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Of air penawar and praying the gay away

It's not about how conversion therapy practices are effective or not in causing change, but rather how the practice of trying to change one's own nature or suppress it is inherently wrong.

Ahmad Yasin
4 minute read
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Ahmad Yasin

Ahmad Yasin is a student whose writing focuses on sexual minorities, education and not being angry at everything.

“Aku pernah jumpa lebai kampung aku, minta air penawar sebab aku takut jadi gay. Tapi tengok-tengok, anak lebai itu pun suka jantan.”

It was quite funny when my friend recalled his experience of “fixing” his sexuality. It is ironic to know that the person from whom you are seeking help cannot help their own blood. But it is also heartbreaking to know the extent to which someone would go just because of a fear of their own identity.

Asking for air penawar may seem quaint compared to having pepper sprayed in your eyes or being tied up and witnessing your parents having intercourse because an ustaz told them that this would cure the “gayness” of their child. But all of these acts are part of the practices that emerge from the perception that being a member of the sexual minority community is a transgression that needs a cure.

I think the community at large has a hard time understanding the diversity of identities, particularly in gender and sexuality. As the struggle to understand worsens, identities beyond what the majority comprises will be deemed an abnormality.

Now, that may be just my opinion. But if I ask anyone on the street why the community of “abnormalities” needs correctional therapy, I don’t think I would have a hard time finding people who answer with: “Well, the others say so.”

Putting aside the fallacy of appealing to the majority, conversion therapy practices are still a major hurdle for this community in achieving the life that they deserve, no matter their identity. Suffice it to say that the sexual minority community is used to being told that their identity is wrong in the eyes of God. Internalising this perception thus becomes a common struggle, and there are members of the community who live out their lives as they are, thinking that they are wrong.

But in some cases, individuals from this community face a bigger struggle, when there exists a perceived dichotomy between their sexuality/gender identity and their religiosity. They are made to choose between the two and while some may decide to abandon religiosity, most will likely choose to suppress the nature of their being, particularly when belonging to a family or religious collective is at stake.

Conversion therapy practices are rooted in the perception that heterosexuality is the norm within a religious context. I am not about to argue about it, though, and will leave it to the scholars to have their eternal debate on this topic.

The forms of the practices vary and change over time. Religious enforcers in Mukhayyam programmes may no longer beat their participants with sticks or conduct electroshock therapy to chase the gay demon away. It is the 21st century now, and modern times require modern solutions – and people are keener on suing for physical damage.

While recitations of Quranic verses are still held, a lot of the practices are psychological in nature. The participants of these conversion therapy practices are told of their misbehaviour and instilled with the fear of the damage they are doing to themselves and the people they love. They are also told that the only life worth of living is the straight way. The word “force” is rarely used. “Invite” is more common.

Am I in the wrong to think that these practices seem less correctional and more manipulative and psychologically damaging?

We need to move on from the narrative that God will only accept us if we behave or identify ourselves in a certain way. The community already has a hard enough time accepting themselves. If there is a need to appeal to a certain spiritual or religious guideline, why can’t we navigate this issue while still letting people be themselves?

If one can be passionate about the injustices faced by Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, why can’t there be the same passion for those in the sexual minority community when the nature of these practices is the same?

I don’t think I will ever run out of testimonies from people who say that conversion therapy has helped them and cured them of their perceived misdeeds. The same goes for the concentration camps for the Uighur Muslim community – there will always be a propogated propaganda that they are having a fun time erasing their own identities.

People can lie to themselves and to those around them. But deep down, we all know that beneath these projections of relief at being “corrected” are individuals and communities who face the death of their own identities. It’s not about how the practices are effective or not in causing change, but rather how the practice of trying to change one’s own nature or suppress it is inherently wrong.

Imagine a scenario in which a heterosexual individual is forced to be gay. I think all hell would break loose if this were ever to happen. I am sure that many would not be able to relate to such a scenario because they would argue that heterosexuality is inherent and anything otherwise is a choice.

I imagine this scenario not because I want to create a debate on which form of sexuality or gender identity is right or wrong, but to see if people can see that no matter your stand, being forced to change your nature is unjustifiable.

I do think that the lebai could at least have made that air penawar by blessing some Coke or cordial instead of just plain water. That way, even if it didn’t turn my friend straight, he could have had something tasty.