As SC hears pleas against Section 377, Indian Psychiatric Society says homosexuality is a sexual variation, not mental illness
Psychiatrists believe this, and a positive Supreme Court ruling on Section 377, will help them better support LGBTQ people dealing with mental illnesses.
By Namrata Shukla
Here's a piece of good news for the LGBTQ 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. This declaration comes at a time when the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court is set to hear the review petition on Tuesday, challenging the ruling in the Suresh Kumar Koshal vs 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, though 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, though way back in 1987, homosexuality was officially removed from the seminal international psychiatric handbook, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This 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, as well as 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, such as depression. Mental illnesses in LGBTQ-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. Earlier, many extreme methods — ranging from shock therapy, hormone therapy, aversion therapy and conversion therapy — were practiced to "cure" people of homosexuality. In May 2016, sexual minorities NGO Humsafar Trust started the hashtag #QuacksAgainstQueers, bringing to light some of the horrifying "treatments" Indian doctors offered 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" Indian doctors offered. 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 among psychiatrists in India? Dr Kunal Parmar, a psychiatrist from Mumbai said: "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 only then can the law 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 Bengaluru-based network for queer women, said: "The first thing that the families of many of my lesbian friends did when they came out to them is tell them something is wrong, and that they will take them to a shrink. Some people see it as a phase that will pass, while other 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 Section 377? Some have high hopes from it. Lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan said 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 backward. So with the 2009 judgment, we took two steps ahead, and now with this declaration by the IPS, we are taking further steps forward," he said. "The law cannot drive us back into the closet now. Along with the required support from families and institutions like the education system and mental health professionals, acceptability will come in society, too."
He also said that the IPS declaration comes at a good time. "It is quite opportune, considering that the hearing of the case challenging criminalising homosexuality is before the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court today (10 July). 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 had an impact on people's mental health."
To change society, a declaration and change in law not enough
So it looks like the IPS' declaration could go some way in affecting 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 law, or declarations by psychiatric bodies, will pave the way for a better future for the LGBTQ community, human rights activist Shilok Mukatti said: "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, the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization have already declared that homosexuality is normal and barred it from being called it a mental illness. (The IPS' declaration) might still not change much in society. It is education that 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, but people do not abide by every law. Dalits are still being marginalised and treated as untouchables in many part of India, even though the law is against it.
She added: "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."
Mukatti isn't alone in thinking that there's more to be done, and we cannot get complacent even with a positive ruling from the Supreme Court. Majumdar agrees that changing laws on paper or declarations from national medical bodies isn't enough. She said: "A social change is essential. Just because there is a judgment 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 those who are completely oblivious. But a legal stance makes things easier. Say if Section 377 is scrapped, no one can use 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 to go 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 in this case will help all of our mental health very, very much.
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