The Malta Independent 22 September 2018, Saturday

Talking straight about physical and mental health issues faced by the LGBT community

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 2 September 2018, 09:30 Last update: about 20 days ago

Body issues are a problem for any modern-day man but it seems to be more prominent in the gay community. In fact, in 2014, the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that gay or bisexual men were three times more likely than straight men to have body image issues.

"Body image is a huge issue and I would say it is on the same level as the way women feel. I do not want to discredit in any way how women feel but there are a lot of similarities with regards to self-confidence and body issues," explains Clayton Mercieca from Allied Rainbow Communities (ARC).

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Transgender people have it the most difficult Clayton believes, as they not only have to figure out their gender identity but also face society. With transgender men, it may be a bit easier as society is used to butch women but male to female transitioning is quite an issue. "We are seeing children as young as five feeling they are not the gender they were born with."

Clayton mentions an important fact about the pride campaign is to avoid idolising one male body type. It is a norm in Malta that posters for gay parties show men with muscular bodies but in reality, most gay men do not look like that. The image of most gay men is highly sexualised but this is not representative of the whole community.

"People hate themselves and feel left out." It becomes even harder when dating since the pool is already small and the ideal muscular man is not a reality.

 

Sexual Health

Sexual health is very important for the gay community but it appears not much is being done on the matter. Clayton mentions that ARC has been approached by a person who was given an HIV+ result after testing. It appears that once the result is given he was told that he would hear from the clinic within a few weeks.

After hearing such alarming news the waiting time of up to eight weeks is eternal and can result in a major crisis for the individual. A group on Facebook has been set up for people to share their experiences and find the help they need. People diagnosed with any sexual disease are rarely provided with any counselling.

One of the reasons for this lack of information is the staff shortages at the GU clinic. Even to just get an appointment at the GU clinic at the moment the waiting time is eight weeks unless it is an emergency. The awareness about sexual health is increasing but of course, with better awareness comes more demand which the GU clinic is not equipped to handle.

As part of Pride Week, donations will be collected to help fund the GU staff training.

Although sexual health awareness in the LGBT community is required certain discriminations must be avoided. Clayton recalls of one person having a health problem totally unrelated to sexual health but when visiting the doctor he was told he needed to go to the GU clinic. "By assumption just because he was gay he was sent to the GU clinic for sexual health testing."

 

Mental Health Challenges and Social Conventions

Unfortunately, another issue that is prevalent amongst the LGBT community is mental health. Depression, anxiety and stress are all difficulties which are encountered by the LGBT community. These issues are not only prevalent in the coming out phase, although for a lot of people this time brings about a lot of problems.

LGBT people do not have a lot of role models they can base their life on. It is only recently that one sees same-sex couples bring up children or older people who are LGBT. Before older LGBT people used to to be in convents or living with their siblings and probably closeted all their life.

We are now seeing the first generation of 60+ LGBT people but what is happening is they enter residential homes where they face the same fears which haunted them back in the days. They either have to go back in the closet or be true to themselves but face discrimination by their peers. Another factor is the lack of sensitivity of the staff in residential homes whereby they assume heterosexuality because of the resident’s age.

Clayton came out as gay at the age of 16 at a time when the situation in Malta was quite different. None of his peers was gay but a female friend of his openly declared that she had no issue with gay men so he came out to her. Clayton explains how he strategised that his parents would be the last to know he was gay so if they would have kicked him out of their home he would have already established a support network. His parents were shocked that he had thought they would throw him out but it is a reality that exists in Malta.

Religious beliefs become a major player for parents with LGBT children although it is not the official church per se, Clayton insists. In fact, there is a group called Drachma which offers a safe place for parents of LGBTs to come to terms with their child's coming out process and help them reconcile this aspect with their own Catholic family identity. Although the church is affirmative they do not sway from the Catholic teaching as it is right now.

Clayton considers himself a humanist but mentions that he baptised his son because of social conventions. "I did not want my son to be singled out because he was not baptised. At least that was something which they welcomed as a church. There were no issues whatsoever from the Church's side."

Another initiative of Pride Week focusing on mental health vis-a-vis the LGBT community is the showing of a short film dealing with the theme of suicide. There will also be present an author who experiences OCD and a therapist who works with issues of shame.

Clayton emphasises the issue of shame and explains that most gay people experience it both during their coming out phase as well as throughout their life. People in society still tend to pass comments about gay people, perhaps even unconsciously but this can lead to self-loathing, especially with people who are coming out.

”Gay people naturally try to overdo it. They become very successful in their careers, or they go overboard with selfies, they obsess with their bodies trying to have these god-like figures. This is a response to shame.”

 

Same-Sex Domestic Violence

About 25% of LGBT people suffer from violent or threatening relationships with partners or ex-partners which is about the same rates as in as domestic abuse against heterosexual women. As in opposite-gendered couples, the problem is underreported.

Clayton mentions a conference he attended where it was noted that no LGBT clients ever mentioned same-sex domestic abuse. There is a lot of stigma surrounding this issue perhaps because gay people feel they are not understood. Welfare services portray themselves as only being available for heterosexual families and couples only.

 

Gender Clinic

The Malta Independent had previously reported on the issues faced by transgender men - men assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is that of a man - when waiting in a predominately female waiting room for a gynaecology appointment. The proposed ‘ideal’ solution then was a gender clinic.

A gender clinic would offer health services to transgender people. Besides professionals in hormone therapy, there would be other clinicians such as psychologists and social workers for whoever needs one. The gender clinic would offer services both on a physiological and psychological level.

Clayton mentions that this clinic is now being set up with a consultation document being presented in May. There was a lot of feedback from the transgender community especially in terms of timings which is very important for preadolescent transgender people. Unfortunately, no acknowledgment has been received about the feedback submitted.

There are 40 new cases of transgender people per year which supports the requirement for a gender clinic in Malta.

 

Malta Pride Week 2018

Pride Week in Malta will be held on September 9-16 with various different events taking place throughout the week. Although Malta ranks first amongst the EU countries with regards LGBT rights, Clayton believes pride week is still important because what is in legislation and what is lived on a day-to-day basis is two realities that coexist.

Pride week is an occasion to bring the LGBT community together whilst also being a social and political tool rather than a celebration. There is a lot to celebrate but it still remains a platform for visibility that the LGBT community as a demographic exists, matters, but also has issues.

Although there are gay bars and parties these might attract a small percentage of the LGBT community. ARC organises events throughout the year which aim to attract a different type of crowd from the same community. One such event is football tournaments which tend to attract transgender men. This is one way of getting to know people and learning about their experiences.

Pride week covers a whole set of events that might attract a different kind of people and also an opportunity to highlight the issues that are important to the LGBT community. Clayton who himself has recently become a father and says that pride week will also be an opportunity to bring other rainbow families together.

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