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Nov 9, 2018
The Daily Star
Experts start campaign against gay ‘conversion therapy’
Abby Sewell| The Daily Sta
BEIRUT: Amid an increasingly tense atmosphere around questions of sexuality in Lebanon, a group of Lebanese health care professionals and LGBTQ rights advocates Thursday launched a campaign against the practice of “conversion therapy.” Representatives of LebMASH, a nonprofit focused on wellbeing and sexual health in the LGBTQ population, that launched the campaign, and other Lebanese mental health practitioners said that “conversion therapy” attempts remain common in Lebanon.
That’s in spite of the fact that the international psychiatric community generally holds that homosexuality is not a mental illness and cannot be treated as such.
“We base ourselves on the scientific data, and we don’t recognize [homosexuality] as a disorder,” Aimee Karam, a clinical psychologist and president of the Lebanese Psychological Association, told The Daily Star. Therefore, she said, conversion therapy “is considered as coercive and ... harmful. It’s a transgression of what we consider as ethical in terms of treatment delivery.”
The American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973.
In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
The Lebanese Psychiatric Society and the Lebanese Psychological Association followed suit in 2013, announcing that homosexuality is not a disorder and “conversion therapies” have no scientific basis.
George Karam, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist and board member of the Lebanese Psychiatric Society, said that was the first time a professional organization in an Arab country had taken such a stand.
“Five years later we’re returning and stressing on the subject: Homosexuality is not a disease and because it’s not a disease, there’s nothing that can treat it,” he said. “So anyone who is using these treatment methods is working outside of science.”
But a large swath of the Lebanese population remains unconvinced: A 2015 study conducted by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, a Lebanon-based group focused on LGBTQ and gender issues, found that 72 percent of those surveyed believed homosexuality to be a mental disorder and 79 percent agreed that homosexual people should be taken in for psychological or hormonal treatment.
Omar Fattal, a founding member of LebMASH and assistant chief for quality at the Bellevue Hospital Department of Psychiatry in New York, told The Daily Star, “The ultimate outcome we’re hoping for is to thwart these attempts [at ‘conversion therapy’], to get them banned and not practiced. But I think, to be more realistic, we’re hoping to move the needle on those numbers.
“Gradually, step by step, we can get to the point where people stop believing in myths or old theories.”
A study by LebMASH and the LGBTQ rights group Helem found the treatment was most commonly applied to young people whose parents hoped to change their sexual orientation. In most cases, they found the treatment involved verbal pressure and coaxing: One young man told the advocates that his therapist advised him to go to a “super night club” and have sex with a sex worker as a “cure.” In some other cases, patients were prescribed testosterone and Viagra.
In one case, a physician a urologist spoke publicly of using electroshock therapy to treat homosexual people. However, the advocates said they were unable to locate anyone who had actually been subjected to such treatment in Lebanon. The urologist, reached by telephone, declined to comment for this article.
As part of the new campaign, LebMASH had intended to post billboards declaring, “Homosexuality is not a disease,” but the billboards were denied by General Security censors and had to be canceled, the advocates said. Instead, the campaign will largely focus on social media.
The launch of the campaign Thursday came as a debate around “conversion therapy” is playing out in another venue after the American University of Beirut’s student newspaper, The Outlook, published an opinion piece by a student advocating psychological therapy for people with “homosexual tendencies.”
The piece provoked an outcry among the campus LGBTQ community and its supporters, who accused the publication of giving a venue to homophobia and “hate speech.”
The Outlook editorial board, in a statement published on social media, said the article in question had been part of a group of six articles presenting varying views on homosexuality, half of them supportive of the LGBTQ community and others expressing “mixed opinions and perspectives.”
They argued the article in question had been “misinterpreted and taken out of context in a malicious way.”
The debate also comes on the heels of several incidents in which events organized by LGBTQ organizations were canceled or disrupted following complaints by conservative religious groups. In late September, the annual conference organized by AFE was forced to move venues following a complaint by the Muslim Scholars Council, an association of Sunni religious leaders, and a crackdown by General Security.
And last month, a Halloween “queer mixer” organized by AUB’s Gender & Sexuality Club was canceled after the event was denounced by Lebanon’s former grand mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, leading the organizers to fear a violent reaction.
Fattal said he hopes the current LebMASH campaign won’t run into further problems with authorities.
“Were not bringing up religion and politics,” he said.
“We’re a group of health care professionals basically talking about what science says, talking about the literature, talking about scientific facts. And if that’s going to get banned, Lebanon is in trouble.”
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