The History of LGBTQ Conversion Therapy

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In 1965, TIME magazine published an article titled “Homosexuals Can Be Cured.” The article focused on the “triumphant” results of group therapy work led by psychiatrist Samuel Hadden, who was also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School at the time. Hadden had been leading long-term (four to eight year) therapy sessions for men who identified as homosexual in the hopes of “curing” them of their sexual “perversions.”

TIME’s article celebrated Hadden’s ability to help men work through their “symptoms” of “illness”—whether that was wearing inappropriately feminine clothing or being sexually interested in men instead of women. Hadden was only one of many esteemed psychiatrists and psychologists to consider — and treat — homosexuality as a sickness during the 1960s. In fact, homosexuality was not removed from the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” [DSM] until 1973.

The pathologizing of homosexuality was not, however, contextually specific to 20th century America. Many of the earliest writings condemning homosexual acts as “unnatural” caught on in 12th century Europe, when religious leaders like Saint Thomas Aquinas denounced homosexuality as a sin in their early writings. Popular disdain against homosexuality, began in the realm of religion, but it quickly moved into the legal arena in centuries to come.

For example, in the New Haven colony in 17th century colonial America, homosexuality was not only an illegal crime, but one punishable by death. Into the 19th century, however, “[M]edicine and psychiatry were effectively competing with religion and the law for jurisdiction over sexuality,” as noted in UC Davis’ resources on Homosexuality and Mental Health.

Although the cultural shift to regarding homosexuality as an issue of mental health seems anachronistic today, it was, at the time, perceived as progressive. Homosexuality went from being denounced as a sin punishable by death (according to both religious and legal frameworks), to a diagnosis of a mental illness one could not control — but that could be “cured,” as TIME put it in 1965.

Mental illness as an umbrella term was still highly stigmatized at the time — and continues to be today, to a lesser extent. It’s only through people sharing their stories that there is more visibility— and less stigma —around mental health issues and corresponding treatments. Though in culturally hostile contexts (whether that means 20 years ago or in parts of the world where social stigma related to historically abject identities pervades), sharing is not an option.

But let’s rewind for a second: not all experts in the 1950s and 60s drank the homosexuality-as-illness kool aid. As early as 1905, Sigmund Freud had actually proposed a foundational theory about human sexuality that is now referred to as “inherent bisexuality.” Despite what his predecessors said and did to those they perceived as “sick” with homosexuality, Freud believed all humans were born bisexual, and that their later preferences were simply results of life experiences and conditioning from parents and other loved ones.

In a 1935 letter he wrote to a distraught mother, Freud explicitly discouraged psychiatrists from diagnosing homosexuality as an illness worthy of treatment: “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”

Furthermore, when Zoology-trained Alfred Kinsey entered the conversation in 1948, he destabilized the status quo from the vantage point of another discipline, gathering empirical findings about human sexuality. Homosexuality is, if not common in animals, at least present. By developing a groundbreaking study of sexual behavior among American adults (men and women), Kinsey was ultimately able to prove that homosexual behavior was far more common and complex than was previously assumed.

By the 1950s, Freud and Kinsey’s perspectives on homosexuality had been either ignored or disputed by conservative psychiatrists who sought to uphold the predominance of heteronormativity. For many, after the upheavals of the Second World War, the conservative social ideals of the 1950s provided a welcome respite. As behavioral therapy popularized in the subsequent two decades, so too did forms of “conversion therapy” (such as Hadden’s) that sought to “reverse” the effects of homosexuality , including more aggressive treatments like electroshock therapy and ice-pick lobotomies.

Change was still happening, though. Kinsey’s empirical studies had prompted other social scientists to research homosexuality in a variety of ways: reviewing published studies and archival data, examining patterns of sexual behavior among non-human species, and comparatively analyzing the social mores around homosexuality across different cultures and societies.

It was in 1957 that psychologist Evelyn Hooker published one of the first and most famous studies that refuted the notion that homosexuality was a psychopathology. It was in the aftermath of Hooker’s findings — and the efficient and powerful political organizing of the gay community— that the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. It’s been 44 years since that decision, and certainly, progress has been made to destigmatize homosexuality, and of other mental health diagnoses, too, for that matter. (For clarity, we don’t mean to imply that homosexuality is a mental health diagnosis.)

Nonetheless, let us take note of the fact that there is extreme variation in the acceptance of gay rights across America. Conversion therapy is still happening, though it has been recently banned for minors in California, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington D.C. Critics of conversion therapy highlight that it often relies on abusive practices, both physical and psychological.

In his 2000 congressional campaign, Vice President Mike Pence famously voiced his desire for the government to defund organizations that “celebrate and encourage” activities that spread HIV. Many gay and transgender folks interpreted this as an affront to their communities. And during President Trump’s campaign, the Republican Party expressed their commitment to the “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” which many believed to be an indirect endorsement of conversion therapy.

Regardless of what government spokespeople say, it is clear that our country’s leadership is seeking to reformulate its social values publicly, through gestures such as rescinding rules on bathrooms for transgender students. As citizens, it’s up to us to continue normalizing all forms of self-expression and markers of identity. As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you,” and so it is up to each and every one of us to speak.

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