Politics & Lifestyle

Shame Is Not A Cure: So-called conversion ‘therapy’ practices in Kenya – A look at the GALCK+ report

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On Sep 6, 2022

Shame Is Not A Cure: So-called conversion ‘therapy’ practices in Kenya – A look at the GALCK+ report

Conversion Therapy.

When people think about this phrase they often about some archaic practice that happened ages ago during the early 70’s when folx were running around trying to ‘get rid of the gays’ in some backwater place. A practice that has no place in a world of Prides, parades, ‘we are here and queer’ and RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 100.

Sadly that is not the reality.

In a bigoted and dangerous world conversion therapy is still a very wide spread problem cropping up in different contexts, cropping up all around the world from the United States, to Afghanistan to South Africa.

The UNHCR defined Conversion Therapy as an umbrella term used ‘to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed.’

Another definition is the one given by OutRight Action International is “a process of ‘cis-gender, heteronormative indoctrination— that is, attempting to change, suppress, or divert one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

It is generally accepted, that a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity cannot be changed, and that conversion therapy, regardless of the form in which it is practiced, is harmful. It is a form of extreme violence against queer folx. The practices are a manifestation of societal, internalized homophobia and transphobia, and are fuelled by societal messaging that being LGBTIAQ+ is pathological, disordered, and warrants intervention. Given the brutality and trauma of these practices, there is a bunch of growing support for a global ban on attempts to conduct so-called conversion “therapy” by UN agencies and some prominent medical, religious and human rights organisations.

Even though this is hot violent trash and there is seemingly a move towards ‘global acceptance’ of the spectrum of sexualities a lot of people are still trying to ‘convert the gays’. These conversion practices are widespread and the reality is true within the African context.

GALCK+, a Kenyan based LGBTQ organisation conducted a study around ‘conversion practices’ within Kenya and created a report called Shame is not a cure: so-called conversion ‘therapy’ practices in Kenya. The final work was based on 547 questionnaires completed by LGBTIAQ+ respondents as well as 16 one-on-one interviews with conversion therapy practitioners and proponents.  It was part of a series of studies conducted with The Initiated For Equal Rights (TIERS) in Nigeria and Access Chapter 2 in South Africa and funded by OutRight Action International looking at the practice around the region.  The report wanted to explore the link between Kenyan attitudes toward homosexuality, anti-homosexuality legislation and the proliferation of conversion “therapies” and provide a platform for the lived experiences of survivors.

The study documents the existence and extent of so-called conversion “therapy” among LGBTIAQ+ people in Kenya and the methods and rationales of the practitioners who conduct these “therapies.” It showed how in these “therapies,” LGBTIAQ+ folx are subjected to “corrective” violence including beatings, enforced starvation, r*pe, and forced isolation or confinement as well as the administration of drugs and hormones.

Folx were forced into doing it through threats of violence, loss of family relationships and economic support. These are some of the ways families, religious leaders and school officials intensely pressured and ultimately coerced folx into the “therapies.”

The GALCK+ report showed that the 44% of 547 respondents indicated that they had experienced conversion practices, while 35% knew someone who had undergone conversion practices. Of the 496 folx who responded to a question about identifying the perpetrators of conversion practices, 26% identified licensed health professionals, 27% identified individual religious leaders and 23% identified family members as perpetrators of conversion practices. So-called conversion “therapy” practitioners in Kenya include private and public mental and physical health-care providers, faith-based organisations and religious leaders, traditional healers and even state agents. The folx who pushed initially for and facilitated the ‘conversion’ therapy included family and community members, political authorities and others.

The report also included a bunch of findings which included:

1. Conversion Therapy Practices against folx increased in intensity from moment of discovery starting from things like family talks and conversations, then escalating to counselling/prayer, then to violence/economic duress.

2. There is pressure for quick social conformity for respondents who were outed or unknowingly discovered by their family members.

3. Health care practitioners were often the first step to push for conversion therapy, and were getting away with a lot of unethical practices, sometimes even breaking the law e.g., taking survivors through forced anal testing that’s now illegal in Kenya.

4. That sometimes conversion therapy is sought by LGBTIQ+ people themselves which was such heart-breaking find because internalized homophobia is so real.

Internalized homophobia and seeking therapy

Now this last point really hit home, because often people will ask ‘why would you choose to engage in something like this that is akin to torture?

The people who sought out the therapies shared a bunch reasons including intense, but at times unspoken, social and family judgement or pressure and even fear of being cut off financially. Some folx said they chose to undergo conversion “therapy” because they believed they were not “normal” or had mental health issues, such as self-hatred and depression or because they valued social and family conformity more than affirming their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The report gathered some stories from folx who sought out the therapy:

‘The future of my life as a queer person was too scary. I grew up religious and I wanted to be normal like everyone else. Also, it was said often that it’s possible to change if you really want to change it.’

‘Our principal gave us two options: to be expelled or go to therapy and not be expelled.’

‘I really thought I was not normal, and I felt neglected and abandoned. I also did not want to let my family down. I really thought I was “ill”.’

‘My biggest reason was my dad who threatened to kick me out in Form 3, though I moved out eventually.’

