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social sciences

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Pathology and Therapy in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Even though Freud was skeptical about the potential for homosexuals to adopt heterosexuality through therapeutic intervention, his speculations left the door open to the interpretation that because homosexuality was abnormal it was perforce pathological and required corrective measures.

While this perception had its roots in Europe in earlier decades (E. M. Forster's posthumously published novel Maurice, completed in 1914, presents a dramatic example of reparative therapy from turn-of-the-century Britain), it became the view most commonly held by Freud's adherents, particularly those in the United States, in the decades following his death in 1939.

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Significantly, this period was also witness to some of the most systematic and progressive social research that had yet been conducted on homosexuality. These studies utilized homosexual volunteers, and their results indicated that homosexuality was socially ubiquitous, not constitutionally determined, and not incompatible with mental health and successful socialization.

The researches of the Kinsey Institute and that of social psychologist Evelyn Hooker, however, were not focused on the vexed question of etiology and were not interested in changing individual behavior. This work was left to psychiatrists in the institutions where many "social deviants" were coming to be housed, as well as to psychoanalysts in private practice.

It was the conviction of these professionals that homosexuality was a mental illness that could be both averted by better socialization and cured by appropriate therapeutic interventions. This view was codified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, a professional publication that set the standard of care for mental health practitioners.

As a result of the dominant psychiatric view of the mid-twentieth century, mothers were blamed for "coddling" their sons, for allowing their daughters to engage in stereotypically masculine pursuits, as well as for permitting opposite-sex socialization between young children, which, ironically, was believed to encourage the development of homosexuality. "Cures" for this ailment, meanwhile, came in a number of guises, running the gamut from the "talking cures" of psychoanalysis to behavioral conditioning by way of hypnosis, medication, aversion therapy, and electric shock treatment.

One particularly invasive form of "therapy" was founded on the supposition that male homosexuals suffered from either a lack or a surfeit of male hormones. A belief in the constitutional effeminacy of male homosexuals led Nazi doctor Carl Vaernet to implant animal testicles in the bodies of homosexual inmates in the Buchenwald concentration camp, as well as selecting certain other gay prisoners for castration and subsequent "hormonal rebirth." In the unsanitary conditions that prevailed in the camp, many men did not survive Vaernet's surgical attentions.

In the postwar United States, conversely, male "sexual psychopaths" were believed to be characterized by an intense sexualized aggression responsible for outrages against children of both sexes, for which castration or even frontal lobotomy and hence behavioral mollification were perceived by some to be the answer.

Not only were such researches unethical in the extreme, typically neither soliciting subjects' consent nor displaying any concern for their continued well-being, they were also ill-conceived scientifically, lacking in the rigorous application of scientific principles and producing results that were inconclusive at best. By the early 1970s, countless persons had died or sustained grave permanent physical and mental injury as a result of this work, and the scientific community was no closer to understanding the precise nature or origins of homosexuality than it had been thirty years before.

Gay Liberation and the Repudiation of Causation

The radicalization of the political movement for gay and lesbian rights in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion precipitated a sea change in the way in which homosexuality was regarded by science, as well as an abrupt shift in the relationship of gay and lesbian people to the scientific establishment.

One of the first initiatives of the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was the abolition of homosexuality as a pathological designation by medicine; in 1974, under mounting pressure from gay activists, the American Psychiatric Association elected to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Instead of looking to science for answers to the "problem" of their condition, as earlier generations of gay and lesbian activists had done, these newly radicalized gay men and lesbians categorically denounced scientific opinion as . The ideology of gay liberation insisted that homosexual identity and its unabashed expression were a normal, healthy part of human sexual diversity.

Gay men and lesbians who had sought therapy because of their sexual identity were urged to abandon it; as they were intrinsically healthy, perhaps healthier than the sexually repressed society around them, they did not require a cure, which meant therapy had nothing to offer.

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