Lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans and their supporters have had much to celebrate recently. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where such marriages are legal, and let stand a lower court ruling repealing a California law that took away marriage rights from same-sex couples. In 2011, the federal government ended the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. The last few years have also seen statements questioning the effectiveness of conversion therapy for homosexuality, including from the U.S. attorney general's office, APA, the American Psychiatric Association and others.

Unfortunately, progress has not been as swift in many other parts of the world. In the same month as the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Russia's president signed a law imposing jail terms on people who promote homosexual "propaganda" to minors and who "offend religious believers," a directive tacitly aimed at stigmatizing lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens. In a more extreme case, Uganda has been considering a bill since 2009 that would, among other things, "prohibit and penalize homosexual behavior and related practices" and punish offenders with life in prison or death. In fact, those who even know someone who "commits an offense" and fail to report it within 24 hours are subject to three years' prison time, the bill's provisions state.

This stark contrast in attitudes and actions highlights why it's important for APA and other psychological organizations around the world to dispel the myths and disseminate the truth about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people and to speak out in support of their rights and well-being, says Clinton Anderson, PhD, who heads APA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Concerns Office.

"While a lot of important progress has been made in the United States in recent years, little or no progress has been made in some other parts of the world," Anderson says. "Psychologists are in a position to make a major contribution toward improving conditions for LGBT people worldwide."

APA has been working toward this goal since 2001, when it helped to form the International Network on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns and Transgender Issues in Psychology, or INET. The group is charged with working to increase the ability of the world's psychology organizations to help LGBT people who may face harassment, discrimination and worse. The 17-member group has created a presence for LGBT issues and research at the two main international psychology congresses, the International Congress of Psychology and the International Congress of Applied Psychology, and at the Interamerican Congress of Psychology. INET member organizations come from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, the European Union, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

INET's influence was bolstered in 2011 when APA's LGBT Concerns Office secured a two-year, $150,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation, a global foundation that works to advance pressing social justice and conservation issues, including LGBT equality.

Half of those funds were given to two psychological societies that were ready to increase their ability to contribute to human rights for LGBT people in their own countries and also within their regions: the Psychological Society of South Africa, or PsySSA, and the Psychological Association of the Philippines, or PAP. Both organizations have made significant strides in promoting LGBT-affirmative policies and practices in their countries and in disseminating the evidence related to them. They also represent regions where there is a need for more policy change and an opportunity for psychological organizations to have a positive influence on public opinion and provide scientific knowledge to policymakers on these issues, says Ron Schlittler, program coordinator for APA's LGBT Office.

The remaining funds are being used to support a variety of INET activities, including strategic planning for the INET and travel support for network representatives to participate in international congresses and meetings, such as the 2012 International Congress of Psychology in Cape Town, South Africa; the International Conference on LGBT Psychology in Lisbon, Portugal, in June; the Interamerican Congress of Psychology in Brasilia, Brazil, in July; and APA's 2013 Annual Convention in Honolulu.

"These congresses provide a very critical forum for LGBT issues to be addressed in a psychological, scientific and human rights way," says APA Council of Representatives member Armand R. Cerbone, PhD, who co-chaired the 2001 LGB meeting in San Francisco where INET was formed. "They also give us a very good first-hand look at what is going on in other countries."

Spreading the word in Africa

The Psychological Society of South Africa is using $50,000 of the Arcus funds in key ways, says Juan Nel, PhD, a psychologist at the University of South Africa and coordinator of PsySSA's Sexuality and Gender Interest Group, which includes an explicit focus on African LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) human rights.

