The Daily Agenda for Thursday, August 2
August 2nd, 2012
Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Belfast, UK; Cork, Ireland; Hamburg, Germany; Hanoi, Vietnam; Leeds, UK; Liverpool, UK; Salem, OR; Stockholm, Sweden; Swindon, UK; and Vancouver, BC.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Should homosexuals be treated?: 1913. The very word “homosexuality” had only entered the English language two decades earlier, but already medical and mental health professionals were debating the merits of trying to treat gay people. Among them was Columbia University’s Abraham A. Brill, who, as the English translator of Sigmund Freud’s writings, had singlehandedly introduced Americans to Freud’s teachings and became known as the father of American psychoanalysis. The August 2, 1913 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association published Brill’s talk at the AMA’s convention in Minneapolis in June, where he discussed how his encounters with homosexuals shaped his understanding of them:
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 pardonner, 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.
Part of the injustice, Brill concluded, lay in the fact that physicians were offering quack advice on treating homosexuality:
…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.
Castration may cure (in its way) homosexuality — and all other sexuality with it — but of course it should be no surprise that prostate massages had little curative effect. Brill added, “Investigators agree that homosexuality is no sign of mental or physical degeneration,” and he agreed with those views. Nevertheless, he described three cases in which he claimed to have “cured” homosexuals after only six to ten months of psychoanalysis. In the discussion that followed, Dr. D’Orsay Hecht of Chicago noted the incongruity:
I was also impressed with the effort of Dr. Brill to correct homosexuality by decrying it. 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 cannot 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?
Reagan Bans AIDS Discrimination: 1988. Acting on a recommendation from a 13-member AIDS Commission, President Ronald Reagan ordered a ban on discrimination against federal workers with AIDS. His actions, however drew sharp criticism for not acting on many of the other wide-ranging changes recommended by his own commission, which urged federal legislation to protect HIV-positive workers. The President instead urged “businesses, unions and schools to examine and consider adopting” similar policies. Vice President George Bush, who was running for president, had already endorsed the commission’s recommendations which included spending an additional #3.1 billion to combat the disease. Dr. Frank Lilly, the commission’s only openly gay member, criticized Reagan’s limited action. “We’ve got a blueprint for a national policy on AIDS,” he said. “It’s a piece of whole cloth. You can’t pick and choose your own menu from it.”
James Baldwin: 1924. He was born to poverty in Harlem, the son of a pentecostal preacher and a mother with, as he put it, “the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.” As he grew older, his father groomed him for the family business of saving souls, but when Baldwin turned seventeen, he left the business and his home and journeyed to an entirely different world in the Village. He began writing book reviews for the New York Times, focusing on books about “the Negro problem, which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” Some of his essays led to a few fellowships which allowed him to leave New York for France, where he stayed for the next six years and would spend the better part of his life. While in Europe, Baldwin learned two surprising things: 1) that he was never before more thoroughly an American as he was the moment he landed on French soil, and 2) “I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people.” And from working through those two issues, he came to a profound realization:”I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” He also worked through his ambivalence of what it was to be an American. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Baldwin’s first novel, 1953’s semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, written during his first sojourn to France, became an instant American classic. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son came out two years later. Despite his success, his publisher turned down his third novel, Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin, this time, had tried to break two barriers. The first was that Baldwin’s characters were all white. Baldwin was an established Negro writer, his publisher argued. This book, they feared, would alienate his audience and ruin his career. “They would not, in short, publish it, as a favor tome. I conveyed my gratitude, perhaps a shade too sharply, borrowed money from a friend, and myself and my lover took the boat to France.”
Of course, Giovanni’s Room broke a second barrier; the two main protagonists were gay lovers. And yet the themes were similar to those confronted in Baldwin’s two earlier works. Just as Baldwin had to escape New York so he could work out the alienation he felt for the land that he loved, the American “David” in Giovanni’s Room had also found himself in Paris, torn between the expectations of marriage to his fiancé and the love that he felt for his Italian lover. Other novels — 1962’s Another Country and 1968’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone — also dealt with homosexual and bisexual themes in a unflinching and nuanced way. In an essay that was included in the 1961 collection Nobody Knows My Name, he tackled the argument that homosexuality was somehow unnatural:
…To ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a antural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem — quite the contrary. The greatest problem is how to be — in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word — a man.
If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).
And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?