What Anti-Gay Conversion Therapy Was Like in the 1960s

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Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Hamptons Magazine

Right at the beginning of One of These Things First, the excellent memoir by Steven Gaines released last month, a journalist, author, and radio host, we learn that Gaines never fully fit in Borough Park, the working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn where where he grew up. Gaines was always a bit flamboyant, a bit dramatic. At a fairly early age, he realized he was gay, and he writes that “I kept it a secret that I was a homo as best as I could, and I watched how other boys moved and walked and talked, and I tried to look and be like them.”

Around puberty, Gaines begins having intense, shameful sexual fantasies about other boys. By then he had developed rather severe OCD and anxiety as well. Beset by these symptoms and too terrified to tell anyone about his sexuality — it’s the 1960s and widespread acceptance of homosexuality certainly hasn’t reached Borough Park yet — the 15-year-old Gaines tries to kill himself by smashing his hand through two panes of glass. It’s quickly determined that he is a risk to himself and needs to be hospitalized, and Gaines manages to convinces his grandfather to pay for him to be institutionalized at Payne Whitney, an upscale psychiatric hospital where Marilyn Monroe stayed briefly, rather than the cheaper, scarier-seeming one to which he had originally been committed.

The experience ends up being formative for Gaines — the too-sophisticated-for-his-age adolescent meets all sorts of colorful adults, some of whom share his interest in cinema and theater. Most importantly, he tells someone he is gay for the first time, slipping a note reading “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” into the mailbox of his psychoanalyst, Dr. Myers. Soon, Dr. Myers confides in him: “You know, homosexuals can change. They can become heterosexual.” Myers is very confident about this: He assures Gaines that “I know men who were once homosexual, and now they’re married and have children,” and that “[h]omosexuality can be cured, like many other disorders. The key thing is, it’s a tough row to hoe, and you have to really want to change.”

Gaines can’t wait to start. “Of course I really wanted to change,” he reasons to himself. “If it was possible for me to become normal, then why not? The world would be inside out, my whole life wouldn’t be a sham.” Unfortunately, changing doesn’t appear to be all that straightforward:

Once we got down to work it turned out that Dr. Myers believed a whole lot of confusing things. Sometimes he said that homosexuality was an arrested state of infantile development, and sometimes he said that I was trapped in an oedipal stage. Like Oedipus, he pointed out, I hated my father and wanted him dead, and unconsciously I equated having sex with women with having sex with my mother, which is why I was so adverse and fearful of heterosexuality. Yet he maintained I secretly wished my mother dead too. He said I unconsciously feared my repressed anger would kill her, which is why I counted and exhibited obsessive behavior. But I loved her, so why would I want her dead? And what did that have to do with making me desire men? And why didn’t I desire women? I just didn’t get it.

Dr. Myers, dedicated as he is to this sort of zigzagging Freudian analysis, believes that the only way to cure Gaines’s homosexuality is to help him unravel his past. “If we discovered what made me homosexual,” explains Gaines, “I wouldn’t be one anymore.” In the meantime, the goal was to “deny sustenance to the homosexual part of me while nourishing the heterosexual man that Dr. Myers assured me lurked within.” Gaines agrees, per Dr. Myers’s instructions, to not masturbate while thinking of men, since doing so will only reinforce his “problem.”

In their sessions, Dr. Myers asks Gaines deeply personal questions about his past to help him realize how long-forgotten moments may have contributed to his troubled childhood and adolescence. For example, Gaines reveals that for a chunk of his childhood, he slept in the same room as his mother and father. “They probably had sex only four or five feet away from you,” Dr. Myers tells him. Clearly, this is an important puzzle piece. As Gaines continues living a relatively happy life at Payne Whitney, Dr. Myers continues probing in their sessions, hoping to build a grand unified theory of Gaines’s homosexuality.

Eventually, Dr. Myers asks Gaines if he can present him at Grand Rounds. “I was thrilled,” writes Gaines. “I was a prince at the monster’s ball. Being presented at Grand Rounds was like being nominated for an Oscar in the Academy of Mental Cases. I was so proud I told all the other patients as if I just had been notified I was class valedictorian.” In an amphitheater at New York Hospital (a tunnel connected it to Payne Whitney), Dr. Myers presents Gaines to an audience consisting of interns, residents, and a handful of New York’s psychiatric elite. “Dr. Myers gently put me through my paces, hitting all the plot points,” writes Gaines. They present all the family history that has been dredged up in their sessions — how Gaines witnessed his parents having sex, how his father was angry, how there was a traumatic aborted trip to Miami. Gaines plays his part to a T: “I even cried for them, an Uncle Tom gay boy. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I expressed my torment at being homosexual and my longing to be like everyone else.”

Shortly after the Grand Rounds presentation, Gaines’s stint at Payne Whitney comes to an end, he returns home, and he continues to see Dr. Myers, who rotates out of the psychiatric hospital and into a private practice. As Gaines grows into young adulthood, he sleep with women for a while, but it doesn’t work — he inevitably breaks up with girlfriends after three or four months, and the sex does nothing for him. “It was a matter of responsibility to be a satisfying partner, so I performed all the obligatory sexual acts, but without essential lust.” Suffice it to say that neither sleeping with women, nor trying to control his sexual attraction toward men, nor Dr. Myers’s endless psychoanalytic dredging have any effect on his sexual orientation.

When Gaines realizes that he was put through an undercooked, pointless, and likely harmful form of therapy, he doesn’t react with the righteousness one might expect: “It was of no help when in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was no longer an illness,” he writes. “It infuriated me. I had a financial and emotional investment in being sick, even though I had come to the realization that it was foolish to go on trying to change it.” For years, he had organized his life around the premise that he had a disorder that, even if he couldn’t cure it, explained him and his travails in a fairly straightforward way. Without that disorder, who was he?

Thirty years after drifting out of his regular sessions with Dr. Myers, Gaines goes to visit him. Dr. Myers apologizes profusely — “I’m afraid that, in retrospect, it caused you more pain” — and Gaines won’t accept it, at first. “But I wanted it,” Gaines insists. “Don’t you see?” Gaines insists to Myers that their sessions helped him figure out who he was, even setting aside the attempts to “fix” his sexuality. Realizing how important penance is to Dr. Myers, Gaines eventually accepts his apology. “I knew he still wasn’t satisfied,” realizes Gaines. “He would never forgive himself.”

It’s that absence of any demonic figures that makes this a particularly textured and interesting conversion-therapy story. It was all so very “sophisticated” — Dr. Myers was a top-notch clinician working at a prestigious psychiatric institution, not some pastor in the Bible Belt. He was convinced he was doing the right thing, while Gaines was enthusiastic, at least at first, about the prospect of being “fixed.” Gaines was a primary victim of the psychiatric Establishment’s wrongheaded belief in conversion therapy, of course, as were the countless other people who were exposed to more vicious, less genteel manifestations of that belief. But it was a system that hurt everyone: Myers and other clinicians of his ilk were also victimized, albeit in significantly less harmful and personal ways, by what was a true lack of critical thinking about sexuality. They wasted years or decades of their careers unwittingly harming their patients. It’s all a sad, sad legacy, and Gaines’s recounting of his experiences gives it the nuance and texture it deserves.