Kamal*, a gay man in his mid-twenties, recently visited a mental health clinic in a state-run hospital. He has been experiencing stigma, discrimination, and harassment due to his sexual orientation and has been suffering from mental health issues as a result. However, the response of the psychiatrist was unexpected. Instead of listening to Kamal’s problems and offering advising from a medical standpoint, the psychiatrist reprimanded Kamal, saying that ‘homosexuality’ was wrong and unnatural, and it was the cause of all his problems. He went on to pressure Kamal to ‘change himself’ if he wants to be helped. He was told that no medical professional in the world would be able to assist him with his mental health issues if he continued to be gay.
This is not the only such incident that has taken place in Sri Lanka. EQUAL GROUND and other organisations advocating for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTIQ) rights have received complaints against mental health practitioners and medical professionals because they demanded or advised LGBTIQ persons to ‘turn straight.’ Recently, a video surfaced on social media of a doctor attached to the University of Sri Jayawardenapura claiming that ‘homosexuality’ can be ‘corrected’. It is a video interview in which the doctor erroneously states that homosexuality is caused by external events in the individual’s past; especially in childhood, and/or hormone imbalances. He also says that diverse sexual orientations can be passed down genetically. Most concerningly, he claims, based on his personal experience, that homosexuality can be corrected, and such people can be turned to heterosexuality with counselling.
Meanwhile, certain hospitals and clinics in Sri Lanka also provide conversion therapy – the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity from LGBT to straight (heterosexual). For instance there are hospitals that list ‘homosexuality’ and ‘transvestitism’ as conditions that can be treated with its medical hypnosis service.
Sri Lankan society is structured on strict gender roles and responsibilities, where anything that strays from heteronormative and binary gender standards is considered abnormal and deserving of punishment/discrimination.
The world of psychiatry and medical bodies have largely accepted that diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities/Expressions (SOGIE) are not mental or physical illnesses. Further, the World Medical Association (WMA) has strongly emphasised “that homosexuality does not represent a disease, but a normal variation within the realm of human sexuality.” Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO), International Classification of Diseases (ICD) removed homosexuality from its list of diseases in 1990 and states that “sexual orientation by itself is not to be considered a disorder”. Since non-heteronormative sexual orientations and gender identities are not considered as mental or physical illnesses or disorders, there is nothing to cure or correct. In other words, all Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities/Expressions are natural and valid. Conversion and correction therapies are considered pseudoscientific practices and are widely discredited in the medical field. Also, there are no credible scientific studies that prove that conversion therapy is effective in any way. In fact, the United Nations (UN) has stated that such practices can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
It is important to note that while diverse SOGIE are not considered mental illnesses on their own, LGBTIQ people do tend to suffer from mental illnesses, due to the prejudices, discrimination, harassment, marginalisation, violence, they may face. Research has shown that globally, LGBTIQ persons experience much higher rates of depression; even leading to self-harm and suicide in certain instances.
In this context, inaccurate statements made by medical practitioners, especially those working in the field of mental health, cause irreparable harm to patients; on a larger scale, it is another way that LGBTIQ persons are marginalised in Sri Lanka, as they cannot access proper mental healthcare, due to the biased, uniformed, and unethical practices of medical professionals.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.
To obtain EQUAL GROUND’s Counselling Services, visit https://www.facebook.com/EGcounsellinghotline/ or
call +94-11-4334277 (LB women),
+94-11-4334278 (Transgender Persons),
(The writer is the Media and Communications Officer, EQUAL GROUND)