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Survey: Many gays and transgender people teased and bullied for their sexual orientation

in SINGAPORE, 14/07/2012

Most homosexual and transgender people who took part in a recent survey said they had been the target of bullying and attacks because of the way they are. They have experienced verbal or physical abuse, ranging from derogatory name-calling to sexual harassment and physical assault.

The 13-year-old Oogachaga counselling and support centre for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals conducted the survey online.

Although the survey was not scientific, centre manager Bryan Choong says it highlights an important issue that deserves the attention of family members and teachers of young people trying to understand their sexual orientation.

Homophobia is an issue raised regularly by those seeking help at the centre, he says.

Counsellors told The Sunday Times that in extremes cases, the impact of bullying, abuse and rejection can be so severe that some sink into depression or become suicidal and need psychiatric help.

Out of 448 people who responded to the survey, 77 percent identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual and the rest were transgender.

Some 60 percent said they have faced discrimination or abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Most common were derogatory remarks – one in two respondents experienced this.

A smaller proportion – 14 per cent – had been sexually harassed or attacked physically.

The perpetrators were usually strangers, classmates, co-workers, and even family members, and the incidents happened  in schools, at the workplace, or in public.

Counsellors say that the discrimination faced by this community is similar to racist attacks, or bullying of the disabled. But because many in this group are struggling with their sexual orientation or keeping it secret, dealing with rejection, bullying or abuse can be too much for some to handle, said Oogachaga volunteer counsellor Alphonsus Lee. The centre sees more than 80 clients a year seeking counselling or support, and 10 to 15 complain about abuse.

Nearly 15 per cent of 500 e-mail messages received since the centre started an online counselling service in November 2010 have been about such discrimination.

The survey found that homosexual men tend to face more bullying than lesbian women – 62.5 per cent of the 272 men said that they have faced abuse, compared to 52.2 per cent of 134 women.

Counsellors say this is because it is harder for males to conceal their sexual orientation than females. For example, they pointed out; it is more socially acceptable for two women to be seen holding hands in public, than two men.

Psychiatrist Mok Yee Min, deputy chief of the Department of Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health, told The Sunday Times that this group “may have more difficulty coping as there is a still a certain stigma associated with their sexual preference”. His department sees patients with anxiety and depression who include homosexuals and transgender individuals.

“Patients with such sexual orientation are sometimes prone to feeling isolated and discriminated against, which may cause them to develop depression or other mental health issues,” he said.

At the Counselling and Care Centre, senior therapist Foo Soo Jen has seen clients as young as secondary school students seeking help for sexual orientation issues.

About 20 to 50 of its 1000 clients have homosexual and transgender issues, and bullying and abuse comes up.

“The teasing and bullying can start even when the kids are in primary schools,” said Ms Foo. “Children often mimic gay derogatory terms used by adults without fully understanding what they mean.”

Counsellors say young people struggling with reactions to their sexual orientation, including bullying and abuse, are unable to get help in the obvious places – at home and in school. Most do not speak to their parents about this. And in school, homosexuality is an issue teachers steer clear of, educators and counsellors say.

A private sexuality educator who declined to be named said it is almost impossible for sexuality education classes in schools to touch on homosexuality. This is the case especially since the “Aware saga” of 2009, when the women’s association saw its leadership grabbed by a group opposed in part to its position on homosexuality.

Aware has been conducting sexuality education programmes in schools, but that was stopped in the wake of accusations that its training manual for instructors appeared to condone homosexuality.

Since then, the Ministry of Education has been stringent in selecting private groups to run sexuality education in schools.

A secondary school counsellor said students need a better understanding of the issue. “All this bullying is because the students don’t really know what homosexuality is,” he said. He has had students complaining about homophobic abuse such as name-calling. He would resolve the issue through mediation.

“The problem we need to address is the discriminatory acts,” he said. “Any form of bullying, no matter for what reason, is wrong.”

Read the full summary report here.

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