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The Tiger Cure

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Other People’s Dirty Laundry (2007), an image from the series “Other People’s Dirty Laundry.”  

“But I think about it.”

“That’s not unusual. But you’re not a homosexual. I’ve never met a homosexual who hadn’t had numerous partners.”

“I’m a teenager,” I said.

“They start young,” he said. He then went on to explain the wretched perversion of homosexuality. I listened, horrified. Some of what he’d said had run through my mind, but nothing this articulate and slick had ever occurred to me. Homosexuality was sick, evil, and wrong.

Psychiatry had not always been like this. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, did not consider homosexuality pathological, nor did he believe in conversion (homosexual to heterosexual) therapy. Freud’s clinical practice confirmed his belief that humans were born “polymorphous perverse” and that homosexuality was in large part a variation of sexual function resulting from faulty psychosexual development, i.e., it occurs when someone’s natural, bisexual disposition is not sufficiently repressed. As Freud once wrote: “Homosexuality is … nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”

As I unfortunately discovered throughout my early years of therapy, organized psychiatry disagreed with Freud. The first (1952) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” (Homosexuality wasn’t removed from the list of disorders until 1973.) A typical argument was that of the highly influential psychoanalyst Sandor Rado, whose theory of adult homosexuality—that it was a phobic avoidance of heterosexuality, often created by faulty early parenting—widely supplanted Freud’s. (Many of Rado’s followers believed that homosexual men were raised by distant fathers and smothering mothers, which was a fair description of my own family, and later gave my therapists much ammunition to prove their points.)

Given psychiatry’s brutal view of homosexuality, various forms of conversion therapies were widely practiced to “cure” homosexuals. In what I think is the best book on the subject, Gay American History, author Jonathan Ned Katz outlines many of the reparative therapies used—including hypnosis, sex hormones, therapeutic castration, aversion therapies, and even lobotomies. The surgeon best known for the last was Walter Freeman, whose modus operandi was to enter the brain through the patient’s eye socket, using an instrument resembling an ice pick. A recent article in The Advocate noted that up to 40 percent of the 3,400 lobotomies that Freeman performed were on gays. (Freeman later became notorious for botching his work on John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, leaving her with permanent mental and physical disabilities.)

Between the thirties and the sixties, many thousands of men (and a lesser number of women) were treated for homosexuality, sometimes with devastating techniques that ruined patients’ lives. Luckily for my generation, ice picks were discarded and conversion therapy centered on methods ranging from behavioral modification and sex therapy to prayer and even exorcism and other ineffectual and sometimes downright frightening techniques.

Unluckily for everyone, conversion therapy hasn’t been eradicated. According to Wayne Besen, founder and executive director of Truth Wins Out, the organization that battles anti-gay extremism, there are no exact numbers on how many conversion therapists are practicing. They don’t advertise. But to prove many clinics exist, and that influential people are running them, Truth Wins Out led a 2011 undercover sting operation at the one headed by, of all people, Marcus Bachmann, the often-rumored-to-be not-quite-so-hetero husband of former Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann, where it turned out the patient was given clear instructions on how to change from gay to straight.

In a year of enormous gains for gay men and women, conversion therapy seems increasingly likely to be shoved into a closet for good. One of its chief proponents, Exodus International, closed earlier this year when its president, Alan Chambers, apologized to the gay community for the group’s 37 years of promoting “sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories.” As he noted, “99.9 percent” of his clients didn’t change. And because professional groups such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association contend that conversion therapy is not only ineffective but can significantly harm youth, California banned it for minors in 2012. Since then, New Jersey has followed suit, and other states, such as Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, are considering doing the same.

Back in 1970, homosexuality was still a disorder, as Dr. F. made clear to me that terrible summer. He insisted I wasn’t gay. I was just going through a phase where I was crushing on men. That would all fade. Anyway, he said, look at me. I was masculine. I loved sports. I played football with friends. It was ridiculous to think I was a pervert. Did I want to be a pervert?


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