The Centre has also signalled an intent to oppose marriage equality; it must realise that if the government fails to treat LGBTQIA on a par with heterosexuals and cis-genders, it will be condoning entrenched discrimination against them.
In a landmark judgement, the Madras High Court recently called for a ban on conversion therapy—the fundamentally unscientific and immensely harmful practice of trying to change gender-identity/sexual orientation of LGBTQIA individuals, through interventions. These may include aversive “therapy” such as administration of electric shocks, nausea-inducing drugs along with homoerotic stimuli, intensive counselling, “spiritual therapy” such as group prayers, etc. The High Court, in S Sushma v the Commissioner of Police, also called for legal action against those practising it. As the world observes Pride Month, which celebrates the movement for recognition of LGBTQIA rights, the Centre must take a cue from the HC—as also from national and sub-national legislations in many countries—and move to criminalise the practice. As Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and his associate Aditya Sharma point out in an article in The Indian Express, existing protection under the Mental Health Act may be inadequate. The deep discrimination of conversion therapy is rooted in the fact that its practitioners view non-heterosexual identity and non-heteronormative behaviour as ‘mental illness’ that can be cured, despite the fact that the Indian Psychiatric Society states that non-heterosexuality is not a mental illness and can’t be changed. The practice continues to exact a significant cost, if the many reports of suicide and self-harm among those subjected to it are anything to go by; indeed, unreported cases could put such discrimination at a very high incidence level. A UN study conducted among people who had undergone conversion therapy, across 100 countries, showed that 98% of them suffered from damaging, long-term mental-health effects as a result. LGBTQIA persons are already at higher risk of suicide than heterosexual/cis-gendered peers; one study shows that transgender individuals are at a suicide-risk level six times higher than cis-gendered individuals. Negative mental health outcomes get compounded when people facing such discrimination internalise notions of being ‘abnormal’.
The fact is the violence and oppression of conversion therapy—as also forced marriage, which the Delhi HC stridently ruled against recently—is also rooted in the homophobia/transphobia of the larger society. Remedying these will need to go beyond the mere decriminalisation of homosexuality that was achieved in 2018. Catalysing social change to normalise non-heterosexual orientation and transgender identity needs concrete legislative steps, both in terms of guaranteeing the same rights for LGBTQIA and heterosexual/cis-gendered persons and strong punitive steps against discrimination. While trans-rights have received a big boost in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the Centre’s Transgender Persons Bill 2019 has been criticised by the trans-community for problematic provisions like making recognition of trans-identity contingent upon government approval, lack of parity in the quantum of punishment for sexual violence against transgender survivors and cis-gender survivors, etc. The Centre has also signalled an intent to oppose marriage equality; it must realise that if the government fails to treat LGBTQIA on a par with heterosexuals and cis-genders, it will be condoning entrenched discrimination against them.