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From homophobia to homophilia: the future face of medicine

Homophilia, a term once used to define “unnatural” relations between same-sex people in the early- to mid-20th century has been given a makeover. Urban gay communities around the world are using homophilia…

Modern professionals have an opportunity to undo some of the hardships created by pathologizing same-sex attraction. stigeredoo

Homophilia, a term once used to define “unnatural” relations between same-sex people in the early- to mid-20th century has been given a makeover. Urban gay communities around the world are using homophilia to mean an open, supportive and non-judgemental acceptance towards gays and lesbians.

Like the word queer before it, homophilia is a rebuttal to homophobia.

By definition, homophiles are able to form bonds and associations with others based on their similarities, rather than their differences. And plenty of common ground can be found between people who identify as homosexual and those who don’t.

The first step to embracing commonalities is to do away with prejudicial definitions of difference – an area in which medicine has played a crucial part.

Historical definitions

In the late 19th century, medico-legal experts defined homosexuality as a mental illness in order to exonerate the accused with a plea of insanity. While this reasoning freed some homosexual people, it led to the institutionalisation and abuse of many.

German physician Karl Westphal proposed that same-sex attraction was congenital and those who were “afflicted” should come under psychiatric care, rather than legal prosecution. Similarly, other health practitioners believed that homosexuality was a severe manifestation of “hereditary degeneration”, akin to severe epilepsy and schizophrenia.

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Jump to the 1980s and the naming of AIDS. In the early days of the disease, it was referred to as the “gay bowel syndrome”, which suggests the disease is gay-specific and that homosexuality contributes to the contraction of the disease. It’s difficult to find a similarly named counterpart disease in the heterosexual community.

Historically, the medical profession played a key role in defining homosexuality as a form of illness. But by embracing homophilia, modern professionals have an opportunity to undo some of the hardships created by pathologizing same-sex attraction.

What’s in a name?

Homosexuality has existed for centuries. But how it’s defined and labelled – as a sin, an act against morality, a physical illness, a psychiatric condition, and more recently, a lifestyle – has changed considerably over time. These socially imputed definitions of homosexually have had a significant impact on individuals.

Let’s look at this influence through the eyes of a young boy born at the beginning of the 20th century who has “special” romantic and sexual feelings for other boys. When his parents become aware of their son’s feelings at the age of 18, he is rushed to a physician, who, as the expert of the day on such matters, explains that the boy has a biological condition requiring a medical intervention.

Lucky for this boy, a lobotomy is not performed. But he may have been subjected to cold sitz baths (soaking the pelvis and genitals in cold water mixed with essential oils to draw out “infection”), sterilization, castration or the sectioning of his pudic nerve.

Despite the prescribed treatment, his feelings and attraction towards boys remain. Fifty years later, he seeks the treatment offered by psychiatrists, who now view the problem as a “mental illness” and subject him to unsuccessful aversion therapy.

Now in his late 80s, he is watching the Sydney Mardi Gras parade on national television. He is shocked by the goodwill messages from parents and politicians, and the platoon of openly gay doctors, psychiatrists and police officers who lobby for equal rights.

Openly gay police lobby for equal rights. willy-photographer

As he reflects on his life, including several attempts of suicide, he cannot help but conclude that time has made an enormous difference in how homosexuality has been defined. Unfortunately for him, he was socialised into accepting that homosexuality was a problem, and he internalised homophobic attitudes, which had a profound influence on how he lived his life.

Homophobia and health outcomes

While people who identify as homosexual, or anything other than “straight”, may no longer be asked to soak their bottoms in oil-infused ice water, they continue to endure a high level of societal intolerance. And this can have significant emotional and psychological impacts.

Homosexual people experience high high rates if depression and substance abuse. Invisible Lens Photography

Consider these alarming statistics:
- One-third of Australian adults believe homosexuality is immoral.
- Between 17% and 30% of gay men experience depression as a result of homophobic bullying, violence, isolation and lack of societal acceptance.
- Homosexual people are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual friends.
- Between 30% and 40% of homosexual youth have attempted a suicide, which is up to four times higher than their heterosexual peers.

