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Local Psychology College’s Curriculum Perpetuates Transphobia

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Most of us are aware of the fact that homosexuality was thought of as immoral and even categorised as a mental illness until some point in the 1900s, but it may come as a surprise that a well-known and respected college in South Africa is still discussing homosexuality (and other members of the LGBTQ community) within the context of abnormal psychology. SACAP – the South African College of Applied Psychology – offers various degrees and diplomas in psychology, applied social sciences, communication and counselling. While it professes to be a progressive institution that protects the rights of marginalised groups, it continues the long tradition of pathologising the LGBTQ population writes LUKE SADLER.

As an online student, I cannot comment on the atmosphere on campus, but, sadly, SACAP’s delivery of the online curriculum, as well as the unchallenged prejudice shown by students, has painted an unflattering view of the college. As part of the online curriculum, students are required to participate in online forum discussions where a different topic is addressed each week. It was quite a shock (albeit a somewhat predictable one) to see one week’s topic was “gender dysphoria, sexual dysfunctions and paraphilias”. Exploring the prescribed literature, it confirmed my suspicions: transgender people were once again going to be herded into the same category as paedophiles. The current “bathroom debate” happening in the USA over whether transgender people should be permitted to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity brings into focus the point of concern: many people still see transgender people as perverts and a danger to others, especially children.

The prescribed textbook also contained a variety of disappointing, misleading, and transphobic snippets. These included the suggestion that medical transition (taking hormones and accessing gender-affirming surgery) could be dangerous for the mental health of transgender people, misgendering transgender people, and various suggestions that transgender people need to prove that they are transgender before they can access gender-affirming hormones or surgery. These suggestions all perpetuate the gatekeeping to which transgender people are routinely subjected by the medical and psychological profession – the fact that they need to prove time and time again that they are worthy of accessing treatment that boosts their quality of life. Ironically, statistics show that accessing gender-affirming treatment improves the mental health of transgender people.

When SACAP was contacted about this misleading and transphobic information in this textbook, it took over a week for them to respond, and their response made it clear that no steps were going to be taken to address the prejudice being perpetuated in their curriculum. Despite numerous pleas from myself and a supportive senior lecturer at Wits University, the college was only prepared to add a couple of extra readings to the week in question – but continued with the prescribed text, and allowed a plethora of transphobia and homophobia to play out, unchallenged, in forum discussions.

As someone who has sought help for mental health conditions in South Africa through individual and group counselling, I can say without hesitation that prejudice is alive and well within the psychological profession. I have seen sexism rationalised and justified; racism dismissed and tacitly condoned. I have seen homophobia bandied about as a joke – but don’t take it seriously or you might be labelled oversensitive. I have experienced transphobia personally: deliberately being misgendered and called by my old name in order to toughen me up and prepare me for the “real” transphobia out there, and being told my desire to transition was invalid. I have yet to meet a transgender person who has not experienced transphobia.

In SACAP’s online forum discussions, various students posted their thoughts on LGBTQ people. These included one description of a student’s encounter with a femininely dressed gay person, which left her so rattled she had to calm herself down. Another student was “not sure how [he/she] would handle a transexual in a session”. Predictably, these posts were not addressed, despite SACAP’s student handbook’s claim that the college is an environment where all gender identities are acknowledged and respected. The student handbook also states that “awareness is promoted, and … inclusive language is ratified”.

SACAP were made aware of these problems well in advance of the week in which the offending textbook reading was to be used, but refused to do anything about it. Not only this, but they then opened the forum with a topic focused on gender non-conforming people – in a module on abnormal psychology, amongst topics such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and clinical depression. Gender non-conformity is explicitly stated by the American Psychiatric Association not to be a mental disorder, yet when challenged on this, the lecturer gave no response at all.

The prejudice described at SACAP and in the wider profession does not extend to every single mental health professional in the field, but it is certainly a big enough problem that failing to address it through education is abhorrent. After all, it is 2018, and the SACAP students learning now that LGBTQ people are psychologically abnormal are going to be tomorrow’s counsellors and psychologists. It is immeasurably sad that marginalised groups are going to continue to experience prejudice at the hands of professionals who are meant to be helping them.

Luke Sadler is a part time receptionist and studies BAppSocSci at SACAP online. He is also a freelance writer and photographer. He is a part of the LGBTQ community.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons
5 Comments
  1. Hassan says

    “The prescribed textbook also contained a variety of disappointing, misleading, and transphobic snippets” ??
    A good journalist would at least point out how the prescribed textbook is misleading rather than obfuscating the results of empirical research.

    There is a lot of evidence in the scientific literature which suggests that gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy are dangerous for a person’s mental health:
    Dr Paul R McHugh, former head of psychiatry at John Hopkins Hospital, co-authored a fairly comprehensive special report in the New Atlantis journal in 2016 on gender and sexuality. One of the main findings is that subpopulations of sexual minorities show much higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide – this is particularly evident among transgender individuals. One study the report cites found that sex-reassigned individuals were 5 times more likely to attempt suicide and 19 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. The report concludes that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that the elevated suicide rate is due to social stressors such as discrimination, although they are likely to exacerbate mental health issues. The social stress model is just one of the possible explanations – more long-term studies are needed in order to understand this public health issue.

