“Gay conversion therapy” in China: An Abhorrent Practice

“Gay conversion therapy” seeks to alter an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, premised upon the belief that homosexuality is a disorder which must be cured. The World Psychiatric Association has declared “gay conversion therapy” to be unethical, unscientific and harmful. In 1990 the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, exhibiting a transformation from seeing homosexuality through a medical lens, to simply a “natural variation of human sexuality”.

In spite of China’s allegiance with the rest of the world in recognising that homosexuality is not a medical condition, after it was decriminalized in 1997 and subsequently removed from its list of mental disorders four years later, “conversion therapy” continues to exist, with the aim of compelling the Chinese population to adopt heterosexual lives. Parental, social and cultural pressures fuel the operation of the practice, often leading the individual to feel no choice but to acquiesce. Indeed, “the greatest barriers to acceptance are social rather than political”. Chinese social pressures such as the one-child policy may have contributed to the continued operation of this abhorrent practice as it places huge pressures upon the young to marry and start families.

The Human Rights Watch study, entitled “have you considered your parents’ happiness?”, which was published on the 15th November 2017, interviewed seventeen Chinese LGBT individuals who were forced to undergo conversion therapy. Their testimonies reveal that they all attended treatment against their will and were often forcibly taken to treatment centres by their families. Three individuals attempted to escape. At the hands of medical professionals, the individuals were subject to insulting language and verbal abuse, including expressions such as “sick,” “pervert,” “disease,” “abnormal,” and “dirty.” A multitude of techniques were adopted, most of which were enveloped in coercion and abuse, such as psychiatric consultation, medication, aversion therapy and electroshock treatment. Eleven interviewees were forced to take medication without any explanation as to its purpose or the potential side-effects.

Those underdoing electroshock treatment were provided with images, videos or verbal descriptions of homosexual activity and subjected to painful electroshocks simultaneously – this power of association is intended to suppress any feelings of arousal towards individuals of the same sex. One transgender woman described the fear of having a machine-like helmet being placed on her head without explanation, coupled with the “stabbing” pain she suffered once she began receiving electroshocks. After being subjected to multiple sessions of electroshock treatment, two interviewees were unable to continue living their lives normally. Zhang Zhikun, a transgender woman, described how her life became plagued with constant nausea, resulting in the loss of her job due to difficulty concentrating.

“Reminiscent of the dystopian 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange”, Zhang Zhikun was forced to watch gay pornography while being injected with a nausea-inducing medication. She describes the procedure – “my body started to feel like it’s burning. My stomach was very uncomfortable, I felt very disgusted and constantly wanted to vomit in the whole process…”

Often invoking severe psychological trauma, these therapy treatments have “no basis in scientific fact”. It is extremely disconcerting that these treatments continue to occur in properly licensed public hospitals and government approved clinics in spite of the fact that homosexuality is no longer regarded a mental illness. It is also an extremely profitable business for medical professionals who can charge up to 30,000 yuan for treatment. As a result, “families, lacking in any kind of education on homosexuality, will pay as much money as they can to get their children converted”. To make matters worse, individuals in China suffering from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity have no clear legal redress; victims of gay conversion therapy are thus deterred from speaking out against the practice in fear that their sexual orientation will be revealed to the public.

“A cause celebre for Chinese LGBT rights activists”, in 2014 Yang Teng brought a case against a clinic in Chongqing for the hypnosis and electroshock treatment he received which was intended to “cure” his homosexuality. In this case Beijing’s Haidian District Court ruled that such treatments were illegal. Whilst Yang consented to treatments, he was granted compensation on the basis of false advertising, encompassing the costs of his therapy, travel and lost earnings, as well as damages for physical and psychological harm, rendering the judgment the first victory in this realm in Chinese history.

Yang Teng

Just three years later the second case of its kind reached the Chinese Courts. Strapped to a hospital bed for twenty days and forced to take medication to alter his sexuality, in July 2017 a man who was forced to undergo gay conversion therapy won a lawsuit against Zhumadian No.2 People’s Hospital. Diagnosed with “sexual preference disorder”, Yu was forced to receive injections and medication before he was eventually released 19 days later. He has fled his home town in fear he will be forced back into a mental hospital. Whilst these cases should undoubtedly be classed as victories, it is troubling that these horrific treatments continue to be administered. Moreover, the 2017 ruling was extremely narrow – whilst the treatment was declared to be inconsistent with laws and regulations, the issue of conversion therapy itself was not addressed directly, nor its fundamental underpinning that homosexuality is a disorder to be cured.

As long as China continues to allow this abhorrent practice to persist, the Chinese government is failing in its obligations to safeguard the human rights of every individual, thereby violating the right to liberty, the right to non-discrimination, the right to freedom from torture and the right to privacy. Furthermore, the continued use of conversion therapy violates the 2013 Mental Health Law which provides that clinics cannot admit individuals who do not suffer from a mental disease. A fundamental paradox exists between both the medical and legal status of homosexuality and the continued approval of this practice – “as homosexuality is not an illness, there is no need for a cure”.

Troublingly, a recent judgment in the Brazilian courts have prompted fears that Brazil is treading down a similar path. In September 2017 Waldemar de Carvalho, a Brazilian judge, overruled a decision made by the Federal Council of Psychology in 1999 which banned psychologists from offering treatments said to “cure” homosexuality. A challenge to the ban came from a psychologist whose licence was revoked in 2016 for labeling homosexuality a “disease” and offering treatments to cure it.  Central to Waldemar de Carvalho’s judgment was the belief that individuals who are seeking help with regards to their sexuality should continue to voluntarily pursue the therapy. The product of an archaic mode of thinking, the judge’s decision has been condemned by Brazil’s psychology council for reaffirming the notion of homosexuality as “a disease, disorder or perversion” and could potentially set a “dangerous precedent for the use of sexuality reversal therapies”. In spite of Brazil being a liberal country with regards to sexuality and gender, it remains one of the most dangerous countries for gay people to live, thereby prompting fears of further regression.


Written by Francesca Esposito

Contax Law supports Francesca Esposito in her journalism so that she can express her voice on a subject she highly values. Francesca graduated from the University of Warwick in 2015 with a 2:1 in the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and spent her third year studying abroad in the Netherlands at Universiteit Utrecht. She was awarded a Distinction in the Master of Laws (LLM) at University College London, specialising in Criminal Justice and Social Welfare. As an avid writer, Francesca has had several articles published and has also had positions on editorial boards for legal publications both in the UK and overseas.

Francesca is extremely passionate and captivated by the field of Human Rights, driven by her study of Gender and the Law during her LLB, which motivated Francesca’s desire to scrutinise the human rights violations faced by individuals around the globe.

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