The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

256px-Havelock_Ellis_cph.3b08675 The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

Havelock Ellis

Science is, at its heart, the pursuit of pure knowledge. The earliest sexologists were scientists, working towards an understanding of human sexuality. They were remarkable, in a period now best remembered as oppressive and puritanical, for the objectivity with which they approached their subject. Sexologists like Ellis and Symonds took pains not to cast moral judgment on the men and women they studied: indeed, as their careers progressed they often advocated for legal and medical change on behalf of their subjects. They were among the first campaigners for LGBT rights, and some of the most influential.

Not all sexologists, however, were scientists. Ellis himself trained as a physician, and most came to their studies from medicine or the exciting new field of psychology: disciplines which practically begged for a level of intervention absent from a scientific “observe and report” approach. When a doctor examines a patient, he does so intending to cure him; a mindset that, once adopted, is almost impossible to escape.

256px-Magnus_Hirschfeld The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

Magnus Hirschfeld

Not even Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the earliest and loudest proponents of LGBT emancipation, could quite shake off the belief that homosexuality was a congenital disability; an attitude which divided the members of his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, an advocacy group for queer emancipation.

That such attitudes remained, even among people who made interaction with and study of queerfolk their life’s work, isn’t necessarily surprising. Growing up LGBT isn’t easy even today, and at a time when homosexuality was condemned by criminal and moral law and common consensus, the people studied by the early sexologists would have been a curious blend of those who wanted to further understanding of human sexuality in order to advocate for greater freedoms, and those who desperately wanted to change.

Our understanding of sexuality thus developed in tandem with a medical desire to tinker with it, and provided a host of subjects desperate enough to allow themselves to be experimented on. Even Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, a groundbreaking sex-positive research centre, wasn’t without a fleet of doctors and psychologists committed to curing those who visited looking for help.

256px-Freud_ca_1900 The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

Sigmund Freud

Today we recoil at the thought of somebody trying to “cure” a person’s sexuality. Quack psychiatry, electric-shock treatment, and fundamental religious “reparative” therapies continue to leave their scars. That doesn’t, however, mean all medical intervention is bad. As early as 1930, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was offering surgery which would be very familiar to anyone undergoing medical gender reassignment today.

Therapy was also, of course, coming into its own at this period. While the likes of Freud sought to find a cause for adult sexuality (usually centered on childhood and upbringing), others concentrated on reconciling their clients with their desires. The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee’s campaign to repeal Germany’s law criminalising male homosexuality was founded on the principle that a person’s sexuality was innate and unchangable, and thus argued that any law against it was redundant. The Committee successfully presented a petition with over 5,000 notable signatories, lobbying for the law to be overturned. A bill was introduced to the Reichstag in 1898, but garnered little support. Hirschfeld responded by suggesting he would “out” some of the more prominent (secretly) homosexual lawmakers who had failed to give it their support. The threat was enough to get the bill reintroduced, although his progress was eventually halted by the election of the Nazi Party, who quashed all hopes of reform.

“When someone … would like to set in the most damaging way the intimate love contact of others … at that moment his own love life ceases to be a private matter.”

— Adolf Brand, Scientific-Humanitarian Committee campaigner

The focus of therapy, in its earliest incarnations, was to enable the client to lead a healthy, happy life. As such, it was generally accepted that homosexuality was not always pathological (i.e. caused by a physical or mental disease) and shouldn’t be “cured.” Psychoanalysts tended to focus their corrective attempts on clients who presented with other problems (a history of childhood sexual abuse, or suicide attempts, for example), for which homosexuality might be a cause or effect, but it wasn’t homosexuality itself the psychoanalysts were trying to cure.

In the instances where homosexuality was deemed to be pathological in nature, extensive efforts were made to try to find a cure. Freud advocated for hypnotism, while others sought more medical intervention —  Eugen Steinach, a Viennese endocrinologist, experimented with testicle transplants, and claimed his method a success, although Freud criticised it for not being generally applicable (a testicle transplant would obviously have no effect on female homosexuality, for example). Ultimately all the transplanted glands were rejected by the hosts’ bodies, and the experiments were determined to be failures.

“…in general to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse.”

— Sigmund Freud

“Success,” in psychoanalytic terms, was quantified not by the eradication of homosexual feelings, but by the organic conversion to heterosexual desire. Plenty of therapists could suppress queer desire using aversion therapy (essentially training the body to expect pain in response to arousal, which was usually effective in crushing all sexual desire), but obtaining such results is not the same thing as making a gay person straight (a fact somebody should point out to the “ex-gay” movement.)

