Curing Homosexuality in 1913

Jim Burroway

August 8th, 2008

Attempts to cure homosexuality in have included some rather odd practices. Of course, there was psychotherapy, but an article from the August 2, 1913 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association describes a few other courses of treatment which included castration, bladder washing and — I’m not making this up! — prostate massage.

In “The conception of homosexuality,” Abraham A. Brill argued:

Of the abnormal sexual manifestations that one encounters none, perhaps, is so enigmatical and to the average person so abhorrent as homosexuality. I have discussed this subject with many broad-minded, intelligent professional men and laymen and have been surprised to hear how utterly disgusted they become at the very mention of the name and how little they understand the whole problem. Yet I must confess that only a few years ago I entertained similar feelings and opinions regarding this subject. I can well recall my first scientific encounter with the problem, ten years ago, when I met a homosexual who was a patient in the Central Islip State Hospital. Since then I have devoted a great deal of time to the study of this complicated phenomenon, and it is therefore no wonder that my ideas have undergone a marked change. Tout comprendre c’est tout bardonner, I have met and studied a large number of homosexuals and have been convinced that a great injustice is done to a large class of human beings, most of whom are far from being the degenerates they are commonly believed to be.

…Investigators agree that homosexuality is no sign of mental or physical degeneration. This Ivan Bloch says: “I no longer entertain any doubt that homosexuality is compatible with perfect mental and physical health. This same author quotes Magnus Hirschfeld as saying that homosexuality may occur in persons just as healthy as normal heterosexual persons. Similar ideas are expressed by Näcke and others. My own findings concur with these views.Most of the inverts I know belong to our highest types both mentally and physically and show absolutely no hereditary taints. Without entering into a detailed discussion of this question I will say that I am convinced that homosexuality as such is entirely independent of any defective heredity or other degenerative trends.

That discussion sounds remarkably modern, even if the language isn’t. And yet the idea of “curing” homosexuality remained the desired goal of physicians of the day, one that Dr. Brill shared without questioning the logic of “curing” something that he had just describe as “compatible with perfect mental and physical health. But he did have a few things to say about the then-current state of the art:

As we are dealing with a psychic manifestation, the hope for a cure of homosexuality lies in psychotherapy. I can never comprehend why physicians invariably resort to bladder washing and rectal massage when they are consulted by homosexuals, unless it be to kill the homosexual cells in the prostateso that their place may be taken by heterosexual cells, as one physician expressed himself when one of my patients asked him how massage of the prostate would cure his inversion. It is an unfortunate fact that such ridiculous ideas are often heard in the discussion of psychosexual disturbances. Only a few months ago a patient told me that he was told by two physicians that his hope for a cure lay in castration.

Brill then went on to describe three cases which he claimed to have “cured” through psychotherapy — even though his follow-up was never more than a year. This led one Dr. D’Orsay Hecht of Chicago to ask in a rejoinder:

But if in the eye of the specialist homosexuality is but a contravention, socially speaking, and if it has just as much right to a hearing from the point of view of a sexual act as has heterosexuality, I really cannoy see why the homosexual should care to be delivered from his homosexuality, except that he feels disgraced by it. Then again, a large number of homosexuals are in no way abhorrent of themselves in respect to their natures; they seem to be perfectly happy and perfectly well adjusted, probably in a restricted sense, and these patients probably are not worth while treating as Dr. Brill treats them. If we accept homosexuality as a condition which has as much right to exist as heterosexuality, why should we address ourselves to the duty of treating it?

The very first edition of the American Psychological Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) in 1952 classified homosexuality as a mental illness. It wasn’t until some sixty years after Dr. Hecht asked this prescient question that homosexuality was finally removed from the APA’s list. Unfortunately, misguided attempts to “cure” homosexuality continue to this very day.

[Source: Brill, A.A. “The conception of homosexulality.” Journal of the American Medical Association LXI, no. 5 (August 2, 1913): 335-340.]

Timothy Kincaid

August 8th, 2008

Thanks, Jim. Fascinating.

Regan DuCasse

August 8th, 2008

Thanks Jim!
I was reading about eugenicists from that period and how their first targets were the retarded, the physically handicapped and those who they didn’t consider having contributive abilities. They concluded that they, or their parents could legitimately be subjected to sterilization.

In the case of homosexuals though, it was castration. In order to remove sexual desire and potency.

However, the targets started to include those who weren’t sufficiently docile within individual families. Such as headstrong women and homosexuals of exceptionally high IQ’s. They were subjected to lobotomies and shock treatment and a range of strong sedatives.

And all things ARE equal. That is, the potential for intelligence, compassion, competence in all things heterosexuals do and motivation to be cooperative and thrive within supportive environments, the assessment was essentially true:
Gay folks are happy and well adjusted away from humiliation and threat of physical harm and isolation…as any normal human being would be.

So my question is the same, why subject gay folks to humiliation and threat since that works against healthy growth.
And the opposite creates health and happiness?
So why bother treating what ain’t broke…so to speak?

cd

August 8th, 2008

So my question is the same, why subject gay folks to humiliation and threat since that works against healthy growth.

Because a sad lot of people require(d) that there be someone hopelessly more miserable than themselves. Unfortunately.

It’s an ugly kind of cry for help, in a way. But you already knew that from looking at the whole set of beliefs they use as ego crutches.