    This journo comes across as intellectually lazy by (i) refusing to cite sources and by (ii) obfuscating the facts, and the degree of uncertainty that still remains around these facts.
    It’s irresponsible to use journalism as a political tool, especially when people’s mental health and possibly their lives are on the line.

    Seriously curious about who funds this rag – the quality of the ‘journalism’ is awful.

    1. Luke Sadler says

      Hi Hassan
      If you are interested, I have all the references – studies that have shown that medically transitioning benefits transgender people’s mental and emotional health. Dr Paul R McHugh seems to have a history of transphobia, which makes his findings highly questionable.

      1. Hassan says

        If you have all the sources, then cite them. Don’t ask the readers to ‘trust’ you. I spent a bit of time going through the recent literature and found a number conflicting results – there doesn’t appear to be a clear consensus on whether transitioning is beneficial or detrimental in the long run. There haven’t been enough longitudinal studies to reach anything close to a consensus. Neverthless, the role of testosterone is fairly well understood. Non-transitioning men who suffer from low testosterone levels (e.g. due to hypogonadism) have a significantly higher prevalence of anxiety and depression – that’s why they see an endocrinologist who prescribes them a testosterone replacement therapy. (reviewed in McHenry et al. 2014 Front. Neuroendrinol.).

        Your article glosses over the suicide rates among sex-reassigned individuals (19 times (95% CI 5.8–62.9) higher than the general population – read the Dhejne et al. 2011 study in PLoS One). There isn’t a scientific consensus about the long-term consequences of artificially reducing testosterone levels in biological men. It’s actually really dangerous to pretend that a consensus exists. The special report co-authored by Paul McHugh is a review of other people’s findings – they’re not his findings. Calling the co-author of a peer-reviewed meta-analysis transphobic – someone who has a vast amount of first hand experience working with individuals before and after undergoing sex reassignment – and automatically disregarding all the studies he cites, instead of engaging with them in an academic setting, is an admission of intellectual bankruptcy. (Coincidentally, a more recent meta-analysis conducted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Obama administration came to similar conclusions)

        Everyone makes mistakes when reporting ‘facts’ – that’s why it’s useful to provide references in case someone wants to look at the findings more thoroughly and reach their own conclusion.
        However, if you intentionally spread misinformation, like the imprecise and largely unfounded claim that medical transitioning benefits transgender people’s mental and emotional health (it has been shown to benefit some but not others), you should shoulder some of the responsibility for the outcomes of decisions that people make based on your information. Pointing out that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the long-term outcomes of sex reassignment, including serious negative effects like depression and suicide, is not transphobia or prejudice – it comes from a place of compassion and love.

  2. Gen B says

    Hi Luke,

    Thank you for this article. It’s an eye-opener regarding the prejudice that still exists.

    Hassan, I appreciate your perspective, yet Luke is writing from his personal experience. He is living through this right now. For every one study, there is another that ‘disproves’ it. We can argue stats and figures and toss links around ad nauseum; one contradicts the next, contradicts the next, and so on. What Luke is expressing is his current experience of discrimination by a community that is largely intolerant of anyone who has the audacity to be different. Whilst I respect that you have an opinion, and provided stats and figures, I feel that you are trying to absolutely nullify the author’s piece and experiences. The outright homophobia and transphobia he has witnessed in his online groups is unacceptable and, if your statistics are correct, perhaps we should change society’s mentality as, clearly even after transitioning, there is blatant disdain, intolerance, and even disgust for those who have journeyed this path. So, no wonder the suicide rates are purportedly so high. I would also be depressed and desperate if I were finally allowed to live my truth, only to be shunned and rejected after a lifetime of societal shame, stigma and suffering.

    Luke, all the best to you. Please know that not all Psychology students feel this way. I certainly do not. I can’t pretend to know what you’ve been through, or what you’re going through, and will seemingly be subject to for a very long time (that thought sickens me), but know that I admire your honesty and bravery. Stats or not. From one human to another, namaste.

  3. Claire says

    I appreciate your perspective Luke and thank you for sharing. As a student of SACAP I find some of your claims differ to a great deal to my firsthand experience at the institution.

    I, having completed the Abnormal Psychology Module, can say for certain – at the very least in my own case – that neither the lecturers nor the students or staff perpetuate any of the negative topics you have mentioned. The only reason we learn about ‘Gender Dysphoria’ as a ‘pathology’ is because that is how it currently reads in the DSMV, and it would be an academic injustice to pretend otherwise. When we are taught this module, however, we are constantly reminded about how the world is changing and how the DSM along with other academic texts will need to change with it. Just because we are taught about ‘Gender Dysphoria’ as a pathology doesn’t mean we agree with it. Although like I said at the beginning, I can only speak for myself.

    I’m just disappointed that an article that has been written puts a forward-thinking institution, that does so much good in communities , in a bad light. Especially because the claims are based on only one person’s experience (which is a valid experience of course) but when making such profound claims, surely any professional reporter would have questioned other students to get an accurate picture of the college?

    Thanks again 🙂

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