practice of conversion ‘therapy’ is unethical and unscientific. It follows directly from the damage caused by these books.”
October 27, 2021, 1:00pm
lgbtq, india, health, lgbtq rights
LGBTQ activists in the Indian city Bangalore taking part in a 2020 pride parade. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

In a landmark move, India’s medical regulatory body has ordered colleges and publishers to remove derogatory and unscientific depictions of LGBTQ people from their medical textbooks and curriculums. 

“All the medical universities, colleges and institutions are requested that while teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students wherever the issue of gender or similar kind arises, the mention of clinical history, complaints, signs and symptoms, examination findings or history about nomenclature shall not be taught in such a way that it becomes or is perceived in any way as derogatory, discriminatory and insulting to the LGBTQ community,” the National Medical Commission (NMC) stated in an order released on Oct. 13.

The body identified biased representations in forensic medicine, toxicology and psychiatric textbooks, and further directed publishers to edit out insensitive and inaccurate portrayals of the LGBTQ community. 

LGBTQ rights activists welcomed the move but pointed out the additional need to revamp prejudicial language in other curriculums, such as gynecology, pediatrics and general medicine.   

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The directive comes on the heels of a Madras High Court judgement in August that ruled against police harassment of LGBTQ people and advocacy groups. In its ruling, the court observed that medical institutions and curriculums legitimise queerphobic narratives and practices. It directed the NMC and the Indian Psychiatric Society to remove offensive material from existing curriculums.       

In the course of its deliberations, the Madras court reviewed a report submitted by Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, one of Karnataka state’s first transgender doctors. The report shed light on outdated and inflammatory content in the forensic medicine curriculum, which mentions “transvestism” as a “sexual perversion,” and “lesbianism,” “sodomy”and “oral sex” as sexual offences.

“The harm that is perpetrated by these books is through doctors thinking that they can and ought to change non-normative sexual orientation and gender identity and they make promises to parents of young LGBTQIA people,” Lakshmikantan Ramakrishnan, vice president of healthcare rights non-profit SAATHII, told VICE World News.

“This practice of conversion ‘therapy’ is unethical and unscientific. It follows directly from the damage caused by these books with their pathologizing descriptions and the prejudices that healthcare professionals have.”

In June, the Madras High Court banned conversion therapy in the state of Tamil Nadu, making it the first Indian state to do so. In 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalized same-sex relations. Despite this, LGBTQ individuals continue to be subjected to conversion therapy along with discriminatory treatment in health care settings that lack appropriate policies and infrastructure for LGBTQ patients. In 2020, a 21-year-old bisexual woman in the state of Kerala died by suicide after being subjected to conversion therapy by her parents. 

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“Doctors end up prescribing heavy duty anti-depressants that kill any libido that the individual may have, and also conduct electro-convulsive ‘therapy’ and other practices,'' said Ramakrishnan. 

“Within in-patient settings or in the restrooms in hospitals, everything is in terms of the male-to-female binary. There are folks who are outside of the male-female binary who find it uncomfortable or who find it challenging to fill in forms or to be admitted in a ward that is not aligned with their gender,” he added. 

LGBTQ rights activists have praised the NMC’s initiative, but they also view it with cautious optimism.

“This is but a start to a long journey to make healthcare inclusive and affirmative to queer and trans folks. The NMC is yet to remove queerphobic competencies, outlaw conversion therapy, and include queer doctors in its decision making,” Dr. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju told VICE World News. “Most importantly, it is yet to conduct focused group discussions and community outreach to determine competencies for the Indian medical graduate to become a queer affirming practitioner.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.

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