It has long been our tendency, as human society, to term people who are different as “crazy.” A living example of this can be found in something called conversion therapy, which is practiced in India and the US and elsewhere in between. Conversion therapy claims to “fix” queer people of their queerness, and is a process based on absolutely no verifiable science. Behind all of this is the idea that homosexuality is a disease, and as such can be applied to any and every context where public opinion is largely supportive of heterosexism and the gender binary. Even though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (pretty much the bible of psychology) declassified homosexuality as an illness in 1973, people still like to invoke a connection between alternate sexual identity and madness.
It’s the perfect dismissive or delegitimizing tactic, isn’t it? But even as more and more of us have stopped viewing homosexuality as a disease, the spectre of mental illness still lingers over LGBT+ people, for different reasons. What if many – hopefully not all – but too many people who identify as “queer” are literally being driven to mental illness by how hostile the world is to them?
There are a number of reasons why people develop mental disorders – genes, brain chemistry, exposure to certain environments and substances, traumatic events, or a combination of these, varying from person to person. But whatever the causes, the effect of a disorder is, broadly speaking, the inability to function optimally.
Now, consider the queer-‘n’-crazy dynamic as a socially orchestrated inversion of this same process. Consider how disabling it can be to live as a queer person in an environment that is prejudiced against you. LGBTQ people living through varying degrees of every day discrimination (simply for being “different”) can develop mental illnesses because of it.
Today, a survey tells us that only 48% of youth identify as exclusively heterosexual, but because of a little thing called ‘the closet,’ we may never know just how large the world’s queer population really is. By the grace of insufficient data, LGBTQ people have been relegated to ‘minority’ status. As a minority group they immediately become “othered,” stacked against what’s “normal”. Because they are the “other,” bullying by peers, or family members is all too common, and things only get worse when this discrimination is institutionalized – being denied jobs, seats at schools, and even medical treatment. These processes rapidly graduate from the underhand to the terrifying; from denying same-sex partners a wedding cake to forcing children into gender roles, to murder and corporal punishment. Knowing that your everyday life will probably contain these challenges or threats – well that’s bound to cause high levels of stress and anxiety, isn’t it? So when society has already produced the effects of disability – the inability to function ‘normally’ – for LGBTQ individuals, the slide into actual mental disability seems almost inevitable. To put it more simply, if a little indelicately: treat a person like they’re crazy long enough, and chances are they will go crazy.
In 2007, the first survey that examined the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ people found that “[r]ates of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug dependence were significantly higher in homosexual respondents,” than in heterosexual ones. Another survey conducted on LGBTQ youth in Iowa found that a whopping 80% of them had been verbally harassed, and 60% of them felt unsafe at school. Studies have revealed the painful truth about sexual violence committed on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans individuals.
Negative attitudes towards queer identities has also lead to alarming rates of homelessness among queer youth, as well as suicide or suicide attempts, and this should only further our engagement with the intersection of sexuality and mental health. The fact that the Trevor Project, an amazing initiative in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, is needed at all indicates just how bad things have gotten for LGBTQ youth. Clearly there’s a link between forms of discrimination the psychological burden it brings to LGBTQ people. It’s no wonder then that the central theme for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia happens to be “mental health and well-being.”
It can no longer be acceptable to “fix” queerness. What needs fixing is society’s negative attitude towards queerness. Even as we resist the incorrect and outdated notion that ‘queerness’ is equal to ‘mental disorder’, we must also recognize the ways in which homophobia, transphobia, biphobia – all prejudices against people based on their identity – threatens the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ-identified persons.