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Just who needs a cure?

in CHINA, 02/06/2011

The therapist seemed to sincerely believe that homosexuality is not only something that needed curing but that his treatment could do it.

His over-the-phone pitch to this reporter, who was responding to a website testimonial, centered on the difficult life gays and lesbians face in China.

His choice of words seemed designed to emphasize that homosexuality was some sort of condition. "Think about it, gays are different than 'normal' people," said Doctor Zhu Zhengyu at Beijing Defu Psychological Counseling Center.

"Sure they can have kids by other means, but whatever you do it goes against nature," he said.

In trying to coax the caller into making an appointment, Zhu suggested that going straight is something that should be done for parents and the family's linage.

"You are causing your family such pain, and you will likely be discriminated against in society, which is also painful," said Zhu.

The doctor never seemed to grasp that his reasoning and logic could just as easily be applied to straight couples.

"Very few gay couples are happy," Zhu said. "Their relationships are unstable. People can break up and walk away just like that."

When asked if he would instead try to persuade parents to accept a gay daughter, Zhu said he could, "but it still won't do you any good to stay gay," he warned.

Zhu wouldn't discuss details of the treatment he would provide but said counseling fees range from 600 to 5,000 yuan per hour.

Zhu's clinic is far from the only counseling center to promote a "gay cure." A simple search of the Internet turned up several dozen such specialty services, indicating that despite recent progress China still lags behind many other countries in acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality.

Intolerance on the decline

Homosexuality was listed as a crime in China until 1997. It wasn't until 2001 that it was de-listed as a mental illness.

"It's a bunch of nonsense of course," said Zhang Beichuan, China's leading scholar on the study of homosexuality in response to the notion homosexuality is something that needs curing. His book Homosexual Love, published in 1994, was the first in China to openly and sympathetically deal with the subject of homosexuality.

"These doctors apparently don't read books and haven't updated their knowledge," he said. "Such services are frauds; they're doing it for the money," he warned.

Aversion therapy horror stories

In the 1980s and 1990s homosexuals were given what many people today would see as torture treatments.

"They'd place a metal ring on the genitals, and show a patient pictures of naked men or have male models walk around them naked," said Zhang, 63. "If they got an erection, they'd be given an electric shock."

The result of these treatments, admonished Zhang, was not only a loss of sex drive but depression and even suicide. "Over the long run, people's sexual orientation cannot be changed," he said.

Experts and gay activists agree that Chinese society in general – especially young people – has become more tolerant towards the gay community over the past decade. There has also been a growth in gay and lesbian organizations, which were previously banned.

"I am happy with who I am. I'm proud to be gay, I'm proud to be a filmmaker. I have all sorts of identities," said Fan Popo, a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker. "I think the most important thing is to recognize and accept yourself."

When Fan came out to his parents in 2009, their first reaction was to ask whether it was curable. "They are not well-educated, so I tell them all about it, convincing them that being gay is not a disease," said Fan. "They've gradually accepted it."

"Homosexuality is not a disease, there's no need to treat it," said Fan who is also a board member of a non-profit organization that promotes tolerance of the gay community. "The solution is not to 'cure' them, but to help people accept who they are."

Sexologist and sociologist Fang Gang believes that the therapists offering to "cure" homosexuality truly believe sexual orientation can be changed. "They lack understanding and acceptance of sexual diversity," said Fang adding their prejudices only cause more pain.

Rejection a source of pain

"The mainstream psychology in China is still very conservative which views only monogamous, heterosexual sex as correct," said Fang who works with practicing psychiatrists, training them to be more open towards sexual diversity and to abandon their prejudices.

The stigma many families of homosexuals still feel stems at least in part from the centuries-old belief that bearing offspring is the greatest way to express filial piety.

"Our culture links sex primarily to reproduction, which is another reason why society in general still has a hard time accepting homosexuality," said scholar and author Zhang.

Over the years Zhang has received thousands of letters recounting personal struggles and family clashes over a child's sexual orientation. A young man's father went to prison for killing his son's partner. A judge in Henan Province hired people to gang rape and kill his daughter's lover, said Zhang, citing a few examples of senseless tragedy.

Zhang's years of research show that more than half of the gay men he interviewed felt oppressed and over 30 percent had suicidal thoughts. The gay population is also vulnerable to discrimination at work and blackmail, said Zhang.

For many gays and lesbians "coming out" is still not an option and to please their parents or hide from intolerance they enter heterosexual marriages. Zhang believes 80 percent of gay men in China end up marrying women.

Wu Youjian, 64, may be one of the first mothers to openly support a gay son, and in 2008 helped establish Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). "Many parents believe that homosexuality is a disease and would do anything to cure it," said Wu, who receives many e-mails and phone calls from conflicted gays and their parents.

During the third PFLAG meeting last October in Beijing, two parents from Hebei Province said they had been taking their gay son to doctors for more than 10 years but the treatments, which began when he was 18, have only resulted in making him depressed.

Society needs changing

"Many parents take their kids to the doctors out of love. They need better knowledge, especially from authoritative figures such as educators and experts," she said. When her son came out 12 years ago, it didn't take Wu long to accept reality. "I don't really care what other people think," she said. "Being gay is natural."

Sociologist Li Yinhe's 2008 survey of public attitudes toward homosexuality found that most people are ambivalent, voicing neither strong support nor outright rejection. Over 90 percent of the randomly selected 400 people in Chinese cities said gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination and over 80 percent believe gay and straight people are born equal.

Li's survey also points to some obvious remaining challenges to ending intolerance and prejudice. About 75 percent of the people surveyed say they would tolerate a gay family member but they still hope he or she could change.

"We should realize that the mental struggle is caused by the society and the culture we live in, which makes people hate themselves," said Zhang. "We should criticize and change society, instead of gay people."

Zhang often comforts gay people who seek his advice with words and notions many have never heard before, telling them that "there's nothing wrong with you. It's not your fault; it's society that's wrong."

For the last decade, sociologist Li has helped draft proposals to allow same sex marriages that were put forward at the annual meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress and the National People's Congress. Every year they are ignored, she said.

"We need to change people's mind, fight discrimination against gays just like any other form of discrimination," said Li.

Cures that Kill: a documentary

Cures that Kill tells the story of A Wen, a Chongqing-based photographer, and Sander Chan, a Dutch-Chinese, who both struggle with their homosexuality. A Wen is repeatedly sent to mental hospitals to deal with his "odd behavior" which is a result of being secretly gay.

Sander Chan seeks to change his sexual orientation through religion. Eventually the two learn to come to terms with their homosexuality.

"There are many things over the years that inspired the film," said director Wei Xiaogang. In 2007, a Western religious group tried to organize a seminar in Beijing on curing homosexuality. The meeting was canceled under pressure from the gay rights activist groups, said Wei.

"There was also this pill advertised online claiming that it could cure homosexuality," Wei recalled.

The documentary includes interviews with several therapists who changed their views about homosexuality and are now dedicated to helping gays and lesbians accept their sexual orientation.

Wei sought gay people who were willing to appear on camera. "Because that's an important message we want to deliver, that there's noneed to hide," said Wei. "There is no shame of being who we are."

Wei hopes help people understand that homosexuality is not a disease that needs to be treated, which is why the film's Chinese title is simply Born Gay.

Cures that Kill was released to coincide with this year's International Day Against Homophobia and commemorates 10 years since China de-listed homosexuality as mental illnesses.

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