A couple of weeks ago the Supreme Court of the US ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny homosexuals the right to marry and enjoy all the benefits that come with that status.
The furore this ruling has raised in Kenya would have one believe that we are a territory of the US. No section of our society has been spared the hysteria, from politicians to professionals in various fields.
Many prominent people in this country had already expressed themselves on the gay question, insisting that ‘these people will not be allowed here’, and that it is a behaviour that is imported from the decadent West.
Homosexuality has been dismissed as unAfrican, unchristian and totally against everything we stand for as a people.
This ruling just provided more fuel to the fire of condemnation, with everyone, with a platform, rushing to fulminate about it and reassure Kenyans that the same cannot happen here.
In all this hullaballoo, most commentators keep looking to Kenyan psychiatrists to endorse their vitriolic stance, and declare homosexual orientation a mental disorder of some kind or other.
While individuals within the profession hold varied views on the subject, we have for a long time been in agreement that homosexual orientation on its own cannot constitute a mental illness.
That is until last week when a newspaper article was published quoting a Kenyan psychiatrist claiming to have a ‘corrective treatment’ for homosexuality.
Citing “biological and psychological factors such as testosterone deficiency or problematic childhood” as the causes of homosexuality, he is alleged to have suggested that a psychiatrist can ‘counsel’ those problems away and turn a homosexual individual into a ‘normal’ heterosexual.
There are many ways of looking at these claims, but in my view what this person is suggesting is equivalent to prescribing skin lightening creams for dark-skinned people so that they acquire a more ‘normal’ skin colour.
It is the same as what happened in the Soviet Union and in colonial Kenya where people with political opinions at variance with the ruling elite were declared mentally ill and locked up in mental hospitals for long periods of time. But it is even worse than the examples above, because in those cases it is easy to pick out those that are different in a crowd.
Homosexuality, like all sexuality, is way more complex than skin colour or political opinions. There are many homosexuals who never express their sexuality openly. And there are people who engage in homosexual behaviour without necessary identifying themselves as homosexuals.
In a society that does not care about the sexual orientation of its members, it is unlikely that a homosexual will show up in hospital and ask for treatment.
On the other hand, in societies where sexual orientation is given the same (or even greater) prominence as poverty, disease and social well-being, homosexuality is stigmatised and homosexuals are made to feel abnormal and ostracised.
In such societies, people with homosexual orientation may go to hospital to find out if there is any way they could be made ‘normal’.
If these are the kind of people this doctor was referring to, then the treatment does not consist of counselling them to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The treatment consists of dealing with the social stigma that causes the distress in the first place!
Prof Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, Moi University’s school of medicine; [email protected]