Many Kerala families used lockdown to force queer persons into conversion therapy

LGBTQIA+ groups stress on the need for safe spaces and shelter homes in Kerala for queer people, as well as facilitating greater acceptance by natal families.
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A person sitting in front of a window
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This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first here.

“A man who was working in Maharashtra had to come back to his home in Kerala due to the implementation of work from home by his company during lockdown last year. When the parents pressured him to get married, he revealed that he is gay,” recounts Rajashree Raju, a board member of Queerala, an organisation working for the welfare of queer people in Kerala. “Initially, he thought his family had accepted him. However, one day, they took him to hospital for vaccination. When he reached the hospital, he realised that it was a mental health centre. He was locked up there and was forced to undergo conversion therapy. He was injected with testosterone, and also further traumatised with ‘advice’.”

Queerala noted a significant increase in calls on its helpline number during the lockdown last year, which saw many people who were living away from home returning. This was true for LGBTQIA+ persons too – their situation is made more precarious if they have not come out about their gender identity and/or sexual orientation or had unsupportive families.

In Kerala, according to the survey conducted in 2015 by the Social Justice Department, the state has a population of 25,000 transgender and intersex people. LGBTQIA+ persons reveal that there are many aged above 25 who haven’t yet opened up their sexual orientation with their families or publicly. Forced to hide their identities, some are still facing domestic violence and pressures to fit into the gender binary, sometimes on the pretext that they have crossed the ‘marital age’.  In case they do open up about their gender identities or sexual orientation, many are forced to undergo conversion therapies in the guise ‘retreats’ and ‘counselling’.

“A similar kind of brainwashing as the man from Mumbai faced was tried on some lesbian women and partners of trans men. A partner of a trans man who identifies as bisexual was taken for some tests by the doctors. They ‘diagnosed’ her with zero decision making skills and said that that is why she is confused about her identity. She was given antipsychotic drugs,” Rajashree alleges.

Isolation, brainwashing and threats 

Rajashree notes that “physical abuse at parental homes is not considered domestic violence, even when the victims try to get help from police.” “When the persons open up their gender identities or sexuality, parents inflict harm by questioning their skills and breaking their confidence. For example, parents of one community member, who is good at sports, broke her leg. Some were even threatened with an acid attack. When we get involved, the police and the family start emotionally blackmailing the survivors,” she says.

For instance, Chinju Ashwathy Rajappan, a 27-year-old theatre student in Kalady and an intersex activist who had to return to his home in Angamaly during lockdown, reveals that he faced intersex-phobic assaults and gender-based discrimination from his parents, siblings and neighbours. Within three months of facing physical and emotional abuse, he was admitted in a nearby mental health centre for a month and he is still undergoing medication for depression and bipolar disorder. Chinju says his trauma was triggered from the moment he realised that he had to go back to his family. “They used to keep telling me that I am claiming to be intersex because I am mentally unwell,” alleges Chinju. Fortunately, he was recently accepted by his family.

However, very few families are ready to even listen to their children when they come out. “The rest treat the children very badly by isolating them, discriminating against them and also abusing them verbally and physically. This adds to the stress of those who are already struggling to understand their own gender or sexual identity. The family should be the most comfortable and receptive space for children. It has a strong influence in development of their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. When things go wrong at homes, queer persons are more shattered and disillusioned,” says Reshmi GP, an LGBTQIA+ psychiatric counsellor.

Lack of access to community, limited resources

Krishnagiri native Pavithra left her home on September 12, 2020. Since she knew a few LGBTQIA+ members and activists in Kerala, she decided to travel to Kochi. As there was no inter-state and inter-district transportation due to the pandemic, she travelled from Krishnagiri to Palakkad by bus from one district to next. Once she reached Palakkad, she caught a taxi till Kochi. The Bachelor of Pharmacy graduate has been living in Kochi for the past one year. “I revealed my sexual orientation at home in December 2019. Since then, I was forced to undergo various kinds of conversion therapies in Tamil Nadu. At first, I was taken to a psychiatrist who was queerphobic. Instead of convincing my family, he started ‘treating’ me claiming everything is my illusion. He also prescribed antidepressants for me and I used to sleep the whole day. I decided to stop it and then my family used to forcefully medicate me, physically assaulting and emotionally blackmailing me. I wasn’t financially independent, so, I had to be at home,” recollects the 23-year-old, who is lesbian.

When the family realised that the psychiatrist couldn’t help, they took her to a gynaecologist. “It was like I was under house arrest. I was not allowed to speak over the phone to anyone outside the family. I really got frustrated and even attempted suicide. My family thought I would behave better if I was at my relative’s home. There my cousin took me to Siddha doctor who advised him to get me drunk. I drank alcohol and thought I may lose consciousness, so I kept my phone's recorder on. Next day, when I heard the recording, I found out that they were planning to have me raped by a guy after I was inebriated so that I would realise my “real” sexuality, according to them. In our culture, when a woman is sexually assaulted by a man, she should get married to him,” Pavithra alleges.