Generally speaking, early psychoanalysts retained a pessimistic view on the possibility of naturally and permanently altering a client’s sexual orientation. The reasons such clients would desire a reversal were often considered superficial — familial rejection; social censure; even the threat of arrest, were usually insufficient to instill in somebody the wholehearted desire to change that was required if therapy was to stand any chance of success. Quite simply, it’s almost impossible to convince a gay person that what turns them on and makes them feel good should be abandoned. (The same is true of heterosexual to homosexual conversion, of course.)

“I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. … it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. … By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies, which are present in every homosexual; in the majority of cases it is no more possible.

— Sigmund Freud, Letter to a Concerned Mother, 1935

As psychoanalysts became more adamant that sexuality could not be altered, those determined to seek a cure turned to increasingly harmful medical procedures. As well as being subjected to aversion therapies, patients were verbally abused, physically beaten, had their genitalia mutilated, or were lobotomised (40,000 people were lobotomised in the United States alone).

256px-Abraham_Brill The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

Abraham Brill

Sexology crossed from Europe to America in the early twentieth century (Freud engaged in a lecture tour of the States in 1909), and as two World Wars ripped Germany apart, the U.S. became the world leader on sexological research.

Initially building from the research of the Germans, the early American psychoanalysts and sexologists reported similar findings and conclusions to their European forefathers. Abraham Brill reported to the American Medical Association as early as 1913 that his research had led him to overcome his personal revulsion of homosexuality and understand that it could only rarely be cured; indeed, that the very word could not be used diagnostically, as it was not a disease. His report was resoundingly rejected by an establishment already wedded to the physical treatment of sexual orientation.

Through the 1930s, the work of American psychoanalysts showed greater influence from the medical practitioners. In 1930, the Austrian Wilhelm Stekel published a paper in the American Psychoanalytic Review, stating that homosexuality was a disease, and could be cured by psychotherapy providing the patient cooperated.

The notion of patient cooperation — long documented in Europe as being vital to facilitating an effective change from homo- to heterosexual — became increasingly loaded as doctors, frustrated by their inability to effect a cure for homosexuality, began to blame their patients for their failures. Another Austrian, Edmund Bergler, writing in America in 1938, posited that homosexuality was caused by a sadistic rage against a phallic mother:

This phase began with the weaning shock, which mobilizes enormous sadistic rage against the breasts of the depriving phallic mother, which is an attempt at narcissistic restitution for the lost breasts of the mother. Due to guilt, this rage is transmuted into a masochistic fantasy of being beaten by the father, substituting the boy’s own buttocks for the mother’s breasts and idealizing the father out of hatred of the mother, thereby substituting a homosexual for a heterosexual bond.

Bergler claimed a 90% success rate in patients who wanted to change, and used a confrontational and violent method of therapy in order to shame his patients into becoming aware of their masochism. Patients who refused to submit were, in his mind, simply more masochistic than the others and required harsher treatment in order to break them. To his way of thinking, every failed conversion was the fault of the patient seeking greater masochistic pleasure, and by the 1950s he was arguing that queerfolk were the instruments of their own oppression, reveling in being abused by society at large; and those who were prepared to expose themselves in order to lobby for greater legal and social recognition were the most perverse of all.

Although Bergler’s warped theories were countered by an increasing body of scientific and psychoanalytic work which confirmed what the Germans had been reporting in the 1880s: that homosexuality is innate to the individual and harmless to society, the 1952 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a mental disorder.

From the 1940s-1970s, conversion therapy was the approved method the American psychiatric establishment used to treat homosexuality, despite the efforts of researchers like Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker, who concluded that homosexuality was not a disease, disorder, or pathology, but a normal human variant.

Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the queer emancipation movement came into its own, and one of the earliest targets was conversion therapy, and the APA’s categorisation of homosexuality as a mental disorder. After several years of intense lobbying, the APA removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973. Under criticism for appearing to have bowed to political pressure, the following year the APA held a vote on whether or not their should uphold the removal. It passed with a 58% majority.


Born on this day: Brian Epstein (1934-1967, English), music entrepreneur, best known as the manager of The Beatles; Sam Jensen Page (41, American), model and celebrity fitness coach; and Maartje Paumen (30, Dutch), Olympic and World Champion hockey player.

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