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istory within the 20th century has seen some disgusting medical experiments with the intent to torture and torment people. They say nothing was as bad as those performed by Axis within World War II, but I am sure that most people aren’t aware of the Aversion project that took place for decades without the world knowing. How would you feel if someone forcefully changed your gender?

This has all been caused by misconceptions and invented interpretations of homosexuality as it was still seen as a psychiatric illness (at least in South Africa). Although a big part of those who suffered must be blamed on the sick medical staff that had practiced such procedures, it all started with the corrupt system implemented by the National Party.

The Apartheid System

The apartheid political system was most commonly found within South Africa since 1948. This focused very much on racial segregation to be sanctioned by law. Racial segregation was a bit problem at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in the United States, but Daniel F. Malan, leader of the National Party in 1948 took it to a new narcissistic level. This allowed the South African political system to implement what they called a “separate development” system that focused on structuring the country based on three specific racial classes:

  • Bantu (all Black Africans)
  • Coloured (those of mixed race)
  • White

A fourth group was later added in the 1960s called Asians which was made up of mainly Indians and Pakistanis. Each group had a certain level of authority and opportunity within the country, whites being the most privileged. Bantu was excluded from using certain private or public business services, banned from living in certain areas only designated for other groups, and so forth.

A sign at a beach in Durban, South Africa, in 1989, during the apartheid era. It restricts use of the beach to “members of the white race group,” in accordance with South Africa’s racial segregation laws of the time. Legislated apartheid ended in the early 1990s. (Source: Public Domain)

The most important law was the Group Areas Act of 1950 which sanctioned each race to live, work and shop in specific areas of South Africa based on the color of their skin. The economical aftermath of this can be witnessed even today within South Africa, as many neighborhoods within major cities are very undeveloped, whilst others are to the standards of the 21st century. Walking in Durban today from one end to another will take you from one extreme to another.

Within these minorities that have been created through racial segregation, more subminorities have been created by the non-acceptance of homosexuality within South African communities. Those who enrolled in the South African Defense Force (SADF) had their gender changed forcefully, without consent just because they had different sexual preferences. Some experts such as Robert Kaplan who is a forensic psychiatrist and a medical writer mentioned that the apartheid system enhanced the homophobic effect within the South African society at the time. Which lead to the creation of the Aversion Project.

The Aversion Project

With the racial segregation going on during the apartheid era, medical staff within South Africa had also focused their own interests on specific races. During this era, doctors within South Africa were notoriously known for the systematic state abuse of prisoners. Many allegations of abuse of black patients in mental hospitals had been made at the end of the era, but nothing was as bad as the torture dealt in the aversion project.

This project involved extensive psychiatric abuse directed at homosexual and to a lesser extent, drug-abusing soldiers in the SADF. According to multiple reports, at the end of the apartheid era, homosexual soldiers were subjected to crude electroshock therapy based on rudimentary behavior therapy principles. A more detailed explanation of what was going on would go something like this.

Male subjects were shown pictures of men to arouse them, then given electric shocks followed by color pictures of nude women in Playboy magazines. If this failed to “treat them of their homosexuality”, the medical staff would proceed with a sex change operation.

According to an article published in 2000 by Mail&Guardian, around 900 sex-change operations were carried out during a span of 18 years. That would be around 50 sex change operations per year under the auspices of the SADF. All of these operations were performed without any sort of consent and after they were completed, the soldiers were discharged from their military service, their birth certificated were changed with the new gender and they were given new identity papers.

Sex change operations were still new, taking into consideration that the first one had been performed in 1959. This meant that they were not only performing an unwanted procedure forcefully but one that has yet not been perfected. Another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is the post-operation requirement for transexuals going through gender reassignment surgery. Today’s standards require extensive psychiatric assessment and a period of supervision lasting at least 2 years. This had not been respected, because as soon as the patients were physically stable after the operation, they were discharged.

None of them were given hormone treatment which is vital after the operation. All of them had to purchase hormonal medication that allows the body to adapt to the new gender and it is not the cheapest of treatments.

Doctor Kaplan who had done extensive research on this specific topic had mentioned that tracing the doctors involved in this treatment had proved contentious as apart from some patients that have gone through the procedure and are still alive, there is no hard copy evidence to prove something. On the other hand, Doctor Kaplan mentions that if fingers should be pointed at someone, it should be Doctor Aubrey Levin, the head of the aversion project.

Doctor Aubrey Levin in 2018 (Source: The Guardian)

From 1969 to 1974, Dr. Levin ran Ward 22 at 1 military hospital in Voortrekkerhoogte, South Africa. This is where most of the sex-change operations, as well as other gross medical practices, had taken place. Dr. Levin is now based in Canada and over the years he has strenuously denied any allegations about the abuse of soldiers whilst working under the operations of the SADF. We need to take into consideration that he did not try to shift the allegations towards the SADF.

Some say that the blame falls fully under the SADF for their complete ignorance of the scientific literature on homosexuality and transsexuality. Homosexuality was officially regarded as subversive and unacceptable by the SADF, however, attitudes varied. For example, an all homosexual unit operation from Upington was regarded as highly efficient and was praised for its combat record.

It violated many of the rights described in the South African Bill of Rights including the right to:

  • Security and control over one’s own body
  • Not be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without informed consent
  • Not be unfairly discriminated against based on sexual orientation
  • Not be tortured or punished in a cruel, inhuman, or degrading way
  • Make decisions concerning reproduction
  • Have one’s dignity respected and protected Be equal in the eyes of the law, to equal protection and benefit of the law.

Multiple patient’s rights were violated too, including the right to:

  • Participate in decision making on health policies and issues affecting your health
  • Choose a particular health facility for treatment
  • Privacy and confidentiality Informed consent — to be given full and accurate information so that you can make a decision on testing and treatment
  • Refuse treatment as long as this refusal does not endanger the health of others
  • Not be abandoned by a health care professional worker or a health facility that initially took responsibility for your health
  • Complain about health care and have these complaints investigated, and to receive a full report of the investigation

Yet, nothing has been really done to prosecute someone…

Homosexuality during the 20th century

Their only excuse was that Homosexuality was considered by most medical associations around the world as a psychiatric illness. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1973 and after many countries followed.

Article from Uncensored Magazine October 1969 promoting a cure for Homosexuality. (Source: HuffPost)

Strangely enough, before that, the medical world truly believed that homosexuality can be cured because they saw it as a mental illness, and even promoted the cure in magazines and various promotional medical posters. What was exactly the cure you may ask? Pretty much the exact same procedure by getting homosexuals aroused and shocking them. Although there was a more “humane” version used around the world called the Visually Keyed Shocker, this was made to cure real psychiatric illnesses such as:

  • Addiction
  • Masochism
  • Alcoholism
  • Aggression

However, the poster that promoted this also included tranvestism, exhibitionism, and sexual preference.

Poster advertising the Visually Keyed Shocker (Source: HuffPost)

Therefore, it should be no surprise that the world didn’t really care much, even when they found out about this project in the late 1990s. Even if the world would have known about this project in 1969, I still don’t think they would have done much to stop the SADF or Doctor Levin. The only thing that those who have been affected by this project recived was a public apology issued by the Medical Association of South Africa in 1995.

It is believed that the SADF are still committing medical abuses even to this day and psychiatry in South Africa has its reputation still stained from all the medical malpractices from the past. Being tortured with different medical practices, testing new medical treatments or even new surgical procedures is one thing, but being forced into a different gender just because society doesn’t agree is a whole different story.

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