'I had suicidal thoughts': Gay Lebanese speak out against conversion therapy

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By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Doctors in Lebanon warned about the dangers of gay conversion therapy on Thursday, saying homosexuality is not a disease - a common misconception in the Arab country.

The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) hosted a conference in Beirut where leading doctors said that the controversial treatment, which claims to help gay people become straight, can cause suicidal thoughts and depression.

"Conversion therapy is happening in Lebanon and some people are still falling for old ideas that homosexuality is a mental illness," said Omar Fattal, co-founder of LebMash, which is made up of health professionals based in Lebanon and North America.

"Attempts to change sexual orientation should be banned," Fattal, a psychiatrist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from New York.

The call for reform comes at a time when legislative change is gathering speed around the world, with New Zealand, Australia and Britain all considering laws against the practice, which can involve electric shocks and hormone therapy.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people face persecution in many countries in the Middle East, where some risk fines, jail and even death. Social exclusion and abuse are common.

LebMASH, which focuses on improving the sexual health of LGBT+ people in Lebanon, also kicked off a campaign on social media with the hashtag #NotaDisease.

An upsurge in LGBT+ activism has led to "enormous advances" in the Middle East and Lebanon is on the cusp on change, campaigners said last month.

A Lebanese district court of appeal ruled in July that same-sex relationships were not illegal, challenging Article 534 of the penal code which outlaws "sexual intercourse contrary to nature," punishable by up to one year in jail.

Conservatism within Lebanon's major religions - Christianity and Islam - fuels support for conversion therapy, said Ameen Rhayem, representative of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, which campaigns for LGBT+ rights.

"Families will force people to go through religious leaders, and that will play with their minds - that they are doing something wrong and they will go to hell," he said.

Omar, a 28-year-old Lebanese man who declined to give his full name, said his Christian family sent him to a psychologist who convinced his parents that therapy could make him straight.

"That is what really harmed me the most - living in this in- between. Thinking I could change but I knew I couldn't," he said by phone from the United States where he now lives.

When he was 15, his father offered to pay a woman to have sex with him, he said.

"He thought that could change me," he said.

"I had suicidal thoughts - and when I said that to my dad, he expressed a sort of relief if I would commit suicide to relieve the shame on the family."

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