A reminder from the World Health Organization: LGBT people are not "sick"

A recently released international report aims to challenge policies that treat homosexuality as a disease

Published September 5, 2014 2:36PM (EDT)

Homosexuality was stricken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. The classification of "gay-related diseases," however, has remained alive and well in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases, a standardized guide to medical reporting used by doctors and hospitals around the world. A team of American doctors is looking to remove that classification for good, and issued a report earlier this week reiterating what research has already shown: There is no scientific basis for the classification of sexual orientation-related mental illness. Being LGBTQ is not a disease.

While the WHO directory has not considered homosexuality itself to be a psychological disorder for more than two decades, the category of "homosexual-related diseases" has left open the possibility of clinically condoned discrimination against LGBTQ people around the world, which the report is intended to remediate. In an interview with Take Part, report co-author Susan Cochran, a psychologist and epidemiologist at UCLA, explained the basic aims of the update:

“[It] doesn’t make sense to put something in a book and say, ‘This is a disease,’ when there’s no proof that it is a disease,” Cochran said.

Although being gay or lesbian is no longer classified as a disorder—references to homosexuality as a mental illness were removed from the WHO directory in 1990—in its place emerged new categories of “gay-related” diseases. For example, if a homosexual teenager is confused about his sexual identity, he could be classified as mentally ill under current WHO guidelines, Cochran said. Or if a married man wakes up one day and realizes he’s gay and wants to leave his wife, he could be diagnosed with having sexual relationship disorder.

WHO aims to keep the ICD relevant and useful for clinicians, but the inclusion of some of these outdated disorders could be downright dangerous. Under the current code, a doctor may be able to justify the use of “reparative therapy” in treating a gay person who suffers from depression or anxiety. These conversion treatments are widely understood to be unethical and harmful to the individual and wholly ineffective at changing the person’s sexual orientation.

California has outlawed anti-gay conversion therapy and several other states have made moves to follow suit, but what has been accepted as scientific fact in much of the United States has yet to expand around the world. The panel that authored the WHO report anticipate backlash from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uganda and Russia, which have criminalized homosexuality or enacted anti-LGBT laws. In addition to underscoring the point that homosexuality, bisexuality and gender dysphoria are not psychological disorders, WHO will also embrace LGBT equality as a human rights issue.

By Jenny Kutner

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