With statistics such as these, it’s clear health professionals need to do their part and leave homophobic classifications and definitions behind.

A recent study found that because of practitioner inexperience, lack of skills, or negative attitudes, more than half of Australian GPs (54% to 60%) were uncomfortable caring for gay and lesbian clients. Becoming open, supportive and non-judgemental is imperative to addressing the health needs of non-heterosexual clients. And this requires better education.

Improving health professional competency in dealing with sexually diverse populations also speaks to the role that providers can play in fufilling the Australian Government’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy, aimed at suicide prevention through mental and physical health promotion.

By embracing an attitude of homophilia, the social and health systems which once capitalised on difference can be dissolved. It can, does and will get better.

If you or someone you know who needs help contact Lifeline’s 24-hour helpline on 13 11 14, SANE Australia on 1800 18 7263 or the Beyondblue Info Line 1300 22 4636.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    "Homosexuality has existed for centuries"

    Countless centuries. Although it would seem to limit the reproductive capacity of the individual, homosexuality of some of its members provides the family and the broader community with a strong selective advantage.

    We might suggest that the occurrence of a certain rate of homosexuality in the human community was a key element of our evolution to Homo sapiens. Along with extension of life beyond reproductive age, it ensures that there are members of…

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  2. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    I would hope that the future face of medicine would be humano-philia - with the desire to assist people in need without moral judgement.

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  3. Clive A Marks

    logged in via email @attglobal.net

    Great article and good points on the need for medicos to support people without moral judgements. The contribution of gay culture to society has long been under rated as well as the risks associated with misunderstanding sexuality and the prejudice it imposes.

    At the risk receiving of ten red negatives, one thing worries me though with the tone of this and other recent articles. A path of social vilification to sainthood is not ultimately a good one (a phobia to a philia) Let's be open to discussions…

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Clive A Marks

      Perhaps the key, Clive Marks, is to judge individual behaviour and choices according to their impact on others rather than an arbitrary moral standard that neglects the outcome on one's fellow human.

      Hence my call for "humano-philia" - a regard for the human rather than the habits and choices that the human has made. As you imply, it doesn;t make sense to go from hating to loving selectively - it makes more sense to have regard for human needs generically.

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    2. Clive A Marks

      logged in via email @attglobal.net

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      I agree Sue. That's pretty much what we need to do. Appeal for mass support of a moral position attributed to a group is a little too tribal for me. The individual gets lost as do the individual actions.

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    3. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Clive A Marks

      I rather think, Sue & Clive, that its reasonable to believe that gay sex tourism is perversely a product of homophobia, as in many instances heterosexual prostitution also is. As far as I am aware, its not just poverty that drives people into prostitution but proscription as well....forbidden fruit and all that, as well as a case of passionate antipathies 'feeding' covert affinities.

      What was it that Hitchens said? "Whenever I see some Social Conservative from the Deep South, Midwest or Alaska raging about the evils of homosexuality I set my watch and wait patiently for the day he is found in a motel, detrousered and on his tired old knees, wallet empty, having grossly overpaid to give a blowjob to an Apache transvestite." A ring of truth, perhaps, here?

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  4. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Thank you, Victor and Tinashe, for this powerful affirmation of the human person in all of his and her infinite diversity, including, especially, the sexual, since gender is such a crucial aspect of human identity. I was forced out of my educational work in social justice in Catholic schools precisely because of the gaps in this discourse between the admirable rhetoric of unconditional love and acceptance of the human person (as expressed in the pastoral theology of Catholic schools) and the tension…

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  5. Tom Hennessy

    Retired

    Homosexuality is a medical condition. It is hallmarked by hormone misadventure. When the hormone problem is caught early enough the syndrome is reversed.
    "We believe that hypogonadotropic hypogonadism in juvenile hemochromatosis may be reversible by a consequent venesection therapy probably because treatment was intensive and promptly introduced at a young age."

