On Friday, a Chinese activist won a landmark case against a clinic in the city of Chongqing for claiming it could shock the gay out of him.
Electroshocks and hypnotherapy, which are still used on homosexuals around the world, seem rooted in the witchcraft of another century. But clinics in China and elsewhere continue to offer these so-called treatments to reverse a predilection for same-sex romance.
With heavy censorship laws and a culture where homosexuality hasn’t yet gained acceptance, China is widely seen as unaccepting of its LGBT population—which, nonetheless, has grown more vibrant and active in the past few years.
In May, 30-year-old Yang Teng sued a clinic, Chongqing Jinyu Piaoxiang, after its staff put him in a hypnotic state, asked him to think about gay sex, and then shocked him with electrodes hooked to his hands.
Yang says he was asked to partake in the conversion therapy when he visited his parents last year, after recently revealing he was gay. Through a Web search, his parents came across the clinic and asked him to cure his homosexuality.
The treatment plan Yang says he was presented with was a 30-session therapy that cost nearly $5,000. He told The Wall Street Journal that he only paid a fraction of the price for a first treatment and was immediately turned off by the electric shock. “I thought this process probably won’t make me straight, but it could make me crazy,” he said.
Even before Yang’s victory, the case was lauded as a landmark in China, where such litigation was previously unheard of. As reparation, the court ordered $563 to be paid out to Yang and required the clinic to post an apology on its website. There will also be an investigation launched into the clinic’s medical license.
Soon after Yang filed suit, he got in touch with All Out, a gay-rights mobilization organization based in New York, and they began a petition to bring international pressure on the case.
“It really amounted to torture,” says Andre Brown, the director of All Out, of Yang’s treatment. “It’s shocking, but the world as a whole is way behind on securing basic human rights for LGBT people.”
It wasn’t until 2001 that homosexuality was declassified as an illness in China. This removal paved the way for Friday’s success. “In her decision, the judge said that homosexuality is not a disease, therefore the clinic had no basis to undertake treatment,” Yang told The Wall Street Journal.
Brown says it’s difficult to clamp down on this issue because the scope is still unknown: Sometimes the “conversion treatments” occur in private practices, sometimes in hospitals—and often the name of the treatment obscures the real intent.
Unfortunately, this type of pseudomedicine is not just China’s problem: Treatments for homosexuality are peddled around the world, and frequently in the U.S. After a number of lawsuits, only two states—New Jersey and California—have accepted a ban on gay-conversion therapy into their books. Despite at least nine other states attempting similar legislation, there has been no further success.
But the ruling in China doesn’t close this case—it could have much broader reach. Within a few months after the posting, Yang’s petition on All Out’s website had 100,000 signatures. The campaign included a push for the World Health Organization to condemn gay-conversion therapy. The WHO has agreed to meet with Yang and a number of Chinese NGOs to discuss a broader ruling on the practice.
“The gay cures are important because that’s a fundamental shift in the medical establishment,” says Brown of the campaign. “There’s a collective sense these treatments are not helpful.” And now the Chinese courts have effectively signed their name to it.