"Homosexuality is not a disease." Source: Facebook/LebMASH

With absent or inadequate sex education in school curricula, Lebanese youth are pushed to learn about sex from unreliable sources, with all the risks it entails.

The issue is all the more alarming when it comes to the country's LGBTIQ+ community, whose members face a multitude of struggles and misconceptions pertaining to their sexual health.

To promote LGBTIQ+ individuals' right to equitable access to healthcare, and to shed light on the importance of taking care of their sexual health, the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) organized an LGBT Health Week from March 12-17.

Under the slogan "Excellence Without Discrimination," the initiative joined together community members, students, professionals, and researchers, all with the aim of championing competent healthcare without any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

To learn more about the theme of the event, as well as the status of LGBTIQ+ healthcare in Lebanon, StepFeed spoke to Dr. Suha Ballout, a nursing faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a LebMASH board member.

On the importance of sex education

Dr. Ballout said many teachers and parents steer clear from sex education since they believe it would encourage the youth to engage in sexual activities.

"As a result, when youth experiment with their sexuality and sexual experiences, they do not have a reliable adult reference or resource to get advice from, which puts them at a disadvantage when they make decisions related to sex," she explained.

Dr. Ballout emphasized the importance of providing the youth with basic knowledge about sexuality and reproduction, which creates an adequate foundation about issues such as first sexual experiences, abstinence, contraception, sexual behaviors, orientation, sexual pleasures, communication, as well as sexually transmitted diseases. 

According to Dr. Ballout, inadequate sex education or its lack thereof in Lebanese schools leads to troubling consequences, including high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual violence, and unintended pregnancies. Additionally, "the lack of sex education can reinforce the notion that sex is a taboo and therefore makes youth believe they should not speak about it or seek help when needed."

Dr. Ballout noted that the LGBTIQ+ community suffers from more severe repercussions resulting from the inadequate sex education, as they are subjected to "double negative messaging."

"In addition to the points mentioned previously, identifying with the LGBT community is also perceived as a taboo. Consequently, as they experiment with their sexuality and relationships, they feel at a disadvantage and as a result, can easily end up in high-risk sexual encounters or relationships," she explained.

On accessing healthcare as an LGBTIQ+ individual

Dr. Ballout said that despite the presence of a few LGBT-affirming healthcare providers, most LGBTIQ+ individuals have been through "humiliating" experiences when seeking healthcare in Lebanon.

"These struggles start from the minute they walk through the doors of an institution. They are mistreated and called names, in addition to being ridiculed. Then, when they see healthcare professionals, they are in many instances refused care or talked to in a demeaning manner as if they are a 'disease' themselves," she explained.

According to Dr. Ballout, the curricula of health professions in Lebanon do not include LGBTIQ+ health education, leaving many graduates unprepared to care for members of the community.

"LGBT persons feel that they have to educate providers about their sexuality and who they are," she added.

This, coupled with social prejudices targeting the community, leads to the mistreatment of LGBTIQ+ individuals or even the refusal to provide healthcare services to them. As a result of the negative sentiments and dispiriting experiences, LGBTIQ+ tend to refrain from seeking healthcare, putting their physical and mental health at risk. 

In light of the above, Dr. Ballout noted that LebMASH has put together a database of LGBT-affirming healthcare providers. The association also conducts workshops for healthcare professionals and students to better prepare the workforce to care for LGBTIQ+ persons.

On Lebanon's crackdown on pro-LGBTIQ+ events

Lebanese authorities have regularly interfered with events and campaigns pertaining to the LGBTIQ+ community, and LebMASH's activities are no exception.

Dr. Ballout noted that the association had organized a campaign titled "Homosexuality is not a Disease" in November 2018, with plans to display billboards in Beirut.

"However, these billboards were banned. We had to use social media and other forms of communication to proceed with our work," said Dr. Ballout.

Therefore, when organizing the 2019 LGBT Health Week, LebMASH put forth a backup plan in case of governmental interference. 

"These conversations (discussing a potential crackdown) are not usual when organizations are planning activities to discuss health issues, promote human rights, advocate for health policies, and ensure health equity," she said. 

On the importance of safeguarding one's sexual health

Dr. Ballout believes it is crucial for all sexually active individuals, including members of the LGBTIQ+ community, to educate themselves on sexual health, remain vigilant, and regularly get tested. 

She encourages LGBTIQ+ individuals not be dissuaded by negative experiences, and instead seek help at LGBT-friendly healthcare providers.

"I understand that it might be stigmatizing to seek sexual health resources, but these services can save lives. If I can ask for something, I would say, please locate these services and make it a point to visit them and get tested. Having the proper information is key and early detection of any sexual health issues or concerns is very important for better outcomes. The medical field has advanced and there is plenty of treatment that is accessible, even in Lebanon," she concluded.