These efforts include:

  • Convention programming: The 2012 Cape Town conference presented an opportunity to build PsySSA's role as a hub for LGBTI rights in Africa, says Nel. PsySSA's Sexuality and Gender Interest Group developed 122 presentations on sexuality and 175 presentations on gender. The funding also helped PsySSA reach other parts of Africa by sponsoring travel for nine psychologists, scholars and activists from Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda to attend the meeting and talk with their South African colleagues about potential collaborations, Nel says.
  • Plans for guidelines: At the 2012 congress, a pan-African working group began talks about developing psychological guidelines for LGBTI-affirmative practice in Africa as a whole. As a precursor to those guidelines, the group is developing a statement on sexuality and gender diversity for psychology professionals in South Africa that could serve as a template for the other countries. That statement was finalized in June and was presented for feedback at PsySSA's 19th annual congress in Johannesburg in September.
  • Word power: PsySSA's Sexuality and Gender Interest Group members have written several documents highlighting the negative effects of anti-gay expression, including a position statement opposing the proposed Uganda anti-gay bill; an open statement against the stand of South African representatives who voted to remove a reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution on arbitrary killings; an amicus brief on the negative effects of homophobic hate speech; and a letter to the editor of a prominent Jewish newspaper discouraging the use of reparative therapy. It is also writing an amicus brief on the negative effects of homophobic hate speech.
  • A new division: PsySSA is planning to create a permanent Sexuality and Gender Division. One of the division's first initiatives will be to develop a postgraduate psychological course in African perspectives on sexuality and gender and on the roles of psychology within the field of sexology, to be piloted in 2015.

These initiatives show how far South African psychology has come, from supporting oppression of the black majority during Apartheid, to helping lead the way in human rights in Africa as a whole, including LGBT rights, says Saths Cooper, PhD, past president of PsySSA and current president of the International Union of Psychological Science. 

"Psychology in South Africa is coming of age," Cooper says. "It now plays a progressive social role, without fear or favor — which is how it should be." It is notable that South Africa's post-Apartheid constitution, adopted in 1996, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Progress in the Philippines

Meanwhile, the Psychological Association of the Philippines is using $25,000 of Arcus funding to increase its capacity to foster LGBT rights, education and mental health in that country.

University of the Philippines psychologist Eric Julian Manalastas, who represents PAP on the INET, and University of the Philippines graduate student Beatriz Torre launched a number of actions, including:

  • Influential statements: Manalastas worked with PAP leaders to craft two statements related to LGBT issues: a policy statement on the importance of not discriminating against LGBT people, and a statement on the harmfulness of sexual orientation change therapy. 
  • Workshops: In partnership with the country's Department of Education, PAP launched LGBT-education workshops for public school guidance counselors. The association also created training for trainers, who agreed to conduct at least two sessions of "LGBT Psychology 101" in their universities or elsewhere within six months.
  •  A special journal issue: The Philippine Journal of Psychology accepted Manalastas's proposal for a special issue on LGBT issues in psychology, which he then guest edited. The issue was completed two months earlier than usual so it could be disseminated at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Union of Psychological Societies, which will hold its fourth congress in conjunction with PAP's 50th annual convention in October.
  • Media outreach: PAP has partnered with various Philippine media outlets and has an ongoing popular psychology column in one of the country's largest online newspapers. Several of those pieces have been LGBT-related.
  • Travel funds for presenters: PAP will provide travel assistance so presenters can attend the ASEAN/PAP meeting in October, to ensure that LGBT issues are well-represented in the program and to facilitate regional networking for psychologists interested in LGBT issues, Manalastas says. 

Encouraging new research and using the accumulated research on LGBTI health and well-being in such specific, concrete and positive ways marks hopeful progress for LGBTI rights worldwide, APA's Anderson adds.

"Psychology and psychological organizations are only one element in society, but they have a unique role to play in helping to establish that the human rights of LGBTI people are important, that there is no justification for denying them those rights, and that increased protection of LGBTI people's rights will benefit all of society," he says. "APA has had a unique and beneficial role in this process in the United States, and I am confident that the psychological organizations in INET have great potential to play such a role in their countries and regions, as well."

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

For more information on APA's work to foster LGBT rights worldwide, go to LGBT Concerns.