Saturday, April 23, 2011

Boot out boot camp

Physical activities were part of the Patriotism Integration Programme conducted for effeminate students in Besut, Terengganu, recently.

They may make effeminate boys suicidal, say psychologists

AS the Terengganu Education Department director makes an about-turn in the face of massive criticism over a boot camp to rehabilitate effeminate boys, there may be some truth yet to his initial statement that linked effeminacy to homosexuality.

Both clinical psychologist Selina Ding and child psychiatrist Dr Subash Kumar Pillai agree that some researches have shown that effeminate boys tend to end up as homosexuals or transgenders.

However, Dr Subash points out that many people fail to realise that not every effeminate child is going to grow up to be one.

"There are many 'macho'-looking men who are homosexuals," said Dr Subash, who is also associate professor and consultant psychiatrist in adolescent and adult psychiatry at the Department of Psychological Medicine in Universiti Malaya.

Earlier this week, the Terengganu Education Department sent 66 effeminate schoolboys to a "corrective" camp aimed at helping them behave in a proper manner.

The boys attended physical education and religious classes conducted by motivational speakers.

Department director Razali Daud had said the link between effeminate behaviour among male students and transsexuality should be a matter of concern.

If left unchecked, he said, it could become a problem later for them, their families and society.

"We understand that some people end up as mak nyah (transvestites) or homosexuals, but we will do our best to limit the number."

Dr Subash sees the formation of the corrective camp as a manifestation of the department's homophobia and, hence, a serious form of discrimination.

"They are literally saying that these kids are not normal and should be normalised. If they are born this way, are the authorities trying to play God? And this so-called boot camp is run by motivational speakers. What are they motivating the kids to do?"

Over the past week, many quarters have expressed concern that the children enrolled in the camp would run the risk of being ridiculed and stigmatised when they returned to school, which may lead to permanent psychological scars.

To Dr Subash, his biggest fear is the children being told they have sinned, leaving them guilty, depressed or even suicidal.

Prof Dr Low Wah Yun, a chartered psychologist at Universiti Malaya's Faculty of Medicine, believes the effects of the camp could be "devastating", and questions what the boys had done to deserve being singled out.

She asserts that there is no one theory to confirm if effeminate boys are a result of nature or nurture.

However, some experts believe effeminacy occurs as a result of a biological defect -- like being born with anatomical or physiological aspects of the opposite sex such as a hermaphrodite -- or because of psycho-social factors like a child's upbringing.

However, Ding, whose clinical work involves mainly children and adolescents, does not discount the possibility that girlish behaviours are learned and that boys with root psychological problems could merely act under strong influence.

Some children, because of rejection or abuse, may also adopt the gender identity of the opposite sex as a form of defence mechanism.

"If a girl was sexually abused, she could grow up not wanting to be a girl because it is associated with trauma and abuse. She would not want to have anything to do with being a girl," said Ding.

While Dr Subash concurs that there are both psychological and biological theories, he thinks the evidence at this point is not conclusive.

"It is also a known fact that even at a very young age, some children can show effeminate qualities without the presence of peer pressure and it is not because they are following any fad."

He disagrees with the notion that boys who are made to dress up like girls end up being effeminate.

"In some cultures, dressing a boy up like a girl is thought to ward off evil."

Perhaps the root issue behind the idea for the camp lies in society's uneasiness in seeing people behaving out of their gender norms.

Negative perception and a lack of acceptance -- even hatred -- of such behaviours could cause us to discriminate, marginalise, curse and stigmatise, said Dr Low.

News of the corrective camp caused an uproar among non-governmental organisations and human rights groups throughout the whole of last week.

Some netizens have created a Facebook page called "Boot-out Boot Camp" to voice their protest.

Besieged by heavy criticism, especially in the foreign press, Razali claimed on Wednesday that the camp had nothing to do with anti-gay sentiment or efforts to change the boys' sexual preferences.

Instead, he said, the character-building camp was part of the department's new Patriotism Integration Programme aimed at improving students' awareness of their duties to the nation.

The first batch of participants just "happens to display some feminine tendencies", Razali said.

Selina Ding believes girlish behaviours can be picked up
Prof Dr Low Wah Yun says there is no theory to confirm if effeminacy is a result of nature or nurture

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