February 6th, 2014

Inclusive society must promote health of all

By Jolene Tan

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has a simple mandate: “to build a nation of healthy people”. As a government agency, its responsibility is to promote the physical and mental health of all members of society equally, regardless of sexual orientation.

sexualityThe publication of factual, non-judgmental information about homosexuality and bisexuality falls squarely within this mission. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights identify access to health-related information, including sexual health, as a crucial part of access to health care.

Unless the information available reflects the reality of human diversity, many will be excluded from a better understanding of themselves and those close to them, and consequently from the opportunity to make informed decisions about their own health.

The recent statements on sexuality that have attracted so much attention are unambiguously supported by longstanding medical and scientific consensus. The WHO explicitly names “recognising and respecting sexual diversity” as one of a few “key principles” for policymakers seeking to promote sexual health.

Experts with an evidence-based approach widely agree that homosexuality and bisexuality are not mental illnesses.

Over 20 years ago, the WHO, after reviewing the evidence, removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases. This position is shared by numerous medical and scientific bodies, including the American Psychological Association, Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) and the Chinese Psychiatric Association.

The HPB has not only the right, but also the duty to dispel any myths to the contrary. In fact, a commitment to improving public health necessitates battling the stigma surrounding same-sex relations.

A fear of prejudiced health professionals can hold gay, lesbian and bisexual people back from seeking necessary medical help, or discourage them from sharing with their medical advisers potentially relevant information, such as the nature of their sexual activities.

The HPB is also sensible to focus on educating the parents of young gay, lesbian and bisexual people. The RCP notes that societal discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, including rejection from family members, often has a strong negative impact on the mental health of gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Researchers in San Francisco found a strong association between negative parental reactions to sexual orientation and young people’s experiences of depression, suicide and unprotected sex.

Addressing parental misconceptions about sexuality can prevent needless anguish on the part of children and parents alike, helping to preserve family relationships by improving mutual understanding.

Of course, one set of frequently asked questions cannot single-handedly vanquish all discrimination that lesbian, gay and bisexual people may face.

Referrals to appropriate support services are therefore crucial to assist them and their loved ones in navigating an often hostile or uncomprehending social environment.

Importantly, such services should not treat homosexuality or bisexuality as a wrong to be “cured” – an approach which the WHO has described as “unscientific, potentially harmful” and a contributor to “stigmatisation”.

It was disappointing to see the HPB remove information previously found on the webpage about reliably supportive services offered by Action for Aids, Oogachaga and Safe Singapore.

No doubt, some in Singapore regard same-sex sexual relations with distaste or disapproval. But the HPB’s primary concern is health; and, in an inclusive society, health is for everyone, not only those judged by the self-styled guardians of sexual normality to be suitably pure.

The state must not deny access to vital information about sexual health out of deference to unevidenced ideological prescriptions.

And, as individuals, we can all come to our own moral judgments – including on those who push for their discriminatory ideals to come before the physical and mental well-being of real people.

myp@sph.com.sg

The writer is the programmes and communications senior manager of Aware, a gender equality advocacy group.

This op-ed was first published in MyPaper on 6 February 2014. 

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