The Subtle Tiger: How Homophobia Erodes Mental Health

Hello, readers, the doctor is in! I’ve been away from QAYN for several months, but I’m back and I have many topics I’d like to talk with you about. As always, I eagerly await hearing from you. Are there health issues relative to you or your community that worry or confuse you, that you have something to say about, or that you would simply like to learn more about? Let me know!

Depression, self-harm and/or neglect, alcoholism and drug abuse are common mental health issues worldwide, but they are more common in our LGBTQI communities. Why?

The Subtle Tiger: How Homophobia Erodes Mental Health

Ever feel depressed, fearful, hopeless or filled with a rage you can’t control? Do you drink too much or use drugs you know you shouldn’t. Do you wonder if maybe being homosexual is a mental illness, like so many people have said? Ever thought to yourself, “If I were straight, maybe I’d be free of these horrible feelings that make me drink too much, feel depressed, or strike out at those I love?”

Are so-called mental illnesses like major depression, drug and alcohol abuse and uncontrolled anger just an extension of being homosexual, do they go together like a broken leg and trouble walking? If you said ‘yes’, you are partly right.

I’ll explain by asking another question: Do matches in your pocket cause cancer? I think we could all agree that the answer is no. Are people with matches in their pocket more likely to get cancer? Yes, of course they are, because people who carry matches are doing so in order to light cigarettes, and cigarette smoking clearly causes cancer. The matches are associated with cancer, but they do not cause cancer.

Similarly, being homosexual is associated with poorer mental health, but it does not cause mental illness. These things are associated, but one does not cause the other. Just as matches only relate to cancer with the addition of smoking into the equation, being gay is associated with mental illness by adding HOMOPHOBIA into the equation.


MATCHES → → → → → → CANCER

Is it because you are homosexual that you suffer more? Or is it because of homophobia? Imagine a life in which not only you yourself accepted being gay as common and unremarkable, but so did your family, your church, your boss, the police, your government. What if the idea that sexual orientation was something one could choose was known to be absurd, like choosing the size of your feet or your height. Imagine if you could date the people who you wished to date, marry whom you wished, have and raise children like the straight people around you do? Might you be less depressed or, might you spend less time both angry at the world and angry at yourself for not being like you are “supposed” to be?


Back in May of this year, GLBT people and other supporters of human rights worldwide, looked to Uganda with disgust and horror when it looked like the Anti-Homosexuality (aka ‘Kill gays’) bill might pass the Ugandan Parliament. Last month, Paul Canning of the LGBT Asylum News was one of a number of reports to warn that the bill may soon be back before Parliament. This bill, along with its calls for vicious penalties for gays themselves adds another, more insidious component. It requires anyone who knows a gay person to report that person or face criminal prosecution for failing to do so. Imagine being required by law to report your child, your sister, your father or mother, your oldest friend. What would happen to a mother legally required to report her gay son? What would happen to the son? The rest of the family? The community?

Dr. Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Kampala, has said that “legalised and state-sanctioned homophobia is a reality in many parts of Africa,” and that the political climate encouraged by states such as Uganda “enables a wide range of abuses and violations that seriously diminish the quality of life of all LGBTI persons, most of whom seek to stay under the public radar. It also places many such persons in serious and extreme danger.” I believe it places the friends and relatives of such persons in danger as will, and induces a significant mental health burden on the entire community.

This Anti-Homosexuality bill formalizes as legal doctrine the pervasive and erosive fears that homophobia and socially sanctioned hatred and violence already enforce. This bill proposes measures that further erode of the health, both mental and physical, of entire communities – in fact the entire country of Uganda. It is a threat, on a vast scale, to the public health.

In an earlier blog I wrote about homophobia as a public health threat. We’ve all heard the horrifying stories – many of us have personally experienced the terror of harassment, threats, blackmail and physical harm inflicted by haters. Yes, those who perpetrate homophobic violence are unable to grasp the hypocrisy in their claims that morality motivates immoral deeds. These individuals are often whipped into murderous fervour by the state and its leaders encouraging their hatred with political support.

The topic of mental health will come up often in this blog. Depression, self-harm and/or neglect, alcoholism and drug abuse are common mental health issues worldwide, but they are more common in our LGBTQI communities. Homophobic political and religious leaders, teachers, classmates, colleagues and your family may cite this fact as further evidence of our “disease”. I would argue that it is further evidence that homophobia is bad for health.

Does nearly every voice you hear tell you that you are unworthy of respect, less than human? Do you sometimes feel that they are right? Many of us do. Are they, in fact, right? Absolutely not. Remember South Africa….

During Apartheid, South Africa provided a vivid example of the impact of politics on mental health. Apartheid contained within its ideology a vision of blacks as unworthy of respect, inferior, and incompetent. Inherent to the practice of Apartheid was the powerlessness, insecurity, and humiliation of blacks, and the power and entitlement of whites. NC Manganyi, a black psychologist, wrote of “a very sophisticated and subtle tiger – psychic manipulation… If one is black, like myself, he begins to ‘know’, through various subtle ways, that…(he) is ‘by nature’ inferior…”.

Sound familiar? Do you know this subtle tiger?

In a WHO report a black anthropologist, H. Ngubane, wrote “prevailing insecurity and powerlessness, in the face of an authority equipped with overwhelming force, exercising detailed control and surveillance…makes the lot of Africans under Apartheid so much like that of the inmates of a “total institution”. South Africa, in 1983, had the highest rate of homicide, divorce, family dislocation, alcoholism, and per-capita prison population in the world. They furthermore had the highest suicide rate on the continent. The WHO report directly implicated the living conditions imposed by Apartheid as major players in the “psychiatric profile” of South Africa.

Sound familiar? Readers, many of us are living in this “total institution”. Are you told, again and again, directly and indirectly, that the way you were born, the way you feel and whom you love, makes you “‘by nature’ inferior.” Do you feel vulnerable to surveillance and “outing,” powerless in light of overwhelming force? Do depression, alcohol and drug use, or excessive risk-taking impact you? Do you feel anger or express violence toward yourself and/or those you love? Do you ever find that you tell yourself “so many people can’t be wrong about me?” Readers, when you see your nature, your self and those you love distorted and reviled as sub-humans, unworthy of respect, here is one suggestion: the problem is not who you are. The problem is homophobia, that subtle tiger. It can make us sick.

Now hit “comment” or “like” and tell me and other readers what you think!

Dr. Jen

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