Nancy Twilley

August 8th, 2008

I think it’s also important to remember that cases of homosexuality were treated on a class-basis. Regan points out some awful things that happened to people of some classes only. Eugenicists were primarily engaged in eradicating abnormality within the lower classes, and many bourgeois families subjected their abnormal members to treatment. Upper class queer people fared much better.

I’m glad that the piece points out the contradiction where the Dr. curiously talked about some cures for homosexuality directly after stating that it wasn’t necessarily unhealthy. The need for a cure was also class-based: only a certain kind of homosexuality needed to be cured, or only in some types of people.

After all, many upper-class homosexuals (and their sympathizers) were involved in the eugenics movement, and many early homophile organizations were highly mysogynistic, racist, and classist.

Drowssap

August 8th, 2008

Regan DuCasse

The eugenics movement only has 1 significant problem (other than Adolph Hitler). The problem they have is that they are fundamentally, scientifically wrong. Almost nothing that reduces human health and fitness is triggered by genes.

Example:
Over the last couple of decades scientists have done over 1000 studies in an attempt to find the genes that cause or contribute to Schizophrenia.

The results are in.
A) Researchers uncovered 3,608 possible disease genes. That’s a lot of “we found it!” press releases folks.

B) When all was said and done only 24 of these genes turned out to be statistically significant. Most (or all) of these were extremely rare.

It turns out that natural selection really does work.

Gene-Hunters Find Hope and Hurdles in Schizophrenia Studies

So if genes don’t cause Schizophrenia what does? The environment of course.

Flu and Schizophrenia

Maternal Flu Linked To Schizophrenia, Autism In Child: Mechanism Discovered

(sorry if this is a repost, the first one croaked I think)

Drowssap

August 8th, 2008

Regan DuCasse

The eugenics movement only has 1 significant problem (other than Adolph Hitler). The problem they have is that they are fundamentally, scientifically wrong. Almost nothing that reduces human health and fitness is triggered by genes.

Example:
Over the last couple of decades scientists have done over 1000 studies in an attempt to find the genes that cause or contribute to Schizophrenia.

The results are in.
A) Researchers uncovered 3,608 possible disease genes. That’s a lot of “we found it!” press releases.

B) When all was said and done only 24 of these genes turned out to be statistically significant. Most (or all) of these were extremely rare.

Natural selection works, it’s the only Eugenics we need.

Gene-Hunters Find Hope and Hurdles in Schizophrenia Studies

to be continued…

Drowssap

August 8th, 2008

Regan DuCasse

Part Deux:

So if genes don’t cause Schizophrenia what does? The environment of course.

Flu and Schizophrenia

Maternal Flu Linked To Schizophrenia, Autism In Child: Mechanism Discovered

(sorry if this is a repost, the first one croaked I think)

Sportin\' Life

August 8th, 2008

I love historical items like this. Thank you!

Bill Ware

August 8th, 2008

An historical footnote:

When I entered grad school in clinical psychology in the mid ’70’s, we were issued a copy of DSM-II, the 1968 version in use at the time. I quote:

302 Sexual deviations (1)
This category is for individuals whose sexual interests are directed primarily toward objects other than people of the opposite sex, toward sexual acts not usually associated with coitus, or toward coitus performed under bizarre circumstances as in necrophilia, pedophilia, sexual sadism, and fetishism. Even though many find their practices distasteful, they remain unable to substitute normal sexual behavior for them. This diagnosis is not appropriate for individuals who perform deviant acts because normal sexual objects are not available to them.

302.0 Sexual orientation disturbance [Homosexuality]
This is for individuals whose sexual interests are directed primarily toward people of the same sex and who are either disturbed by, in conflict with, or wish to change their sexual orientation. This diagnostic category is distinguished from homosexuality, which by itself does not constitute a psychiatric disorder. Homosexuality per se is one form of sexual behavior, and with other forms of sexual behavior which are not in themselves psychiatric disorders, are not listed in this nomenclature.

Footnote (1) This term and its definition are inconsistent with the change in thinking that led to the substitution of Sexual orientation disturbance for Homosexuality in the list below. However, since no specific recommendations were made for changing this category [302] or in its definition, this category remains unchanged for the time being.

So… Homosexuality per se does not constitute a psychiatric disorder circa 1968. Only if a person is “disturbed” by same sex attractions, does the person need psychiatric help.

This fits in with Dr. D’Orsay Hecht’s outlook: if a person is fine being gay, then why is there any need for treatment, he wonders.

So what was all this fuss when homosexuality was removed altogether from the DSM-IV, when it was already considered a non-issue several years earlier unless the person was “disturbed” about it?

Nancy Twilley

August 8th, 2008

I think it was mainly symbolic. I mean, Freudian psychoanalysis has the same view: homosexuality is only a problem if you have a problem with it. However that wasn’t at all the way it was practiced in the U.S. It was just a sign to the American psychiatric community that they couldn’t keep ignoring the tenets of their own discipline.

Willie Hewes

August 10th, 2008

“This category is for individuals whose sexual interests are directed primarily […], toward sexual acts not usually associated with coitus […]”

Wait, so if you prefer oral to coitus, you’re in this category too?

Chris S.

August 10th, 2008

I’m just thinking how brave this guy had to be, almost a hundred years ago, to write this article and push for it to be published (which he must have had to do).

Last year, I asked my boyfriend to marry me. We’re going to wait until it’s actually legal where we live, but the fact that this is even a possibility rests on the foundation of people who were willing to tell the truth when no one wanted to listen. Thank you for pointing out one more hero.

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