‘My parents disowned me with the claim that they would only have me back if I stopped being ‘gay’. They cut me off financially. I was in my last semester in campus, and I did not have upkeep and had a tuition balance. I opted to try to change my sexual orientation in order to get the financial support and be around my family. They introduced me to a local doctor who had convinced them that it was not natural. He would call me to follow up on my conversion giving feedback to my parents. This was the only way I could get support from them. I was ex- communicated from all family events to the point I could not attend family burials. They did not pay my rent and insisted that I was staying with men. My father would have random visits to confirm it.’

Folx speak on conversion therapy experiences

The report collected the stories of LGBTQ+ folx in Kenya who were brave enough to share their experiences that most times unearthed pain and deeply traumatic situations.

‘My dad found out I was a lesbian at the age of 20. He was furious and called all my uncles and elder family members. They all agreed that I should be baptised by fresh cow waste and drink the blood for me to be cleansed (sic). They did but after some time they realized I haven’t changed so they were forcing me to get married and that’s when I ran away. Before that, I was given an elder to talk to me every day.’

‘Conversion therapy is a death wish. It doesn’t change you. It harms you. It makes you hate yourself. You constantly feel like you are not normal. No one should go through that regardless of the circumstance.’

‘I was advised to meet a psychologist. My family believed that I was not normal mentally when I was caught by my dad watching gay porn. My first psychologist wanted to change my sexual orientation stating that I was mentally disturbed. After that I was referred to another psychologist who was against conversion practises. My parents terminated the therapy sessions and decided to find an Imam to come pray and teach me good moral ways of life. I was put through a lot of pressure, but I have not been attracted by the opposite sex. Until now I am still undergoing prayers and from what am hearing I might be scheduled to visit a religious camp… I am stranded and confused.’

‘People involved in trying to “convert” me were police, the pastor and village elders. For six months I was taken to the police station for beating, for about twice a week. The beating was always followed along by a written confession that I will change. I was first beaten by my dad and forced to kneel down for 5-hour prayer as they were binding the spirit in me, commanding it to come out by force by thunder. I thought things would change but I couldn’t change who I am. In fact, things became more worse as I couldn’t hide what I feel…’ My father was there to see all this. My father used to lock me up in the house and not allow my male friends to come. Each Sunday I would be taken to my pastor for serious prayers and even had one-on-one meetings with different pastors who wasted their anointing oil and water (the blood of Jesus) to cast out the demon of who am out but it never worked. It was just a painful experience.

‘People involved in trying to “convert” me were the police, the pastor and village elders. For six months I was taken to the police station for beating, for about twice a week. The beating was always followed along by a written confession that I will change.’

‘I was caught in the act of having sex with my boyfriend and I was taken to our local counsellor in Machakos hospital. I was forced to be screened for mental issues, later to be subjected to daily counselling sessions by the counsellor. My dad would later scare me that he would kill me if I don’t stop being gay.’

Approaches to Conversion Therapy

The approaches to these therapies vary and one approach is the “Pray the gay away” conversion therapy/ This often stems from a strong religious conviction that humankind is meant to be organized around strict gender binaries and roles. Folw who are coming at it from this religious space, often through the lens of the Christian right, specifically rely on the creation story of Adam and Eve as God’s design for a world of men and women who procreate to fulfil a higher purpose.

Others from other Abrahamic religions — including Judaism, Islam, Mormonism and other Orthodox religious denominations — rely on their religious beliefs to argue that being a homosexual is abhorrent and therefore, sinful.

This type of therapy is super tricky to identify because it runs within religious communities. What tends to happen is that the “therapy” is just one program in many, mostly targeting youth, which makes it almost impossible for those not in the in-group to access details around what’s happening. Secondly, because families, especially parents and siblings of LGBTIAQ+ people are primarily responsible for recruiting the victim into conversion therapy programs, the victim is likely to suffer in silence for fear of abandonment, punishment and/or eviction. Many Kenyan churches, even when not openly offering conversion “therapy” programming, tend to operate in those the blurred lines.

Another approach uses ‘science’ or more specifically pseudo-science. Real hot trash outdated stuff that was debunked ages ago.

 “Conversion therapists” often argue that scientifically, LGBTIAQ+ persons have psychological and/ or sexual development problems that could be solved through “scientific” methods. Often led by psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, and a whole range of quack “therapists” and “life coaches,” this group uses medicine, talk therapy and other alleged strategies with the aim of causing sufficient discomfort for LGBTIAQ+ to associate their sexual desires and behaviour with negative emotion or pain.

Aversion technique programming gained ground globally as a form of conversion “therapy” for people with same-sex attraction and desire throughout the last century. Initially used for alcoholism and other addictive and destructive behaviours, aversion techniques are aimed at making an LGBTIAQ+ individual come to see their identity as undesirable and destructive but ultimately “curable”.

The report by GALCK+ has a lot of really incredible information. Go and check it out here.

For more pieces check out this one on staying in the closet as an act of self care and this one about coming out to loved one: a short toolkit to help.

Check out the Basically…Life Podcast (on all platforms) and our YouTube series We Are F**kin Here for other vibes that show how queers are living, lovin’ and f*ckin.

For more info about all things gender and sexuality download our Touch Manual which has a bunch of info about dating, sexuality, gender, sex and much more!

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