Breaking free from the straight-jacket of psychiatric labelling

17 May 2012, Budapest. On the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) MDAC reaffirms its support for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people around the world. In particular, MDAC calls for the recognition of equal rights for LGBTQ persons with disabilities, who face multiple discrimination on the grounds of their disability and sexual orientation or gender identity. IDAHO is also an opportune time to question the validity of psychiatric labelling as such.

The sexuality of persons with disabilities is still a taboo. They are often viewed as either childlike and asexual or threatening and oversexual. As our 2011 report on Croatia showed, the perception of the sexual desires, needs, and activities of people with disabilities is highly distorted. As Tom Shakespeare, Kath Gillespie-Sells and Dominic Davies said in their 1996 book The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, “A medical tragedy model predominates, whereby disabled people are defined by deficit, and sexuality either is not a problem, because it is not an issue, or is an issue, because it is seen as a problem”.

When people with disabilities are recognised as having a sexual self, they are presumed to be heterosexual. LBGTQ people with disabilities face the additional problem of being marginalised within the mainstream disability movement and the mainstream LGBTQ movement. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) also falls short of providing adequate safeguards against discrimination, by failing to include sexual orientation and gender identity as intersecting grounds of discrimination.

By celebrating the fact that homosexuality was removed from the list of psychiatric diagnoses on 17 May 1990, IDAHO may unwittingly legitimise the stigmatisation of others labelled with psychiatric disorders or mental illnesses. Such labelling can have a deleterious effect on self-esteem, and can lead to human rights violations, including the loss of autonomy and personhood. By being stripped of legal capacity people are denied their right to decide where and with whom to live, to decide on how to vote and how to bring up their children. Much of MDAC’s strategic litigation and advocacy aims to delegitimise discrimination based on these labels.

The case of IDAHO illustrates how all psychiatric labels should be questioned and perceived as socially imposed by the medicalisation of personhood and identity - a long-standing campaign theme of psychiatric survivor movements. Hence, while MDAC endorses the liberation of the LGBTQ persons from the straight-jacket of psychiatric labels, we believe that regardless of any label society assigns to them, every person is entitled to equality and human rights. 

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