    The lack of hormones is thought to be why men 'become homosexual' later in life.

    "Might it be that some or many men who lose interest in their wives in middle age and “come out” as gay are in fact responding to the profound influence of unknown and unidentified hormone changes?"
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/attention-please/201008/sex-hormones-identity

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    1. Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      Contrarian / Epistemologist

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Funny. You are retired from reason? Or have you suffered a terrible spike in the nonsense 'hormone'?

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    2. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      Two welcome Hibernian contrarians, so I might have a shot at why I think Tom's deductions about homosexuality being hormonal, and therefore reversible in juveniles, are specious and therefore unconvincing, while Stiofan's pithy remark makes good sense.

      For a start the use of terms, such as 'thought to be', 'we believe' and 'might it be' deal in probabilities and speculation but do not constitute the scientific evidence that the only intelligent social conservatives that I have encountered, especially…

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    3. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Not to soliloquise, but a reader has sent me a copy of The Australian Literary Review of April 6, 2011 (pp.18-19) which has an article, 'The Complexity Obstacle', by Professor James Franklin of UNSW , with the subheading that 'Science and Certainty don't always go hand in hand'. The article is polished though, in my view, a reworking of Karl Popper's logical positivist propositions about what constitutes empiricism.

      While, in the said article, James Franklin deals with the topic of the probability…

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    4. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Here is an example of hormone misadventure , hypogonadism.
      The consensus is hormones DON'T affect sexual orientation.

      "Kallmann's Syndrome"
      "One of our readers Nick has decided to create social network for intersex people with Kallmann's Syndrome. It is a new website but offers a great opportunity for people with hypothalamic hypogonadism to connect, meet online, and discuss issues affecting the community."

      http://kallmannssyndromesociety.ning.com/

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  6. Victor Minichiello

    Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean, Faculty of The Professions at University of New England

    Please view the YouTube embedded in the article under the word violence. Also please see,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dJjGstw9cM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    The point of this article is to address two larger questions as others have argued: why do such acts of violence continue to exist in a civilized society, and what can we do to reverse such unacceptable forms of discrimination and harm. There may be both biological and social explanations for homosexuality,, as we could have a debate between nature vs nurture, but let us not lose sight of a much larger issue and point of public concern: homophobia is not acceptable.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Victor Minichiello

      Thanks, Victor, for this. Absolutely disgusting and wicked, primitive beyond imagination and totally barbaric! Not just a human rights issue for medicine but also for the future face of religion and education. My own work is at the level of constructions of naturalism that contest as fallacious the fixed teleological positions and arguments that underpin several fundamentalist theologies and philosophies on what constitutes the Natural Law.

      These owe their origins to scientific propositions…

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    2. Clive A Marks

      logged in via email @attglobal.net

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Michael, I'll think about all that when I am using a lever capable of amplifying my physical input force to provide a greater output force in order to assist me to excavate a depression, er, my ‘spade’ or is it a ‘shovel’?

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    3. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Clive A Marks

      Too indulgently ironic, I'm afraid, Clive, when the outcome is to hang young persons for being themselves; better, perhaps, voluntary suicide or euthanasia for those who treat this as depression. Sorry for the overkill, but in the circumstances....

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    4. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Clive, upon reflection a crass reply from me. Whose depression is this, though...mine or yours? And isn't the purpose of Victor's argument in favour of 'homophilia' to counter the opprobrium and isolation that gay persons suffer? Why should they be worse off for being valorised and their disposition depathologised? Having said that, I'm neither therapist nor counsellor but still cannot see where my thinking might be skewed or insensitive on this matter, as I understand your remark to mean.

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  7. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Michael, I grew up with too many euphemisms to find them attractive.

    They obscure thought rather than clarify it.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Sorry, John; are you saying your descriptions are superior to or more authentic or real than mine? My point was that your's, excellent points though you make, have an unintended but limiting...even a pejorative effect, if homophilia is the matter for discussion. Of course, there's much more to this, I hope, than new terminology, political correctness and fancy vocabularising.

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