A Global Call for De-medicalizing Queerness: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Kanav N Sahgal

The marginalization and oppression of queer people around the world date back centuries. During the British colonial rule in India, for instance, Section 377 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code criminalized private and consensual same-sex activity, while the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 criminalized an entire section of people whom our erstwhile colonial masters deemed deviant (mostly ‘eunuchs’- a stigmatizing colonial term for Hijras or Kinnars).

And, although the postcolonial Indian state eventually repealed both these laws, their vestiges still haunt us to this day. Case in point, an incident in Hyderabad last year (2020) in which Kojjas and Hijras were publicly blamed for spreading the Corona virus in India- this, despite the passage of the 2014 NALSA judgment which not only recognized the existence of the third gender but also called for their inclusion in Indian society. 

It should be noted that although India might have repealed parts of IPC 377, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar/Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei still have not. Section 377 still remains in all their statute books except Singapore’s, which repealed Section 377 but opted to keep section 377A – an act that explicitly prohibits private and consensual sexual activity between males. And even today, efforts to decriminalize these laws continue to be met with fierce resistance.

But it isn’t just the law that is pitted against queer people. So is medicine, and the global medical fraternity is complicit in this. There is plenty of evidence demonstrating how doctors, psychiatrists, and parents around the world have used (and continue to use) unscientific and absurd medical falsehoods to not only stigmatize the queer community but also propagate falsehoods and stereotypes about them. 

This is evident from the widespread use of “corrective rape” and “conversion therapy”. By virtue of embodying a non-normative sexual and gender identity, queer people are, on the one hand, usually labeled as too sick, too mentally ill, and too unsuitable to be wholly integrated into mainstream society; Yet, on the other hand, they are also labeled as “so demonic” that their mere existence is purportedly responsible for bringing forth various kinds of natural and man-made disasters!

A Reuters report points out that a range of catastrophes-from Hurricane Katrina, to Hurricane Sandy, to the New Zealand earthquake, to the tanking Spanish economy, to a 1978 drought in California – were all blamed on queer people. Thus, it came as no surprise that when COVID-19 unexpectedly hit the world, queer people were once again blamed for it.

Reacting to the pandemic, Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, Ali Erbas declared that Islam condemned homosexuality because it “brings illness” insinuating that homosexuals were directly responsible for the pandemic. Despite public uproar from LGBTQ+ activists, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended Ali Erbas, saying that any attack on the cleric was an “attack on the state and Islam”. In Ukraine, Filaret, a renowned figure in the country and head of the Kiev Patriarchate told Ukrainian national TV network Channel 4 that the COVID-19 pandemic was “God’s punishment for the sins of men, the sinfulness of humanity”. And by “sin” he was referring to same-sex marriage. 

In Scotland, independent parliament candidate Peter Tait told The Shetland Times that the Corona virus was “possibly related” to same-sex marriage and that if elected to office, he would want to represent “things that God would want me to represent.”which could imply an attempt to constitutionally challenge the legality of same-sex marriage in Scotland (The Church of Scotland is presently actively involved in important discussions surrounding the implementation of same-sex marriage in the country). 

In the United States of America, many conservatives, including famed media mogul and televangelist, Pat Robertson blamed COVID-19 on the “terrible plague” of abortion, same-sex marriage, and anti- Israel sentiments. Interestingly, he equated same-sex marriage, abortion, and anti-Israel sentiments with illness but not the Corona virus itself! It should be noted that these anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments aren’t restricted to the Middle-east and the Western world.

In West Africa too, Ghanese Muslim clerics blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on “abominable acts such as homosexuality, lesbianism, transgender, destruction of water bodies and forests.” Indeed, the allegations are many and the narratives are similar: The blame for COVID-19 appears to rest on the shoulders of queer people.

While these narratives may surprise some, they shouldn’t, because this kind of rhetoric has a historical precedent. In 1952, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Mental Disorders (DSM) listed homosexuality and transvestism (or transgenderism) as a mental illness alongside pedophilia, rape, and sexual assault. It eventually took the American psychiatric community 21 years to take it out (in 1973). 

The Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) declassified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder much later in 2018. But by then, the damage had already been done on a global scale. The Human Dignity Trust reports that as of 2021, 71 jurisdictions around the world still criminalize private and consensual same-sex activity, with almost half of these regions being Commonwealth jurisdictions; 43 jurisdictions still target private and consensual same-sex activity between women; 11 jurisdictions still possess death penalty statues for those “guilty” of engaging in private and consensual same-sex activity; and 15 jurisdictions still criminalize the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people. 

