4 min

Medical prejudices still linger

Suki Lee finds a brand new office full of old ideas

Credit: Capital Xtra files

The room was antiseptic, freshly painted. There wasn’t a magazine to be found within its four pristine walls. It was the first day that the physician’s office was open, and it appeared that we were among her first patients – ever.

My partner and I had been searching for a physician for some time, and had jumped at the opportunity to snag this appointment. We sat there, waiting patiently for our dual appointments. The doctor eventually emerged, escorting an elderly patient to the reception desk. As she rushed back to her offices, she spied us waiting, and shot a quick backward glance in our direction.

At the time, I could not describe the look she gave us. I knew it made me feel awkward though.

The doctor’s assistant called our names, and we were eventually escorted to an examination room where we waited yet again. The equipment in the room was made of shiny moulded plastic, and had obviously never been used before. When she finally opened the door, Dr X took us in with a cursory glance.

We had decided in advance to break the ice by coming out to Dr X right away. We expected that it was going to be a simple formality, after which we would both proceed to our respective appointments. Neither of us thought it would be a problem.

Dr X’s response to our voluntary outing was a dismissive flurry of her hands, and the statement: “I can’t help you with that!”

Shocked, we asked her for some clarification.

Dr X responded: “That is not my training. I cannot deal with your problem.”

When pressed further, she elaborated and explained that our particular issue required services that only a psychiatrist was trained to administer.

We were stunned. This dialogue sounded more like Canada in the 1950s when there was little dispute that homosexuality was a medical problem.

Forty-five years ago, homosexuality was a topic that few were even willing to discuss in the first place. This was back in an era when many people believed that homosexuals should be locked up. Members of the public believed that LGBTQ people were one of the biggest social problems, a danger, a menace, and some even believed that they belonged in institutions for the criminally insane. The overwhelming majority of the medical profession believed that homosexuality was, at best, a psychiatric problem.

Further, the medical establishment believed that homosexuality could be acquired. “Acquired homosexuality” was said to occur if one or both parents had hoped to have a child of the opposite sex to the one they had. In contrast, the “overt homosexual” was the medical profession’s term for someone who was out.

Canadian law made both gay and lesbian relationships illegal. The full sentence for men was 14 years imprisonment. Canadian society’s fears were clearly reflected in law: the sentence for a man indecently assaulting another man was 10 years imprisonment, whereas a man indecently assaulting a woman was only five years behind bars.

In the eyes of the medical profession, the solution was straightforward. A person was to seek out medical or clinical treatment from a professional who then cured them.

And then there was Dr X, who did not seem to be aware that the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also used by Canadian doctors) stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness after 1973.

It is possible that cultural difference may have something to do with Dr X’s suggestion that we seek out a psychiatrist. Dr X’s last name (which will remain anonymous due to privacy issues) is to Egypt as Lee is to China. I spent some time in Egypt, and recognized her name as such. This made me consider the situation for gays and lesbians in that country.

The plight of gay men in Egypt has become familiar. The Egyptian government continues to arrest and routinely torture men suspected of consensual homosexual conduct. Conversely, the journalistic accounts of the lives of lesbians in contemporary Egyptian society are invisible. While the witch hunt is on for gay men, lesbians are reportedly invisible in Egypt. Gay activists have informed media outlets that they are not in contact with any lesbian groups in Egypt. The concept of two women having sexual relations is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The detention and torture of hundreds of men in Egypt reveals the fragility of legal protections for individual privacy and due process for all Egyptians. Over time, I hope that international pressure will influence Egyptian authorities in contributing to a social climate that allows for gays and lesbians to organize themselves and to come out in public.

Back to Dr X. In the end, we terminated the appointment with her prematurely.

I have since made a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It is responsible for the enforcement of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the law that provides for equal rights and opportunities and recognizes the dignity and worth of every person in Ontario. The Commission has confirmed that I have grounds to file a complaint. One of the possible outcomes of the process will be a settlement. In this scenario, Dr X will voluntarily respond to my complaint face-to-face, while an officer from the Commission facilitates the discussion. If this does not happen or Dr X and I cannot come to a settlement, the complaint will go on to an investigation and a board of inquiries will make a decision.

Like all prejudices, homophobia is taught. Like all prejudices also, I believe homophobia does not have to exist. What I would like is for Dr X to attend sensitivity training – something that every doctor practicing medicine throughout Canada should take. I also believe that doctors should have to follow up on this training every few years. This would ensure that they progress with society’s evolution, while making certain that Canadian doctors do not embrace outmoded values that are harmful to present and future generations.