Medicine, a queer issue

Your gender cannot be the basis for receiving quality healthcare, and yet members of the LGBTQIA+ community face stigma and judgements from medical practitioners.

Published: 28th June 2017 08:35 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th June 2017 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

Express News Service

CHENNAI: If you belong to the LGBTQIA+ community or are a ‘straight ally’ with friends from the community in India, traumatic and horrific stories from a visit to the hospital may not be uncommon.

Though there is a portion of counsellors, medical professionals and health workers who are queer-friendly, a majority of healthcare professionals are not open to treating and interacting with people from the community, thanks to outdated medical books that still write off few sexualities and genders as a ‘disease’.

For instance, a medical book which has been the best seller for over 20 years — The Essentials of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology by KS Narayan Reddy, says that ‘lesbians are highly sexual nymphomaniacs who are homicidal and suicidal’. “Indian books are often not revised…they are only reprinted and even the 2010 version of the book carries the same content. So that’s what budding medical professionals are learning,” states L Ramakrishnan, vice president, Saathii, which works with the LGBTIQA+ community.

Though the experiences vary between people from the community itself, most of them are negative, especially for transgenders. “They are most likely to face discrimination based on gender presentation,” points out Ramakrishnan.

The ones who have to be admitted in hospitals if they are HIV-positive say that the experience can be traumatising. “Most of the hospitals are still not open to HIV-positive people and it becomes worse when we are transgenders. We face double stigma and are questioned by doctors and nurses who are homophobic and transphobic,” rues Kaarthika*.  

But, Sudhakar, an outreach worker at Sahodaran opines that government hospitals are more accepting after years of sensitisation.  “There is no stigma in government hospitals; everyone from doctors, nurses to counsellors and other staffs are open to treating people from the community,” he says.

For Namithaa Jayasankar, who is pansexual and gender fluid, a visit to a gynecologist turned into a nightmare when ‘irrelevant questions’ about her marital status were fired. “I had a recurring urinary tract infection and I had gone for a checkup. There was a lot of eye rolling and judgemental stares from everyone — receptionist, nurse and even the doctor. This is what most queer women face in hospitals,” she says.

In such cases of mistreatment, people from the community hesitate to visit and access healthcare facilities and opt for self-treatment. “Most of us are not open about our sexuality. So, when we visit hospitals and are questioned about the nature of the ailment, what’s and why’s…we are forced to disclose it,” she shares.

Gender segregated wards and bathrooms are a matter of concern too. “These are issues that are trivialised… but they create huge disparities. We need gender-inclusive health care services!” says Nahina, a transwoman.
If accessing basic health care facilities is an everyday struggle for the community, mental healthcare is more complex. “When parents are worried about their children after they come out with their identities, they are taken to a psychiatrist for ‘treatment’. But, treat what?” asks Namithaa.

Instead of addressing issues, the doctors prescribe anti-depressants and even promise to ‘cure’ or ‘reverse’ the sexuality of an individual. “In a high-end clinic, a session costs up to `1,500. So, after a year of counselling…when the family realises that it’s not a ‘condition’ that can be ‘cured’, they start accepting us as we are. And in some or most cases, people are sent out of the home. Mental care for LGBTQIA+ community has unfortunately become a way to make money,” she rues.

While, counselling and a visit to the psychiatrist is only ‘Level 0’ of forcefully asking people from the community to change their sexual identity, shock therapy, corrective rape and vile punishments are alternatively claimed to ‘treat’ and ‘change’ a person’s sexual orientation. “Shock therapy is not talked about openly, and it is underplayed in our city. There are places that still practice this to ‘treat’
people from the community. But action cannot be taken against them, without an official complaint from the individual and that becomes an issue for social workers like us,” adds Ramakrishnan.

It is natural
Many doctors and religious groups have been trying to ‘change’ the sexual orientation of people from the community. Talking to CE, Ashoojit Kaur Anand, a palliative specialist and trustee member of Being Positive, an NGO, shares that the reality is sad. “There are not many LGBTQIA+ friendly doctors…and we need more training and sensitisation. When people from the community visit doctors and are unable to discuss health issues, they go into depression,” she says. Talking about forceful treatments by doctors, she adds, “It is unethical and it’s high time we understand that the sexuality of a person is biological and natural. Everyone has different sexualities. Being a part of the industry, it’s sad to know that such things happen even today.”

Vile treatments
Jaya, general manager, Sahodaran, says that families take their children to religious and spiritual ‘gurus’ to change their ‘weird behaviour’. “They are taken to people who end up looting money or worst case, involve in ‘corrective rape’ in the name of treatment. Also, there are ‘support homes’ in the outskirts of the city that punish children who have recently come out to their families. Rice, mixed in cockroaches, is force-fed to threaten them and forcefully change their sexuality. None of this gets reported…there are no statistics of such abuse, but it happens in every city. Even if one person comes forward to give a formal complaint, actions can be taken against their abuser.”

There are psychiatrists who explain the sexual orientation of a person from the LGBTQIA+ community as a ‘fad adopted from western cultures’, making it difficult for the individuals to explain their situation to their family.

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