It should be noted that the term “jurisdiction” is used here instead of “country” to be inclusive of disputed regions like Palestine. And even though lists like these don’t include jurisdictions like Turkey, Ukraine, India, and Poland (because consensual and private same-sex activity is not a crime in these regions), the situation of queer people in these places is worrying too, because the mere decriminalization/legalization of homosexuality does not undo centuries of injustice, stigmatization, and violence. As pointed earlier, the global legality surrounding practices like “conversion therapy” drives home this point quite well. Also called “reparative therapy”, “conversion therapy” is an outdated pseudo-scientific medical practice that claims to “cure” non-normative sexualities and gender identities through a range of violent methods such as aversive conditioning, talk therapy, shock therapy, and religious indoctrination. 

Faith-based leaders have played a major role in institutionalizing “conversion therapy” within mainstream medical practice, with some leaders even organizing conferences and retreats to popularize it on a mass scale. In India, 21-year-old queer student Anjana Harish died of suicide in 2020 because of her family’s insistence to “cure” her queerness against her will. The case was well documented and received substantial media attention precisely because of the heinous nature of the emotional and psychological abuse that Harish endured. 

What all of these “conversion therapy” programmes around the world have in common is their bizarre insistence on the false premise that queerness is some kind of medical disorder and is hence, something that needs to be cured. To combat this, it is imperative that leading Human Rights organizations across the world collectively and aggressively work towards de-pathologizing queerness. 

Studies show that queer people are at a disproportionately higher risk of health-related illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, mental health disorders, violence, and suicide. While organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) have shown leadership by addressing anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes as a public health crisis, other premier organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) have not. 

In fact, various proposals to include queer people in the WHO’s ambit of health equity have been stalled and deferred for years by WHO leadership, possibly because of reluctance from some members in the WHO’s Executive Board. This Board needs to realize that the real illness is not queer people’s existence, but how society treats them- including the Board members themselves! And this realization needs to happen sooner rather than later before more queer lives are lost to violence and suicide.

Indeed, we have a long way to go before queer people around the world are free from the shackles of what I call “cis-hetero medical incarceration”- a state of medical, emotional, social, and psychological imprisonment by outdated, unscientific, cisnormative, and hetero-normative medical practices and policies. These practices and policies not only discriminate against queer people but also encourage violence and hatred against them. And what is even more worrying is that in many parts of the world, such practices and policies still receive validation from powerful government officials and medical personnel. 

In Russia, for example, a 2013 Pew survey found that while most of Europe and North America were moving progressively forward on the issue of LGBTQIA+ rights, Russia was moving in the opposite direction with 74% of Russians in the survey stating that they did not accept homosexuality. Researchers discovered that some of the reasons for these results were a growing perception of homosexuals as “unnatural” beings who had to be restrained lest they somehow destroy the social fabric of Russia. None of these beliefs are grounded in reality, yet they have captured the popular imagination of people living there. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Russian president, Vladamir Putin – who staunchly opposes LGBTQIA+ rights – was able to get the Russian parliament to unanimously pass a federal law in 2013 banning “gay propaganda”, thereby making it illegal to distribute any educational material on gay rights and same-sex relationships anywhere in the country. 

Minutes after passing this law, the Parliament also approved another law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious sentiments” (opponents of same-sex marriage typically argue that same-sex marriage violates traditional Catholic values. Thus, a law like this would make it harder for homosexual people to institutionalize their relationships, and this is particularly concerning given the stronghold of Orthodox Christian activists there).

Most queer people experience feeling “trapped” and “suffocated” while in the closet. And by continuously medicalizing queer people’s lived experiences, one does a great disservice to not just queer people and their families, but to the medical fraternity as well. It took years for doctors around the world to realize that racial profiling and human eugenics were wrong. When will they realize that medicalizing queerness is also wrong?

(Kanav N Sahgal (Pronouns: He/Him) is, pursing his Masters in Development from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is interested in researching about issues surrounding social exclusion and marginality. For any questions or queries, reach out to him on LinkedIn)

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One thought on “A Global Call for De-medicalizing Queerness: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. A compelling collection of events, evidence and anecdotes to make the point. Personally, I have seen this sort of medicalization in forensic medicine textbooks, to the extent that they are interpreted as crimes. Even though I am referring to pre-legalization India, the textbooks still have the same content! However, one thing I don’t see as often in our public writing is the effort being taken (if at all) to sensitize heterosexual men of all ages, and even school children (if at all happening) on the natural presence of various gender identities and their acceptance. I think we need to accelerate work in these areas to halt the seeding of stigma in all of us.

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