Curing Homosexuality in 1913
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.]