Here’s a piece of good news for the LGBT community, and hopefully not the last bit of good news we hear in this regard today. The Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) has declared homosexuality a “sexual variation” and not a “mental illness” in a new video posted on their Facebook page. This declaration comes at a time when a Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court is set to hear the review petition today, 10 July, challenging the ruling in the Suresh Kumar Koshal v. Naz Foundation case, which declared “unnatural sex” (basically any sex other than penile-vaginal), illegal. This ruling has been commonly understood to criminalise homosexual acts, although it actually criminalises all “unnatural” sex acts between partners of any orientation.
This timely new declaration by the IPS says that homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder, but a natural phenomenon, just like heterosexuality.
This is the first time a psychiatric body has declared this in so many words in India, although way back in 1987, homosexuality was officially removed from the seminal international psychiatric handbook The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Which means that this was, in many ways, a long time coming.
Many LGBTQ-identifying individuals undergo a lot of stress while transitioning or even coming out to their friends and families. Because of an outright denial of their identities and other pressures from their families, and a legal climate in which certain sexual acts are illegal and punishable with life imprisonment, members of the community could be more susceptible to mental illnesses like depression. Mental illnesses in LGBT identifying persons have to be treated by qualified psychiatrists who know how to address their unique issues, which in itself can be a challenge (thankfully, there are some good resources out there to connect you with queer-friendly mental health professionals in India).
Families often push queer-identifying folks into therapy thinking of homosexuality as something that a person can be coaxed out of. Previously, many extreme methods ranging from shock therapy, hormone therapy, aversion therapy and conversion therapy were practiced to “cure” people of homosexuality. Back in May 2016, the Humsafar Trust, a sexual minorities NGO started the hashtag #QuacksAgainstQueers, bringing to light some of the horrifying “treatments” offered by Indian doctors to gay or queer-identifying people, the damage these treatments could cause, and the fact that homosexuality was #NothingToCure. Even before this, in 2015, the Naz Foundation actually petitioned the National Human Rights Commission and the Medical Council of India to end the fake “cures” offered by Indian doctors. The IPS’ new declaration should go some way in enacting the change that these bodies have been campaigning for.
So what is set to change now amongst the psychiatrists of India? Dr Kunal Parmar, a psychiatrist from Mumbai says, “After this declaration, no psychiatrist can treat homosexuality as a mental disorder. We have to abide by the body and its norm and treat homosexuality as a natural preference of a person. People who are confused with their sexuality come for counselling and we even talk to their parents to make them understand. This [declaration by the IPS] will not change any law, as in a court of law everything has to be first weighed and then only the law can be changed, but for now, no one can subject a homosexual person to mental health remedies.”
Sayantika Majumdar, who heads the under-25 wing of All Sorts of Queer, a Bangalore-based queer women’s network, says, “Many of my lesbian friends, when they come out to their families, the first thing they do is tell them that we will take you to a shrink, something is wrong. Some people see it as a phase that will pass while some people think something is wrong with you.” Thankfully, with this declaration from the IPS, more doctors will be able to provide adequate and meaningful support to queer individuals seeking therapy and play a constructive role in explaining to misguided families that there’s #NothingToCure here.
But will this new declaration have an impact on the ongoing process of amending the laws contained in Sec 377? Some have high hopes from it. Lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan says the declaration from the IPS is an important and impactful one. “Yesterday we were talking to a few lawyers and they were saying that once the society moves forward, we should not do anything to bring it backwards. So in the 2009 judgment, we took two steps ahead, and now by this declaration by the IPS, we are taking further steps. The law cannot drive us back into the closet now. Along with the required support from institutions like the education system, family and mental health professionals, acceptability will come in society too.”
He also says that the declaration from the IPS comes at a good time. “It is quite opportune considering that the hearing of the case challenging criminalising homosexuality is in front of the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court today. One thing that was evident when the decriminalisation happened [by the Delhi High Court in 2009] and then the subsequent re-criminalisation [by the Supreme Court in 2013], was that it had an impact on people’s mental health.”
So it looks like the IPS’ declaration could go some way in impacting the law, and in the way mental health professionals approach their patients. But is this enough?
Not everyone seems to think so. When asked if a change in the law, or declarations by psychiatric bodies, will pave the way for a better future for the LGBT community, activist Shilok Mukatti, Human Rights Activist says, “For me, it is not necessary that someone has to certify sexuality. Human beings are the only beings who are homophobic. It is very normal. And as far as psychiatric associations go, American psychiatric association and WHO have already declared that homosexuality is normal and barred it from calling it a mental illness. [The IPS’ declaration] might still not change much in society. It is education which will play an important role in changing mindsets about gender and sexuality, which might change things in the future. Laws have been made for many a things, people do not abide by every law. Dalits are still being marginalised and treated as untouchables in many parts of India even though the law is against it.”
She adds, “I don’t understand why people have to be forcefully sensitised towards accepting the LGBTQ community. Acceptance has to come from within, and any amount of declaration and laws cannot do that.”
She isn’t alone in thinking that there’s more to be done, and we can’t get complacent even with a positive ruling from the Supreme Court today. Sayantika agrees that changing laws on paper or seeing declarations from national medical bodies isn’t enough. She says, “A social change is essential. Just because there is a judgement or there is a declaration, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on people. Because people don’t exactly go by what’s in the books, and how many people follow the IPS? People who are already aware will share this but it won’t reach out to the people who are completely oblivious. But a legal stance makes things easier. Say if Sec 377 is scrapped, no one can bring that against me.”
As this piece goes live, the Supreme Court is reviewing multiple petitions to challenge the validity of section 377 in a case that the entire country has been following for years now. While we still have a long way in creating a society that truly accepts members of the community no matter which way the ruling goes, a sensible and positive ruling from the Supreme Court today, in this case, will help all of our mental health very, very much.
Co-published with Firstpost.