MALAYSIA - The teen years are tough for many young people. But it is even more challenging for those who are, or think they might be, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT).
Take Adrian*, who spent his time in school being taunted as "lembut".
"It made me really confused and sad, so I kept to myself. There were a few classmates who tried to reach out to me but because they were also in the same boat, I stayed away from them. I was scared of being converted or corrupted by them," he says.
It did not stop the jeering, however, and once, a group of boys even stopped him behind the canteen when he stayed back for a sports practice.
"I think they wanted to beat me up. Luckily, the discipline teacher saw us before they could do anything. They had already roughed me up though, and they told me that they would get me another time," shares Adrian who started dreading going to school.
With no one to talk to about his torment, Adrian became depressed and even contemplated suicide many times.
"But I was too scared to try, and that made me even more depressed," he says.
Fortunately, he survived those dark years, he shares, and it was only when he was in his late-20s and working in a magazine that he felt confident about himself.
"That was when I met people who were more open about their individual differences and sexual orientations.
"I discovered that most of them were smart and compassionate people. Many have big hearts and are active in various social activities in their community," he says, adding that it made him realise how he had been prejudiced too.
"I also realised that I had been living in paranoia and fear (because I was homophobic too), and that has kept me from exploring my interests and realising my potential. And it was only after I accepted who I really was that I became happier. I also met my other half, someone who shares the same interests and values," says Adrian who now runs his own business.
Then there is Salmi*. She had many admirers at her all-girls' school for her athleticism until she reached Form Four, when a vicious rumour spread about her close relationship with her senior, a Form Five student.
"We were just friends but because we were both tomboyish, they just assumed that we were lesbians.
"People then started whispering insults and pointing at us. Some started avoiding me, and soon even that senior kept her distance," says Salmi.
Worse, she began to receive poison letters and various other nasty "presents" in class.
"This was before the Internet, but I still received a lot of hate mail," she adds.
Upset by all the harassment, Salmi started skipping school and her studies suffered. She decided to drop out of school and started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
"I became a drug addict and when money ran out for me to get my fix, I just sold myself," she says.
Fortunately, she was rescued from her down-spiralling life and the reformed drug addict now works with troubled youth.
As for her sexual orientation, Salmi declines to comment but says she is now comfortable with who she is and has never been more contented in life.
In both cases, the teachers were either not aware or simply turned a blind eye to the bullying.
Hence, to a certain extent, Deputy Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi, had a point when he said that the time has come for the LGBT issue to be discussed openly and not treated as a taboo subject in school.
"It's just like when we introduced sex education in schools, there was an uproar because we did not even want to say the word sex', so we had to rename it reproductive and social health education.
"We want parents and teachers to get exposure and knowledge," Dr Mohd Puad had said.
However, what worry many sexuality rights advocates are the scope and the slant of the discussion that the ministry is willing to allow in school.
For one, only last week, Dr Mohd Puad again stressed that the Government will push forward in educating parents on how to prevent, overcome and correct symptoms of homosexuality in children.
As clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan puts it, their "good intentions" notwithstanding, the Education Ministry is sending out a dangerous message.
"The Ministry is sending out a message of hate and intolerance and can have no good effect for those in the community. It also promotes homophobia."
Historically, we've always accepted and tolerated differences such as our separate cultures and races, she adds. "And in the 1980s, for instance, we accepted sex change operations."
Vizla stresses that the language and rationale they are using are limiting acceptance and tolerance. "And we've seen that when there is reduced tolerance, it is easy to descend into violence."
Crucially, it is not scientifically possible to identify LGBT, she stresses, referring to the definitions and list of identifiable traits put forward at the series of the "Parents Handling LGBT Issues" seminars organised by independent teacher associations Yayasan Guru Malaysia Berhad and Putrajaya Consultative Council of Parent-Teacher Association (only officiated by Dr Mohd Puad, not endorsed by the Education Ministry).
