The downside of moves towards gay equality

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In the last decade, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in public discourse about gay issues in the US and the UK. Throughout earlier gay organising, one thing was always clear: whatever else gays were, we were victims. At least, we were at risk of being victims. Victims of hate crimes, police brutality, discriminatory laws, family rejection, AIDS, suicide, conversion therapy, the Holocaust. Gays had No Future, and black comedy was a key part of How to Be Gay.

But with dramatic progress in the social and legal status of gays over the last decade, things are changing. Gays are no longer Longing for Recognition; we have it. Military service, parades and propaganda, prom dates, having sex, and most recently getting married are (mostly) legal and supported by a majority of the US and UK populations. Even The Gay Daddy is now literal. The HRC [Human Rights Campaign]- one of many gay lobbying organisations – reports annual revenues of over 38 million dollars

Some gays are still seen as victims. Those living in Russia and Uganda are subject to horrifying laws, and in Jamaican and Muslim communities they are also imperilled. But British and American gays are described as having forged Safe Space for themselves. Sometimes in school we’re told “Dude, You’re a Fag“, but It Gets Better when we go to a university in a big city.

Having it all?

We’ve come so far that some are even declaring The End of Gay, that the gay community is a myth, and that we’re now post gay. With gay victimisation overcome, little is left to unify gays in one identity. Unlike The Kinks, gay organisers have been arguing that we are like everybody else. We’re normal. At long last, it is possible for gay kids to live the same lives as their straight peers. School dances, weddings, raising children; careers in politics, military, and media – gays can finally have it all.

But a vocal minority of writers push back Against Equality and against The New Homonormativity. For them, the struggles of other queer people – whose bodies, genders, sexualities, bank accounts, and relationships don’t look like Dan Savage and Terry Miller‘s – are left out.

My research on queer university students (an ongoing study at numerous sites across North America) highlights another complication of the cultural shift from gay-as-victim to gay-as-normal. Even in the best of conditions, at wealthy universities in famously gay cities where It Gets Better, queers are sometimes still victims of violence, harassment, discrimination and hostility. And the desire to appear normal often leaves us silent about it.

It’s not that queer people are making a conscious choice to cover up victimisation to further assimilationist politics. Acts of bias and hate have stigmatising effects, and few want to be a victim. Even when we’re “out” and involved in LGBTQ organisations, we frequently cite the desire not to be seen as different as a reason not to speak up in class, not to complain about harassment, not to report offences, not to mention them to friends and family.

The shame of victimisation isn’t new or unique to LGBTQ people. It’s not a product of the turn toward assimilation. But when gay organising called on victimisation as the basis of community, identity and politics, it offered an empowering way to reclaim a positive sense of self identity from that fear and shame. While the current trend of gay assimilation offers unprecidented possibilities for living normal, safe lives, it offers little in the way of support for people who are still victimised. Where they once shared a community-defining problem, victims are now isolated. And with gay victimisation ‘solved’, little thought and energy goes into the ways sexual and gender minorities continue to be victimised, or the ways those harms disproportionately fall on the most marginal groups.

*Jeffrey Lockhart [2014] is doing an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. Picture credit: nongpimmy and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Tackling the stigma of ill health through education

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What’s the best way to ignite change in medicine? It’s a complex question with complex answers, but forgive my somewhat trite and very Zen phrasing when I say “change comes from within”. I believe there are few better places to bring about change in medicine than within the hospital/medical setting itself. Peeking into the profession from the outside proves to be difficult; it’s hard to challenge the experience of doctors, nurses, health professionals and patients. But what if we target physicians, patients and most importantly medical students in ways that change the way they see their profession? Rather than continuing with rigid ways of studying, what if we teach through sharing knowledge and resources more widely? 

Untapped resources in the university setting

Let’s step back and take a look at our universities. In a single institution, there are massive amounts of resources. Every discipline is there for the asking, experts in practically every field, peer-reviewed literature at the tips of fingers, and then there are the students – hundreds of thousands of students who are revving to delve into their fields and use what they’ve been learning. 

Doesn’t this look like a hotbed for social change?

Educational facilities— check. Manpower— check. Resources and interest—check and check.

Yet what a majority of college and medical school social change clubs tend to do is simply link to external organisations and volunteer or fundraise. This is not to minimise the importance of these clubs; the experiences that the students collect are no doubt invaluable. But it seems like a key link seems to be missing. Academics. Merging academia with social responsibility is a synergistic relationship that has scarcely been explored.

There have been pilots of this sort of work. Just recently there was an article on a collaboration between the New York Academy of Art and the city’s medical examiner’s office to give faces to unknown individuals who met brutal deaths and whose skeletal remains were found on the streets of New York. In 2013, UCSF medical students were highlighted for editing Wikipedia pages for medical school credit. But we shouldn’t stop there. There is an opportunity to tackle an issue that has been hotly debated and is difficult to conquer. The issue of stigma in health.

Social stigma is the hidden burden of many, if not all, illnesses and can lead to limited access to health services and shame patients into avoiding treatment of curable disorders. The repercussions are huge. Take mental health, for example. An estimated 3.8 million people in the United States live with untreated mental illness in any given year. This includes around 40% of people with untreated bipolar disorder and 51% for untreated schizophrenia. And the consequences of this are, of course, extreme. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 13,000 suicides are committed each year by adults in the US with untreated schizophrenic, manic or depressive symptoms.

There is serious power in using education to reduce the effects of stigma. A study conducted in 2003 analysed the efficacy of intervention with young people aimed at increasing mental health literacy and found positive attitude scores rose significantly after a short educational workshop.

More accessible information

Educating the public on the underpinnings of mental illnesses can have a tremendous effect and can reduce many preventable tragedies that the world faces today. And medical students are the perfect people to do it. Students serve as the ideal link between the “lay-man” and the world of pure academia as they themselves are amidst the transition. What if they translated that hard-to-understand peer-reviewed literature to make it more accessible? Not only does this benefit the students by assuring that they understand the content thoroughly (if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough”, right?), it also gives medical professors the opportunity to clarify evidently hard-to-understand topics. Doctors within the institution can share these articles with patients, and before you know it the entire hospital is involved in a multi-faceted way.

That’s the basis for The Humanology Project, an organisation I founded based at Stony Brook University. Students translate peer reviewed literature into readable blog posts with professors doing the fact checking. The process has been illuminating, fulfilling not only for the readers but for the students themselves. With my eye to the future, I hope to integrate the organisation more seamlessly with Stony Brook Medical Center and eventually begin to collaborate with other university hospitals. Communicating the specificities of science can have a tremendous effect on the way we view and interact with patients. The potential to bring about social change is trapped inside our educational institutions. It’s up to us to unlock it.

*Neha Kinariwalla [2014] is doing an MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations. Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.