Equal health rights for all

Dr. Brigitte Khoury
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Psychologist Brigitte Khoury receives inaugural award for her pivotal work in promoting LGBT health in Lebanon – 
By Tori DeAngelis

Article first appeared here in Oct. 2015

Brigitte Khoury, PhD, first became interested in psychology while attending college at the American University of Beirut in the mid-1980s. She’d seen the trauma caused by war in her country and she wanted to help.

Over time, psychology in general captured her interest, and after earning a master’s degree in psychology and working at a hospital in Beirut, she applied to graduate programs in the United States. In 1997, she earned her PhD in clinical psychology from Palo Alto University, and conducted her internship and postdoc at Stanford University around the same time.

Living, studying and working in the San Francisco Bay area quickly familiarized her with the active and empowered lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community there. Though not LGBT herself, many of her friends, colleagues and professors were, and Khoury received extensive professional training in LGBT issues and sexual health as well.

When she returned to Lebanon in 1997 to take a position in the newly formed department of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut, she found herself wanting to help LGBT people gain the same rights, services and self-respect she had seen in the United States. Homosexuality is still illegal in Lebanon and most other Middle Eastern countries, and as a result, health, mental health and other services geared to the LGBT population are sparse.

“I realized coming back to Lebanon, that [the Lebanese government] was so unfair to such a large percentage of the population,” says Khoury. “LGBT people are a very vital and important part of society. We can’t just ignore them,” or worse, shun or imprison them, she says.

As students heard her teach that homosexuality was neither a crime nor a disease, they began to confide in her their own experiences and feelings. She became a magnet for LGBT clients, who flocked to her for understanding and help. She also advocated for LGBT rights on a number of fronts, and is currently conducting research on transgendered individuals for the World Health Organization to reclassify the term in a nonpathologized manner.

In 1994, Khoury formed the Lebanese Psychological Association. Several years later, in response to a television program on the supposed merits of reparative therapy, she urged the LPA and the Lebanese Psychiatric Society to issue a joint statement on homosexuality similar to APA’s 1975 policy statement. That statement, issued in May, 2014, and the subject of significant international media attention, explains that homosexuality is not a disease and does not require treatment.

For this work and more, a group called LebMASH (the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health) — a non-governmental agency founded by Lebanese physicians in 2013 that aims to improve the sexual health of all Lebanese citizens, in particular LGBT people – this year conferred on Khoury its first Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality Award to recognize her holistic achievements in the area.

Choosing Khoury was a no brainer, says LebMASH Executive Director Omar Fattal, MD.

“We wanted to give it to it to someone who has already demonstrated leadership in clinical and advocacy work, and who also has advanced research and knowledge in the area,” he says.

On a personal level, she also championed LGBT rights when the issue was still quite hidden but realistically even more dangerous than it is today, he adds.

“Brigitte is just ahead of her time,” he says. “Even today, you don’t find a lot of people like her.”

Fortunately, the cultural climate for LGBT rights in Lebanon is better than the legal climate, at least in some spheres, and Khoury is hopeful about the progress she sees. Younger doctors are more sensitive to and better educated on LGBT health issues, advocacy efforts are in full swing, and “in the last year or so, I’ve had more and more gay men and women coming in with their parents or a family member, saying, ‘Please, we want to explain to them what it is,’” she says.

“Being in a country and region where there is violence, war, trauma, discrimination against women and refugees — this is where mental health needs to flourish,” she adds. “It’s a basic need; it’s not a luxury any more.”Y

Tori DeAngelis is a journalist in Syracuse, N.Y.

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