Anjana had come out as bisexual to her family sometime back, and the family allegedly forced her into ‘conversion therapy’ where she was heavily medicated.

Anjana Hareesh at an event where a crowd can be seen
news LGBTQIA+ Saturday, May 16, 2020 - 13:24

Anjana Hareesh, also known as Chinnu Sulfikar, was found dead in Goa on May 12. She was 21 years old and a student of the Brennen College in Thalassery. A native of Kasaragod, Anjana has been in Goa since mid March with her friends. At the time of writing, the cause and trigger of her death are not yet clear; the police have filed a case of unnatural death and it is believed Anjana may have died by suicide. 

But there is a disturbing sequence of incidents that brought Anjana to Goa, revealed by her live videos and statements of friends.

Anjana had come out as a bisexual person to her family sometime back, which they had reportedly not taken well. In fact, the family allegedly forced her into ‘conversion therapy’ – an illegal, inhuman and pseudoscientific attempt to ‘cure’ queer and trans persons, to try to ‘change’ people’s sexual orientation or gender. In a Facebook video she posted in March, Anjana said that she was forcibly taken by her family to two ‘de-addiction centres’, without her consent. She was slapped when she tried to explain there’s nothing wrong with her, she said in the video. She was then put on heavy medication by these centres, she said. 

Her friends had tried to reach her during this time, but to no avail. Finally, Anjana managed to contact them when she was back. “She used to be in the wrestling team. You couldn’t believe the physical changes that the medicines had brought on,” Gargi, a friend of Anjana’s, tells TNM. 

Following this forced conversion therapy experience, Anjana decided to leave for Goa with her friends, for a change in scene. “Her family filed a missing person complaint, following which a few of us were summoned to the police station,” Gargi says, “But Anjana chose to leave with her friends.”

‘Conversion therapy’ not uncommon

Queer people being forcibly put on medication is not uncommon, says Ahana, a community organiser at Sahayatrika, a humans rights organisation working for LGBTQIA+ people in Kerala

For the last two months, Anjana had been in touch with Sahayatrika. “We intervened when she was forcibly taken away to a de-addiction centre. We were thinking of filing a habeas corpus. It has to be said that the police were not very helpful. But that is mostly the case. Despite the exposure towards sexual and gender minorities in the last few years, the attitude of the police towards these communities is often hostile,” Ahana says.

Families too, despite coming from backgrounds where they could get more awareness, are most often found dragging queer persons to mental health professionals, Ahana says. “Last year, a trans man who chose to dress like a man and came home in the late hours, was taken to a relative’s place in Bahrain and admitted at a hospital there. Back home, he contacted us for help. We approached the court and even there, we had to face an unfriendly atmosphere where we were humiliated. He was first asked to go with his parents and it is after repeated hearings that he was allowed to choose his path,” Ahana says.

In another case, a lesbian who contacted Sahayatrika said how she was taken to a doctor who claimed he could “change” her and put her on medication.

Untrained and bigoted doctors

In many instances, queer and trans people are taken to psychiatrists by family members who have little to no understanding about LGBTQI+ lives. And instead of helping the vulnerable queer persons, many psychiatrists choose to side with parents and resort to shaming and medicating people. 

Psychiatrist Dr Thomas Mathai Kayyanickal says, “The first concern as doctors should be the welfare of the patient and to help them overcome their distress or suffering. However, what happens in many cases – especially of the more vulnerable people – is a sort of ragging by the doctors.” 

And this is not exclusive to queer people, he says. In a Facebook post recently, he wrote about a 23-year-old woman who had a physical relationship with her lover and was then humiliated by a therapist that her family took her to. The therapist had apparently asked her, in front of her family, if she was studying for a degree or learning sex work. 

Lack of awareness

The lack of understanding about queer and trans issues by families and in the general public is still a major problem for the mental and physical health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people in Kerala, says Deepa Vasudevan, founder of Sahayatrika. “Legal change and recognition of legal rights do not automatically translate into greater social and cultural understanding. Creating that greater understanding is the work that we all still have to do,” she says.

She reiterates Dr Thomas’s observation that young people, especially those assigned female at birth, are forced into therapy for making any sort of unorthodox choice, including a relationship the family doesn’t approve of. “In the case of people assigned female at birth, the problems are amplified by the fact that families often view their ‘daughters’ as property, and feel that they have the right to control their social and sexual lives. So it is very common for families to put their daughters/children under house arrest after learning about their queer identities or relationships. This is true even if the young people are over 18 and have the legal right to make such choices in their lives.”

Deepa says that apart from forcing queer people to go to psychiatrists, social welfare institutions like de-addiction centres or halfway houses for women in court cases are used to pressure young women who may have queer identities or relationships, or young people with trans identities. “Sometimes these pressures are accompanied by the pressure to marry according to the family's wishes.  We sometimes intervene legally, through the courts or talking to police about queer/trans peoples' rights. Sometimes we are also able to speak with families themselves and create a better sort of understanding.”

Read: Kerala man told he can be ‘treated’ for homosexuality: A dangerous practice that must stop

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. 

Tamil Nadu: 

State health department suicide helpline number - 104

Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in TN)

Telangana:  

Telangana government suicide prevention toll free no - 104 

Roshni- 040-66202000, 66202001

SEVA- 09441778290, 040 - 27504682 (between 9 AM and 7 PM) 

Karnataka:

Sahai : 24-hour helpline numbers: 080- 65000111, 080-65000222

Kerala:

Maithri helpline - 0484-2540530

Chaithram helpline: 0484-2361161

Both are 24-hour helpline numbers. 

Andhra Pradesh: 

Life Suicide Prevention Helpline No.78930-78930 

Roshni Helpline 1: 9166202000 Helpline 2: 9127848584

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