In China, homosexuality wasn’t declassified as a mental disorder until 2001; while being gay is tolerated relatively well in some areas, especially within larger cities, true acceptance is still lacking in general society—and the intense pressure to marry and have a child leads some people to seek out a “cure” for their sexuality.
One man, identified only by his surname, Zhang, told of doctors administering electric shocks to his genitals as he viewed a pornographic movie, causing him pain every time he reacted physically to the film’s stimuli in the hopes it would rid him of his sexual attraction to other men—a treatment he elected to undergo himself.
“I thought I’d try and see if there was a chance I could become a normal person,” he said, according to the Times of India. “I didn’t want to cause my family trouble, or disappoint them.”
He said that he paid for the treatments himself because he concluded that life as a gay man would be “too tough.”
So-called “conversion therapy” has existed in places around the world for over a century; it has largely been discredited in many countries, but still has practitioners from Singapore to the United States to Great Britain. Global news agency AFP reported that Beijing’s Haiming Psychological Consulting Centre openly advertises its use of electroshock therapy on its website: “After each shock, the person will quickly interrupt their thought, and separate from their fantasies.” A staff member told the AFP that the treatment, which is used in half-hour sessions several times a week, is only for “extreme circumstances.”
In 2009, the American Psychological Association released an official report, titled “Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation,” stating that it was “unlikely” that conversion therapy of any type can achieve any of its stated goals, and that they “found that there was some evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm… negative side effects included loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety.”
In 2012, The Pan American Health Organization, part of the World Health Organization, said in a report that conversion therapies “lack medical justification and are ethically unacceptable.”
In the United States, using conversion therapy on minors is banned in California and New Jersey, and similar laws have been proposed in New York, Minnesota, and Maryland as well.
Despite acceptance for the LGBT community lagging in Asia in general, a few groups in China are starting to consider a ban on such therapies. Times of India reported that Beijing’s LGBT Center said in a December 2013 statement that conversation therapy attempts “deeply damage homosexuals’ physical and mental health, and worse infringe on their self-respect.” Two activists in the Center, which gets some of its funding from China’s US and British embassies, held up a sign reading “Homosexuality is not an illness” at a clinic they said offers conversion treatment; they told press they hope to get the licenses of such institutions revoked.
AFP found several clinics that said homosexuality should be “changeable” in those people for whom it is not “innate.” However, a salesman from the southern province of Guangdong, Liu Wei, told AFP “I have a lot of friends who received the treatment, it has made some of them nervous wrecks.”
Liu’s own father pressured him to inquire about treatment from a hospital, where a doctor told him he could become heterosexual “if I made a decision to break up with my partner, and dedicate myself to the method.” Part of the treatment was to include watching movies: “and when I fantasized, use an elastic band wrapped around my hand to hurt myself.”
The same doctor who told him about the treatment admitted that very few patients could be considered success stories. Liu admitted he is considering it regardless, because his relationship with his family is currently “very tense.”
When Zhang actually did undergo the treatment, what it did to him was far from theraputic. He entered into a deep depression, quit his job, was driven into debt from medical fees, and began contemplating suicide. “I was suffering from headaches, I couldn’t stand it, I wanted to die, I wanted to stop,” he said, as reported by the Times of India.
He found the strength, instead, to accept that his orientation is an immutable part of him, and told his father he is gay.
Zhang said, “Later I thought about my whole life, [and realized]I was like this from a young age. Being gay isn’t a terrible thing, I think.”