"I think one of the underpinnings of this idea that you can identify LGBT is the assumption that one's sex, gender identity and sexuality are linear. For example, if you are born a male, you will be masculine and thus heterosexual. Research has shown that this is not the case.
"Gender and sexuality are fluid. Also, there are various factors that contribute to sexuality and these cannot always be predicted, nor tested accurately.
"There have been studies that have shown that same sex attraction is caused by brain factors - but these results have faltered in scientific rigour, i.e. other researchers conducting studies have not been able to come up with the same results," she says.
Everyone would know the infamous identifiable gay and lesbian traits, as mooted at the seminars, aimed at helping parents recognise "symptoms" of homosexuality in children by now.
They include: gay men have muscular bodies and like to show off by wearing V-neck and sleeveless clothes; prefer tight and light-coloured clothing; are attracted to men and like to carry big handbags similar to those used by women.
Lesbians are said to be attracted to women, like to eat, sleep and hang out in the company of other women and have no affection for men.
Adrian concurs with Vizla that the language used does not only mislead but also reinforces the intolerance in society.
"Children have bullied and been bullied for less serious issues like glasses and braces and acne. So, the latest message from the ministry will only create more problems," he says.
After all, as a language teacher who declines to be named reveals, even teachers are prone to prejudice.
"The regularity with which lembut' and pengkid' or pondan' are bandied about in the (school's) staff room is quite disgusting. Many teachers make jokes about their students' appearance and behaviour too, so it is not surprising that the students themselves are prejudiced," she says.
As studies in the West show, an intolerant language can have severe consequences on the lives of the young, specifically in relation to teen suicide and bullying.
Research by British gay equality organisation Stonewall reportedly showed that 96 per cent say they hear words like "poof" or "lezza" in the classroom, with 55 per cent of LGBT students experiencing homophobic bullying at school.
Almost one in four of those surveyed said they had tried to take their own life at some point (compared to 7 per cent of all young people).
Some 56 per cent said they had self-harmed - deliberately cutting or burning themselves - in the online survey of more than 1,600 LGBT young people between the age of 11 and 18.
Commissioned by Stonewall, the survey is carried out by the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge.
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) 2011 National School Climate Survey in the United States meanwhile highlighted that six out of 10 LGBT teens feel unsafe at school.
A total of 82 per cent (of 8,584 students polled) say they've been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation while 71 per cent say they have heard homophobic remarks like "dyke" or "faggot" used with some frequency at school.
In Malaysia, while the number of teen suicides and bullying has increased, no research has been done to see if they are linked to LGBT issues.
Hence, Vizla cautions that while the Government's move to raise awareness and understanding of LGBT among teachers and parents is commendable, they, however, need to be aware that corrective treatments may do more harm than good.
There is overwhelming evidence that LGBT counselling or conversion programmes do not work, she adds, citing one undertaken by the American Psychological Association (APA) Taskforce on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation in 2009.
"Although those who have gone through the programmes claim that they have successfully become heterosexual, many are unhappy because of the conflicts and confusion that continue to rage within themselves.
"There continues to be issues of loneliness and isolation. The lack of congruence can lead to depression, anxiety and even suicide," she says.
According to consultant clinical psychologist Dr Alvin Ng, what is important is that both the educationists and the "patients" understand the consequences of change because it may be going against their nature.
"For example, some people who are gay and have very strong tendencies or feelings towards other people of the same sex can suffer a lot of psychological damage when they force themselves to be otherwise."
On the issue of counsellors to deal with LGBT, Dr Ng says many aspects need to be considered.
"We need to ask if we have enough trained counsellors. And if yes, who are they, where are they trained, what are their qualifications?
"We also need to ask what sort of measurement they are going to use for success - how do you measure lembut-ness', and how do you measure that your counselling is successful. Is it enough that the person claims that I am no longer LGBT' or do we see if he or she is functioning well in society?" Dr Ng says about the complexity of the matter.
* Not real name