After Chinese New Year in 2014, I went to a psychological clinic in Chongqing, a city in Western China, to receive electric shock treatment as part of ‘gay conversion therapy’. I was not forced by my family, even though I was born in a very patriarchal cultural area in China. Instead I went to be ‘cured’ by my own willing because I felt that this was the only way I could stop the harm being done to the LGBT community in China.
Lots of LGBT people have been forced by their parents to receive ‘gay conversion therapy’ in China these years. The program is often provided in government hospitals and private psychological clinics. According to statistics from the non-profit organization LGBT Rights Advocacy China, there are at least 170 clinics and hospitals providing ‘gay conversion therapy’ in different cities all over China. Parents in China believe in the doctors and consultants who tell them that their children can be ‘converted’ to heterosexuality, even though bisexuality and homosexuality were deleted from the third version of Chinese Classification of Mental Disease (CCMD-3) in 2001. One of the cases is from a gay final year university student, who was outed by his mother after she read his text messages to and from his boyfriend. His mother cried and asked him to see the doctor. He didn’t agree as he knew that being gay is not a disease. But his mother became ill and bed-ridden, refusing to get up until he agreed to the treatment. This experience of pressure and force is very typical among the LGBT community in China once they have come out to their families.
The ‘conversion therapy’ was conducted using pills, hypnosis, electric shock and other aversion therapies on LGBT people. Two lesbians and one gay man in our community reported that they were forced to undergo treatment at the most famous 3A hospital in Zhejiang Province in Eastern China. The doctors there tested their blood and scanned their brain. They concluded that they were ‘fake gay,’ a condition that could be ‘converted’. Most of the doctors don’t have any research about ‘gay conversion therapy’ or rarely even know much at all about homosexuality. They just follow their own personal opinions and values about LGBT people without consulting professional knowledge. Even more, there are textbooks for psychological consultants that say homosexuality is abnormal and advises methods for ‘curing’ it. A psychiatrist once said at the National Psychiatrists’ Conference that if they were to support LGBT people then human beings would go extinct. In addition, providing conversion therapy can earn doctors a lot of money. A conversion program for gay people at psychological clinics can cost as much as 30,000RMB.
Conversion therapy hurts the LGBT community not only physically but also mentally. A friend of mine received electric shock treatment to his head two times every week for two months. He became depressed, could not focus on his work, and had no interest in anything during that half year. Another case happened in Henan province where a 37 years old gay man was sent to the local mental hospital for 19 days by his family to be ‘cured’. He was forced to stay in bed and to take pills every day. He was laughed at for his sexual orientation by the nurses and threated to be beaten if he didn’t follow the doctor’s order. Three months after his escape from the treatment and his family, I visited him in a small town in eastern China where he tried to start his new life in secret. He could not say a word about that experience and had nightmares almost every night. One year later, we helped him to sue the hospital for forcing this ‘cure’ on him. However, he still cannot get over the fear in his mind. Most of the cases are just like his – members of our community have to give up their family and carry the hurt alone.
We received many reports from our community in 2013. They had experienced different kinds of ‘conversion therapy’ and wanted it to be stopped. However, none of them wanted to take a public stand because they were afraid of coming out. But someone had to if we want to make change.
In 2014, I decided to be the one. I went to the clinic that promoted its ‘gay cure therapy’ through commercial advertisement on Baidu, the most famous search engine in China. I was scared before I entered the clinic that day. I made a phone call to my friend telling her my location and made her promise to rescue me if I didn’t contact her two hours later. It was a big and bright office in the clinic. The price of gay cure was listed on the wall at 500RMB per hour and 30,000RMB for the whole program, which offered about 30 treatments. It was much more expensive than other consultant programs. After I paid for the first hour of treatment, the doctor brought me to a small room that was decorated with several meditation pictures on the wall and a sofa on the wooden floor. He told me to lie down on the sofa and told me that since homosexual is abnormal and immoral, it’s easy to get sick. Then he started to hypnotize me. He asked me to close my eyes, relax my body, breath in and breath out. I felt comfortable and safe following his instructions. After about 20 minutes he asked me to think of a situation where I was having sex with a man. He asked me to move my finger if I had any physical or mental reaction while thinking of this. I tried to follow his instructions, but he didn’t wait for my reaction. Instead, he suddenly gave me an electric shock. I cried out loudly and jumped up from the sofa. I was so scared and asked him what had happened. He just smiled and said that’s what he wanted. Then he put the electric shock equipment in another room. Instilling a horrible feeling when you think of same-sex relationships - that’s what he had tried to do. In the ‘gay cure program’, there are 2 to 3 electric shocks, like I experienced, at each of the 30 treatments. I was so frightened at that time and ran away immediately.
We started to fight back after that. I sued the clinic after I returned to Beijing. It was both the first conversion therapy case and the first gay rights advocacy court case in China. We brought a hard question to the judge system as they had never dealt with an equal rights case from sexual minorities before. Our case earned large support from the community and from the media, and that was exactly what we needed. We needed to tell the public that homosexuality is not a disease and that gay people do not need to be cured. We also wanted to tell our community that we could stand up and make changes in the law. To our surprise, we won the case. Even more, “homosexual is not a disease” and “gay cure advertisement is illegal” were written into the judgement for the first time. The good news spread through public media, educating the public and encouraging our community.
After that, we tried to take more actions to stop conversion therapy. However, the problem works structurally. There isn’t any anti-discrimination law in China and there are no regulations to forbid ‘gay cure therapy’. We reported 10 clinics to the Ministry of Health, but received no response from them. There are also no regulations or statements from psychological or psychiatric associations because most of them haven’t received gender education in their professional career. In addition, many textbooks stigmatize homosexuality and these are often taught in universities. Knowledge and information about LGBT issues are censored in the media. All of this worsens prejudice amongst the general public, including among parents of LGBT people, against the LGBT community.
Though the LGBT movement in China is just at it’s beginning, we are fighting systematically with our community. My organization and I try to use impact litigation strategy to advocate for our equal rights and depatholigization of homosexuality. After the first conversion therapy case in 2014, we won another gay ‘cure’ case in 2017. We also brought a court case against the National Education Department to make them stop the use of textbooks that spread false information about LGBT people. By taking legal action, we are educating the public and mobilizing our community to join our movement.
There is still a long way to go, but the most important thing is that our community are getting more and more powerful on this journey. So am I.
Yanzi Peng is a queer activist from China. In 2014 he sued the clinic that treated him through hypnotism and electroshock therapy and achieved an unprecedented legal victory against Chinese clinics that treat homosexuality as an illness. He is currently studying for his MA in Public Policy at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Yanzi Peng. Image credit: CTV.