“It’s been more than 20 years since China decriminalized homosexuality, but LGBT people are still subjected to forced confinement, medication, and even electric shocks to try to change their sexual orientation,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “If Chinese authorities are serious about ending discrimination and abuse against LGBT people, it’s time to put an end to this practice in medical facilities.”
The 52-page report, “‘Have You Considered Your Parents’ Happiness?’: Conversion Therapy Against LGBT People in China,” based on interviews with 17 people who endured conversion therapy, describes how parents threatened, coerced, and sometimes physically forced their adult and adolescent children to submit to conversion therapy.
In these facilities – including both public hospitals, which are government-run and monitored, and private clinics, which are licensed and supervised by the National Health and Family Planning Commission – medical professionals subjected them to “therapy” that in some cases entailed involuntary confinement, forcible medication, and electroshocks, which can constitute a form of torture.
The Chinese Psychiatric Society officially removed “homosexuality” from its Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders in 2001. China’s 2013 Mental Health Law requires that the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders comply with diagnostic standards.
Because same-sex attraction is not a disorder, the law renders conversion therapy illegal. The law further requires that the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorder respect individuals’ basic rights and human dignity.
However, Chinese authorities have not taken proactive measures to stop healthcare facilities or practitioners from offering conversion therapy, such as issuing clear guidelines prohibiting conversion therapy; monitoring facilities to determine whether conversion therapy is taking place; and, where it is, holding such facilities accountable.
While the Chinese Psychological Society has issued professional guidelines that prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation during psychology counselling practice, professional associations have not prevented medical practitioners from conducting conversion therapy.
All 17 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch were emphatic that they would not have submitted to conversion therapy were it not for intense family and societal pressure. None provided free and informed consent. Three said they tried to escape from the facilities in which they were being held.
One, Luo Qing, described attempting to flee: “I was getting really close to the unguarded door, but before I could get to the door, the two security guys caught up and got me. The next thing I know is that I was on the floor.”
Five people described to Human Rights Watch undergoing electroshock “therapy” as part of their conversion “treatment.” They were given some sort of stimulus – typically images, videos, or verbal descriptions of homosexual acts – while simultaneously being subjected to pain or discomfort produced by electroshocks.
Patients were then meant to associate their homosexuality with unpleasant or painful sensations with a view towards quelling their sexual impulses towards people of the same sex. Four of the five said they were unaware that they would be subjected to such treatment, compounding their trauma.
As Liu Xiaoyun (a pseudonym) said, “As they turned it up, I started to feel pain instead of just numb. It felt like… having needles stabbing my skin. Then after a few minutes, my body started trembling… it was not until later did I realize that was an electroshock machine.”
Eleven of Human Rights Watch’s interviewees were also forced to take medications orally or by injection as part of their “treatment.” None were told the purposes of the medications or their potential risks. Medical personnel ensured that individuals took the medications even when they resisted.
Almost all of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being subject to verbal harassment and insulting language by doctors and psychiatrists, including terms such as “sick,” “pervert,” “disease,” “abnormal,” and “dirty.”
Zhang Zhikun recounted his conversation with a doctor: “This is… what the doctor told me: ‘[Homosexuality] is promiscuous and licentious. If you don’t change that about yourself, you will get sick and you will die from AIDS. You will never have a happy family… Have you ever considered your parents’ happiness?’”
Under the National Health and Family Planning Commission guidelines, all provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions are required to investigate activities occurring in hospitals and clinics that violate of the 2013 Mental Health Law.
But when Human Rights Watch contacted the bureau responsible for monitoring implementation of the law, an agent said they were unaware of any abuses related to conversion therapy.
None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed who had undergone conversion therapy had chosen to file a complaint. Some said this was because they were afraid their sexual orientation would be made public.
Two court cases have challenged specific aspects of conversion therapy, and courts have sided with the plaintiffs, in one case ruling that a hospital forcibly confined the plaintiff, and in another case, awarding damages to the plaintiff for his physical and psychological harm from electroshock treatment.
But the rulings have not yet had an obvious deterrent effect on practitioners of conversion therapy.
China has no laws protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a gap which may prevent additional victims of conversion therapy from seeking justice.
China is a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which contain provisions that require the prohibition of aspects of conversion therapy.
“It’s time for China to join the global consensus: acknowledge that forced/medical conversion therapy is abusive and discriminatory and ban it,” Reid said.
“Only then does decriminalization become meaningful legally and socially, and give LGBT people across China actionable protections against this grim practice.”