Poking holes in heteronormativity: UKZN hosts launch of PsySSA’s practice guidelines

Suntosh R. Pillay

How can we promote the mental health and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI)? This was the question up for discussion at a recent advocacy event at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), which included the provincial launch of PsySSA’s historic publication, the Practice Guidelines for Psychology Professionals Working with Sexually- And Gender Diverse People. The event was sponsored by UKZN’s Division for Student Services, who is responsible for safeguarding the rights of LGBTI students on campus.

All three panellists engaged with the application of the Guidelines and how best to disrupt heteronormativity. Nonhlanhla Mkhize, the founder and director of Durban’s LGBT community centre, said “the engagement with these guidelines requires a continuous back and forth. The challenge will now be how to implement them”. Using the example of how lesbian women are murdered due to their sexual orientation, she urged the audience of over 100 health professionals, academics, and students to ensure that these guidelines are put into practice.

Siya Khumalo, author of the book You have to be gay to know God, confessed that his church messed up his identity and self-esteem as a teenager, causing him to unhealthily question who he was as a young man growing up in a rural area.

He asked, “What would happen if our birth certificates said ‘gender as we know it now’?” He was building on the point make by Kerry Frizelle, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at UKZN, who urged everyone let go of unnecessary binaries and embrace diversity.

“People don’t know what to do with you when you don’t fit into the binary, it can elicit murderous impulses in people!” said Frizelle. “The real problem,” she believes, “is that we are embedded in a heterosexual matrix and we need to poke a hole in this heteronormativity”. Frizelle reflected on being a queer woman in the academy and the prejudices experienced even in the university corridors. “We need to develop more equitable gender relations, but the challenge of poking these holes is that it cannot be left to people who identify as gender non-conforming… it’s too dangerous! It has to be the work of all of us”.

The Guidelines were the outcome of years of research by a core team in the PsySSA Africa LGBTI Human Rights Project.  Aimed at psychology professionals, they are broadly applicable to all health practitioners to work sensitively, ethically, and competently with people that are LGBTI, in a range of contexts, including research, teaching, and psychotherapy.

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in the public sector and co-author of PsySSA’s Practice Guidelines, which can be downloaded from www.psyssa.com


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