Pavithra didn’t know what to do, so she called her mother to the relative’s home and explained everything. “After listening to me, she started emotionally blackmailing me and asked me to obey them to save my family's pride. Then I started acting like I transformed until I got a job nearby. They again started forcing me to get married. My brother’s torture was unbearable. He used to check my phone, assault me and thrash me in the night. I stayed calm and once I had gathered enough money, I left home and came to my friends in Kochi,” she says. Even today, she says that if her community gets to know about her, she would be harassed by them. 

Though crisis calls from those belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community have been routine for Reshmi, she says the depth and seriousness of the issues has been more severe than pre-pandemic as the callers were stuck at homes. “They had no venting spaces. So, even my counselling sessions too weren’t as effective as they still had to live in toxic places. Even those who have not opened up about their identity are subjected to bullying and body shaming happens. When it comes from their family members, it’s more traumatising,” she says.

The need for safe spaces, shelter homes

A major concern of support groups was to find shelter homes for the rescued LGBTQIA+ persons as three out of the five government-supported community short stay and safety homes were not functioning currently. Kerala government had opened transgender safety homes in Kerala at Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Kozhikode, which were run by community-based organisations (CBO). Prior to lockdown, the proprietorship of the shelter homes was transferred to non-governmental organisations. Now, there is a shelter home for trans men in Thiruvananthapuram, and trans women in Ernakulam, run by non-governmental religious organisations.

“Most of the community members hesitate to go to the shelter homes run by religious organisations as it spreads a lot of trans-phobia, bi-phobia and homophobia as the proprietors aren’t gender sensitive,” says Ahana Mekhal, programme coordinator of Sahayathrika, a Kerala origin organisation catering to lesbian and bisexual women and transgender persons established in 2002. She reveals that they had a significant difficulty during lockdown to accommodate people in the community who faced domestic violence at their natal homes.

“What we usually do is sheltering them at our friends’ and associates’ houses. However, physical distancing and fear of COVID-19 restricted many from offering help. Since we couldn’t reach out to them physically, our advocate used to deal with the issues via phone either with the parents or directly with the concerned police station. Crisis for queer people was always there at homes, but during lockdown, the family had more access and control over them and many marriages were forcibly fixed. Some were in huge mental distress as they couldn’t connect with like-minded people or meet their partners. We tried to be together through online meetings,” Ahana says, adding starting a shelter home for Sahayathrika is still a dream for them.

When contacted, the 24x7 transgender helpline – 1800 425 2147 – run by Social Justice Department under Government of Kerala, the officials said that “the department has no right to be involved in a crisis that happens at parental homes unless they get a strong complaint.” “The cases that we handled include struggles the community members faced in rented homes. We took necessary steps to shift them to shelter homes. When we get a complaint, we communicate it to concerned police stations and CBO members. During the first lockdown, many were ready to move to shelter homes but during the second lockdown, the majority hesitated to move as they said they were not comfortable. Currently, those living in shelter homes include the elderly and those who are ill. What we majorly did was supplying grocery and food kit for transgender community members,” explains an official.

Towards familial acceptance, better state policies

Breaking the gender binary and normalising diverse gender identities is the need of the hour, observes Reshmi. “It is very important to support them to reaffirm their identity and then help them mitigate the inferiority and insecurity they have been feeling since childhood. It is a step-by-step process. Once they are more empowered, we should try spreading awareness. If the family is convinced, treating the rest of the issues is easier. If not, they should be moved to places like shelter homes which may be healthier for them,” she adds.

The situation is worsened by the fact that queer persons often find themselves deprived of livelihood opportunities due to prejudice and discrimination against the community, which also prevents them from leaving abusive environments. Syama S Prabha, the first transgender state project officer of the Kerala government’s Transgender Cell constituted as part of the Directorate of Social Justice, reveals that Kerala government currently has provisions that can only support members of transgender community and other gender minorities are yet-to-be officially considered for relief by the state.

“Government policies have offered support to people belonging to intersex and trans community. We are yet to look at the problems faced by the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community. Though the government has provided food kits and other support, we also know that the lockdown has taken a toll on the mental health of sexual and gender minorities, which has even led to suicides,” says Syama.

Community-based organisation officials say it is high time we find and implement measures to reduce the violence and abuse against the LGBTQIA+ community at their parental homes as well as outside. 

Anjana George is an independent journalist, gender advocate, film critic and theatre enthusiast from the pristine valleys of Wayanad, Kerala. She has worked in various media including The Times of India, Deccan Chronicle and Radio Sarang. Her areas of interest are culture, gender, cinema, art, civic issues and lifestyle.

This story was reported under the National Foundation of India (NFI) Fellowship for independent journalists.

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