The Confucian desire to be a dutiful son or daughter can lead to horrible therapies.
In 2011 Lin Yan attended the Chuanwei Psychological Counselling Centre in Shenzhen, a southern city. Worried that his parents would not accept his homosexuality, Mr Lin, who was then 24 (and now uses a pseudonym), spent $US1,700 on three months of so-called “conversion therapy”.
He was shown sexualised images of men and induced to vomit by an injected drug. Other techniques included what he describes as “mental torture”. A counsellor would repeat that his family would never forgive him and that being gay was immoral. He endured electric shocks.
Mr Lin’s treatment may be abhorrent but it is far from uncommon in China’s big cities. The country declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001. Today urban centres harbour vibrant gay scenes and even hold cautious gay-pride festivals. There are over 100 support groups around the country. But the idea that homosexuality is a curable disease prevails in rural areas and among older generations.
Almost all young people come under pressure to provide an heir, a basic tenet, influenced to a certain extent by Confucianism, that leads some young people to feel their homosexuality must be unfilial. Zhang Beichuan of Qingdao University, in east-central China, reckons that four-fifths of young gay men in China end up marrying women. Those in such predicaments are drawn to clinics which offer counselling to gay people and services including what is often touted as a “cure”. Enrolling in such schemes can cost $US5,000 or more–a fortune for most Chinese.
Elsewhere in the world, therapies that purport to turn gay, lesbian or bisexual people into heterosexuals have been discredited. The American Psychiatric Association says undergoing such treatment risks depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour. The United Kingdom Council for Pyschotherapy calls the practice unethical.
In China, where conversion clinics have operated for decades, there has been no such outcry from medical or official bodies. In December LGBT Rights Advocacy China, a non-profit organisation in Beijing, staged a small protest outside one clinic. The group’s members held signs saying: “homosexuality is not an illness”.
They sent 20 letters to the health bureaus of ten cities with details of clinics offering what they say are illegal services. No one has written back. Clinics need special licences to administer physical treatments such as electric shocks, says Mr Zhang. Few of them have the proper paperwork.
They also lack proper professional standards. A counsellor at the Nanjing Urban Psychological Counselling Centre says he uses hypnosis to uncover the “root cause of the homosexual tendency” in childhood memories. A statement on the clinic’s website says that boys born into families with a strong female presence are more likely to be gay. Alternative medicine or electrotherapy is administered to create an aversion. The counsellor claims a 70% success rate.
Mr Lin counts himself a fortunate failure. He spent all his savings on his treatment and suffered anxiety, insomnia, weight and hair loss. But he remained gay. Seeing no alternative, he came out to his parents. It has taken his mother months to come to terms with his sexuality. Eventually she joked that if her son was to bring a boyfriend home, he should at least be rich and handsome.
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