The Aversion Project

Soldier under 'treatment'
Soldier under ‘treatment’

The Aversion Project was a medical torture program in South Africa led by Dr. Aubrey Levin during apartheid. The project identified gay soldiers as conscripts who used drugs in the South African Defence Forces (SADF). Victims were forced to submit to “curing” their homosexuality because the SADF considered homosexuality to be “subversive” and those who were homosexual were subject to punishment.

History

During the Apartheid Era in South Africa there existed a dual policy on homosexuality in the South African military. This dual policy consisted of two major components which prohibited permanent members of the force from being homosexual, while permitting homosexuality amongst conscripts. The dual policy was adopted because officials believed that banning homosexuality from the military completely would give a specific group of individuals – young, white South African men – a convenient way to avoid serving in the military. Thus, the dual policy was adopted and enforced; however, with toleration of homosexuality came forced ‘therapy,’ such as compulsion shock therapy, castration, and other forms of ‘therapy’ which were said to significantly violate basic human rights. Between 1971 and 1989, victims were submitted to chemical castration and electric shock treatment meant to cure them of their homosexuality. This trend was heavily supported by psychiatrists with the idea that homosexuals were mentally ill, which was stated in the American Psychiatric Associations “Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders”. Conscripts with this proclaimed ‘mental illness’ were treated significantly different than other members of the military. They were not given military leadership positions and they were not entrusted with sensitive information. During the course of the shock therapy treatment electrodes were strapped to the upper arm with wires, then run through a dial calibrated from 1 to 10, varying the current. Homosexual soldiers were shown black and white pictures of a naked man and were encouraged to fantasize, at which a point the person-in-charge would administer a shock if the soldiers showed any form of sexual response and voltage was increased throughout the treatment if the soldiers continued to exhibit sexual responses. The patient would then be shown a colored picture of a woman, which was supposed to stimulate arousal, however, more often than not, this failed. As a result of these failures, there is also evidence that sexual realignment procedures took place on the individuals who were unable to be ‘cured.’  Because there is no scientific evidence to prove that ‘therapies’ have the ability to altar ones sexuality, these tortures reached their peak during the 1970s, where therapy for homosexual soldiers was no longer supported by the field of mental health. Consequently, the definition of homosexuals as mentally ill was removed from the American Psychiatric Associations manual in 1973, and the treatment was left behind.

The Aversion Research Project

A team of individuals: academic researchers and activists on behalf of the LGBTQ community came together in order to obtain more information about the treatment of homosexual military personnel during the Apartheid Era. This was a research project based on qualitative methodology that helped to further examine why homosexuality was considered to be unusual behavior at that time. Various homosexual individuals – who were targets of the conversion therapy – along with the families and friends of these individuals were interviewed in order to obtain in-depth, first hand, experiences of those directly impacted. Prior to following through with the project, the researchers had to be approved by a research committee. However, the research committee had an issue with researchers using the word abuse as a way of describing what happened to homosexual military personnel. The research committee believed that considering the conversion ‘therapy’ to be abuse was only an assumption, it was not supported by factual evidence. Therefore, the term abuse, when used in the research project, had to be supported with factual evidence. Additionally, the researchers considered the actions of psychologists initiating this conversion shock therapy as a human rights violation. The research ethics committee, on the other hand, did not agree. This raised concerns about the research project because the committee did not want this to be an investigation into the practices of medical officials involved in the military. Furthermore, the committee questioned the sampling methods of the researchers. Because researchers would be accepting volunteers, they found that the sampling method used would not be representative of the experience as a whole.

Medical Abuse of homosexuals in South Africa

The medical abuse of patients in South Africa can be seen in various situations, aside from just the conversion therapy. To protect the health of your citizens includes treating them all with the same respect and equality. A doctors first priority should be working towards finding a solution for the medical problem the patient presents them with. However, different than many other countries, South Africa was still very religiously traditional and divided racially amongst its citizens. This led to the connection between being homophobic and engaging in a violation of human rights. LGBT patients health issues were neglected and stereotyped. Doctors showed clear discrimination against LGBT patients when they paid less attention to fulfilling their needs because of the association of HIV-AIDS with homosexual men. This led to inadequate health care, and additional abuse from those who value the medical opinion of doctors. One can also attribute the abuse of homosexuals to economic and social problems that South Africa may have been facing during that time. This can be explained by some as the need to regain social control. The racial divide in South Africa put anyone other than the white man outside of the norm. According to Sander Gilman, “the worldwide concept of pervasion is the basic quality ascribed to the other. in turn blacks, women, and those deemed sexually deviant were seen as fundamentally disordered and were institutionalized in numbers far higher than straight white men” This bothering can be used to explain why whites in South Africa felt so strongly about homosexuality, and finding a way to get rid of it.

Dr. Aubrey Levin

Dr. Levin was the primary leader of the project against homosexual military personnel. He argued that the same type of procedures could cure other groups. These included drug addicts and the disturbed (those who did not want to serve in the apartheid military). He started the project and ran Ward 22 at 1 Military Hospital, in Voortrekkerhoogte, which is where majority of the patients were treated. He was one of 24 other doctors that were warned by the truth and reconciliation commission that what they were doing was a violation of human rights, and they risked being labeled as perpetrators of human rights abuses. Dr. Levin has admitted to the abuse claiming that all patients were “volunteers” Since then, Dr. Levin has been accused of many more instances of medical foul practice, targeting many other men (not only those who identified as homosexual). He was sentenced in a 5- year prison sentence on April 23, 2014, which is where he currently resides awaiting release.

Dr. Aubrey Levin
Dr. Aubrey Levin

Post-Project

After the conversion therapy was noticeably failing, staff came up with an alternative. As a result, whenever treatments would not work, they put patients through a sex change operation. This included being put through surgery and being given a new identity. Patients would then be discharged from the military, and advised to cut themselves off from family and friends. As many as 900 homosexuals, mostly 16–24 year-olds who had been drafted, were surgically turned into women and given birth certificates to fit their modified anatomy. This surgery was done in military hospitals and a high rate of patients died during surgery. Additionally, the reassignments were often incomplete, leaving patients with a halfway finished procedures. After being discharged there were no follow-up appointments to finish the surgeries or check on their progress mentally and physically. In order to stay on track with their gender reassignment, patients needed an expensive supply of hormones, but they typically lacked the means to pay for these hormones to maintain their new identities. When converting from one sex to another, there is a lengthy process that accompanies the success; individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically for the drastic changes that are going to take place. Without this preparation, patients also faced depression leading to many of these patients to committing suicide.

Facts

The approach taken by the SADF to treating the homosexual and transsexual patients were done with extremely old knowledge that can be taken back to the ideologies of Havelock Ellis.

The requirement for homosexuals going through gender reassignment surgery is to have extensive assessment and a period of supervision for two years.

Homosexuality: is a matter of sexual preference.

Transsexualism: is a disorder of gender identity.

Had allegations been confirmed they would be ranked among the worst psychiatric abuse since the Nazi era.

In 1995 the Medical Association of South Africa issued a public apology for past wrongdoings.

Source

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