Training doctors in Lebanon to ensure health equity for the LGBTI+ community

By Laudy Issa

Hivos believes in a free and diverse world where people have the right to decide over their own bodies and sexuality without stigma, discrimination, or exclusion. Our work takes us to Lebanon, where inspiring partners like LebMASH continue to fight for sexual and bodily rights despite conservative forces.

Going through the healthcare system as an LGBTI+ individual in Lebanon can be both frightening and pointless. First there is the struggle to find doctors who know how to treat their medical symptoms correctly and in a dignified way, and then there are doctors with conservative attitudes who refuse to treat them.

Before our partner the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) appeared, finding an LGBTI+ friendly doctor in Lebanon was a gamble. LGBTI+ health is not taught in curriculums. Doctors often are unaware of how to treat these patients or the correct terminology to use with them. LebMASH, an NGO founded in 2012, has worked tirelessly to ensure that LGBTI+ patients are treated with respect by healthcare providers.

Developing a guide

As part of its aim to advance sexual and reproductive health for all, LebMASH developed a first-of-its-kind comprehensive guide for healthcare providers in Lebanon who are accepting of the LGBTI+ community. The guide is currently the only one available in the country.

“We are not service providers. We concentrate on training, coaching, and capacity building for all healthcare providers in Lebanon,” says Soauad Al Challah, Director of LebMASH. “We teach doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field how to respectfully handle people from the LGBTI+ community.”

Every person has the right to medical care without discrimination

LebMASH also works with medical and nursing students from diverse backgrounds and religious affiliations. It holds workshops for them on basic sexual health, where they also learn to understand and become comfortable with talking to and treating LGBTI+ patients.

The students fill out a questionnaire at the beginning and end of each workshop. “The difference in the questionnaires shows us that a lot of students didn’t previously know 90 percent of what we teach them,” Al Challah tells us.

The organization is fighting at the forefront of difficult battles in Lebanon. It was founded only one year before the Lebanese Psychiatric Society released a historically liberal statement affirming that homosexuality is not a mental illness.

Raising public awareness

Over the years, LebMASH has not only educated healthcare providers, but also raised public awareness and pressured the government into ensuring health equity for LGBTI+ individuals through powerful scientific facts.

“We talk science, not beliefs,” says Al Challah, who goes on to explain how individuals with medical titles have a critical role in changing opinions on the LGBTI+ community because they hold the public’s trust.

In 2014, a LebMASH campaign helped implement an anal testing ban in the country. In 2015, the health group launched their Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality Award, a lucrative annual award for healthcare providers that visibly contributes to healthcare equlity for the community.

LebMAsh’s innovative solutions and achievements have flourished over the years despite Lebanon’s conservative society, to the point of receiving the international GLMA 2017 Health Achievement Award for advocating for LGBTI+ health equity.

LebMASH wins award
Dr. Aimee Karam, clinical psychologist and president of the Lebanese Psychological Association, receives LebMASH’s Leader in LGBT Health Equality Award. Photo: LebMASH

LGBTI+ Health Week

More than 150 attendees recently took part in the third annual edition of the National LGBTI+ Health Week in Lebanon, the first of its kind in an Arab country. The week included a series of events organized by LebMASH, from workshops and roundtable discussions to a full-day conference with 12 speakers. A panel that aims to shift attitudes on conversion therapy has been present at every edition of the conference.

Each year, the conference focuses on different topics related to the health of LGBTI+ and other marginalized groups, including foreign workers, prisoners, and people with drug-related disorders. This year, the conference focused on palliative care, or improving the quality of life of patients with life-threatening illnesses and that of their families. Because sometimes LGBTI+ individuals in Lebanon are left to face terminal illnesses with no familial support due to stigma and lack of acceptance.

LebMASH at LGBTI health week
LGBTI+ Health Week, organized by LebMASH. Photo: LebMASH

According to Al Challah, LebMASH reached its main target audience for the conference: healthcare providers. “Our conference was a huge success this year. We had 157 attendees, which is 40 percent more than last year, and a majority all of them were doctors, nurses and social workers,” she tells us. “We succeed when we reach healthcare providers.”

This year’s Health Week used the slogan “Excellence without Discrimination” to highlight the importance of quality healthcare for all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Every person has the right to medical care without discrimination, and medical providers in turn, are supposed to give quality care without discrimination,” explains Al Challah.

Hivos is proud to have LebMASH as a partner in our LGBTI+ program.