A psychiatrist’s perspective on gay and transgender persons in Pakistan

Published: December 4, 2013
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It is time to treat transgender and transsexual people with respect as fellow human beings. PHOTO: AFP

In the television program, I came across many of the victims requesting opportunities for honourable lives like everyone else in society. Unfortunately, their voices were ignored. Pakistan is one of the least gay-tolerant countries in the world. PHOTO: AFP It is time to treat transgender and transsexual people with respect as fellow human beings. PHOTO: AFP

Aab Tak, a Pakistani television station started its transmission earlier this year with a strong statement,

‘Ladies, Gentlemen and She-males’

It did not take long for the station to air a sensational TV show Khufia where the hostess, Uzma Tahir, ignored people’s right to independence and a free life as she bullied them with a television camera. Chasing people frantically on the streets of Karachi, she and her team put hands on people, manhandled them and then barged into their homes with a camera crew to ask the victims of her camera bullying,

“Are you gay or transgender?”

The saddest part of the show occurred later when the hostess arrogantly ignored someone’s suicide threat.  I couldn’t accept the fact that Uzma Tahir didn’t care about human life. Suicide is a preventable death and every suicide threat needs to be taken seriously.

The most sickening moment came when she wishfully said,

“Why don’t these people become targets of bombs?”

One victim of her television camera abuse pleaded on air that he had some mental health issues and couldn’t talk about them. She tortured the poor soul by judging him and mockingly saying,

“How can a ‘crazy’ know that he is ‘crazy’ and even know his doctor? This is enough to prove that you are lying.”

It is a known fact that people with mental illness and non-conforming sexual behaviour are often victims of violence but it is quite rare to find sexual and psychological harassment by a television program crew.

A so-called human right activist and physician, Ansar Burney, was invited to the program as an expert to discuss the issue.  To a height of absurdity, Burney became paranoid and started inviting the charge that transvestites and transgender people could be agents of foreign countries and might be working as spies for different terrorist groups. The ‘expert’ on the program referred to transvestite and transgender orientation as ‘psychological misbehaviour’. I don’t know what this means as in my almost decade-long career in psychiatry, I have never heard or read this expression even once.

In 2012, Pakistanis with gender non-conformity received an official status as ‘third-gender’ citizens. They are commonly and more loosely referred to as eunuchs (hijras, khawaja-sarra), hermaphrodites and transvestites.

Contrary to Tahir’s personal belief, there is scientific data to support that these conditions happen genetically, not by choice. Clinically, they are different from each other.  Gender Dysphoria (Gender Identity Disorder) describes the dissatisfaction some people have with their assigned gender at birth. Some, if resourceful, opt for sex change procedures. Transvestism, the practice of dressing and acting in a style or manner traditionally associated with the opposite sex, is different as is homosexuality where one is sexually aroused by members of the same sex. There are other hormonal and genetic situations in which patients can have ambiguous genitalia.

Acting like the moral police, the hostess decided that it was her job to despicably warn the public to watch out for any early signs of their children being gay.

Our media has started expanding its target audience. The Late Night Show with Begam Nawazish Ali, the Lollywood movie Bol and now the Pakistani version of ‘Glee’ are presenting evidence of non-heterosexual behaviour in our media, opening up a long secret aspect of our society. But sometimes sadly, multi-national companies find it acceptable to show a transgender victim of hazing in an all-boys college in an advertisement.

Ironically, a June 2013 Pew Research survey showed Pakistan was one of the least gay-tolerant countries in the world while the same month the magazine Mother Jones published the results of a survey that put Pakistan as the world leader in the number of Google searches for gay sex links.

I remember the case of Shumail Raj and Shahzina Tariq, a married couple who was jailed for three months for perjury after a dispute over the husband’s sex. The court ruled had that the husband was, in fact, a woman, despite sex-change surgery and that the couple had lied about his sexual status. It denied their claim of being married as their marriage was un-Islamic because it was same-sex.

People with different sexual orientations and behaviours lead a very difficult and objected life in Pakistan. A television program like Khufia can risk many other lives. It is time to treat transgender and transsexual people with respect as fellow human beings. There is a need to accept their presence in society and to help them with education and employment in regular jobs.

In the television program, I came across many of the victims requesting opportunities for honourable lives like everyone else in society. Unfortunately, their voices were ignored.

Hassan Majeed (MD)

Hassan Majeed MD

The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, NY. He is a marathon runner and his interests include art, culture, travel, gender, human rights, mental health, and education. He tweets @HassanMajeedMD (twitter.com/HassanMajeedMD)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.