Documentary: Cures that Kill

Documentary about turning gay people straight in China

How much does it cost to become straight in China? Staff at Beijing’s Guo’ao Psychology Hospital claim that they can straighten you out in two to five sessions (500RMB-800RMB a pop) once you have paid a 10RMB registration fee. Although, they caution, everyone’s situation is different and it may take a lot longer.
The information was provided through a chat window on the hospital’s website manned by the therapists themselves – therapists seemingly chafing at the bit to get anyone who inquires to register and sit themselves on the couch as soon as possible. And that, says filmmaker Xiaogang Wei (pictured), is what ‘curing’ gays is all about: profits.
‘It’s very clear they just want our money’ says Wei, who is currently working on a documentary about the practice. ‘They tell us: “As long as you are gay, we will still treat you.”’ Wei is also the founder of Queer Comrades, an online podcast of gay themed shows, which will also host this film.
He describes how he was inspired to begin the project. ‘About two years ago, a Chinese company started to sell a special pill online [治同性恋胶囊 or Cure Homosexuality Medical Capsule] that was said to cure gayness, 100 per cent,’ Wei explains. Of course, it couldn’t, he adds, and the product has since been withdrawn after an outcry from the gay community and several academics. But it planted the seed in Wei’s mind to further explore the topic.
We have all heard of mostly religious-based sexuality conversion camps in the West (Exodus International is one of the more notorious ones). China has nothing like that, says Wei, but there are many hospitals, including Guo’ao in Beijing, claiming to be able to cure homosexuality.
Wei and his team contacted four or five of these hospitals around the country, asking them for an interview. All declined. However, they did record phone inquiries with hospital staff where they asked for details of the treatment. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The therapists said they were open to counselling patients to accept their sexual orientation, not just to help them to become straight. (‘That’s up to the patient to decide.’) Their methods are restricted to therapy – there is no electric shock treatment or pills to take. One doctor said he had many patients, some who voluntarily came and others who were brought in by their parents. Another said: ‘If you’ve been around the gay circuit for many years, then your chances of being cured are not so good.’ But they all said they had had successful cases where gay patients turned straight.
Until 2001, China classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Now, like in most of the rest of the world, gays and lesbians are being cautiously accepted as part of society. So why, then, are hospitals trying to cure something that is officially not a disease?
‘China has lots of rules and lots of contradictions. Homosexuality is no longer an illness yet you still have these hospitals that claim they can cure you. It doesn’t make sense,’ mulls Wei. ‘And these hospitals can legally and openly advertise these services online, but there’s nobody to supervise what they are doing.’
In the film, Fang Gang, a sexologist from Beijing Forestry University, explains that one of the main problems is that university textbooks still talk about homosexuality as a 变态 (perversion) and this may be what causes health professionals to misunderstand it.
The documentary will be showing at the French Cultural Centre to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (Tuesday 17). As well as an interview with Fang (who is pro sexual diversity), the film features several therapists who help gays and lesbians come to terms with their sexuality, and some surprises.
Wei adds that it was a shame he didn’t get any of the hospitals to agree to an interview or find someone who had successfully undergone sexual reorientation therapy to appear on camera, but it is not his style to go undercover or to arrange hidden identity interviews.
‘I don’t like this style of documentary, of going undercover,’ he explains. ‘In one way, I would feel like I am doing something really good, but in another way I would feel that I am creating weird ways to explore the truth. It’s just a way I don’t like to find the truth.’ The whole point of Queer Comrades, he explains, is to encourage gays and lesbians to come out in the open and feel good about their sexuality. And so his style of filmmaking has to reflect this.

The documentary 'Cures that kill' screens on Thursday 19 May 2011 at the French Cultural Centre. See for more information.