TODAY IN HISTORY:
When Gay Men Fake Their Cures: 1956. Dr. Norman Reider, who headed the Department of Psychiatry at San Francisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital, gave an very perceptive and revealing talk at a meeting of the California Academy of General Practices in Los Angeles. He began his talk, titled “Problems of Homoseuxality,” by reminding his audience that the problems were as much society’s problems as they were homsexuals’ problems themselves:
Hardly any medical subject is more ambiguous and confused than that of homosexuality, and it is a most difficult subject for the clinician to delineate in a scientific or even empirical way. For centuries homosexuality has been more a moral and legal than a medical concern. Throughout the ages people have tried to make criminal law enforce their ambitions regarding moral law, especially in their attempts to control sexual behavior. Among sex laws, none are so punitive or inequitable as those concerning homosexual acts, particularly male homosexual activities. Religious traditions and attitudes against homosexuality have thus been extended into substantive law out of all proportion to the social damage involved in most homosexual acts. Sin is confused with crime, and vague laws about sexual behavior give law enforcement officers a dangerous discretionary power. …
The great majority of homosexual acts do not endanger the social structure or disrupt the family. No doubt many early societies considered homosexual activity a threat to family and societal solidarity, and taboos arose; but when these are examined they can be seen as part and parcel of man’s fears of his own impulses-drives for which he sought controls. Modern studies like those of the late Dr. Kinsey and his associates serve to show that society has little to fear from homosexual activity. Yet the fear remains, in that a homosexual person continues to be the object of extraordinary punishment or the butt of derisive jokes and contempt. We should remember, when we participate in such attacks, that we follow the age-old formula of trying to fight off or laugh off something that we either do not understand or fear.
Later in his talk, Reider explained how the overwhelmingly hostile attitudes toward gay men in particular have preventing the medical community from understanding exactly how ineffective they have been in trying to “cure” them. One such avenue that was tried in the 1940s and 1950s was hormonal treatment, particularly with the administration of androgens such as testosterone, on the theory that gay men were gay because they weren’t “masculine” enough:
A story of my clinical experience in southern California some years ago will illustrate the complications involved in the evaluation of hormonal treatment. The medical literature at that time contained favorable reports of treatment of homosexuality by androgens, and it acquired a certain vogue. Several California jurists who knew the futility of sentencing homosexuals to jail began sentencing the convicted person to undergo treatment. Some persons were sentenced to have hormonal treatment, others to have psychiatric treatment. As a result of these efforts further articles reported successful treatment with androgens-successes that I as a psychiatrist envied.
One day a young man came to my office to consult me about a problem that only skirted on his homosexuality. A confirmed homosexual, he had little anxiety about his activities because he considered himself a constitutional homosexual and felt relatively blameless. In the exploratory course of our discussion he said that he had once been treated by androgens, not entirely of his own will, as the result of a court sentence. He then described how he and several of his associates had contrived to “respond” to the treatment, varying their stories so as to give them the hue of veracity. He said that he arrived late for his first appointment and grumbled at the injection. The nurse reminded him to return for his next one “or else.” Next time he complained of noticing no improvement at all. On the third visit he told the nurse he was depressed and said that he and his boy friend had fallen out and might separate. Next time he was more depressed and was moving out, he said, because he could not tolerate his boy friend. The fifth time he carefully implied he was less depressed, and reported no difference except that he had no desire for anything or anybody. On the sixth visit he told the nurse: “A simply fantastic thing happened. I’ve been going to a local bookstore for years and never noticed before a very pretty girl who works as a clerk there.” By the seventh visit he reported making a date with the girl and at the end of treatment he claimed satisfactory sexual relations with her. This case figured in a published report of successful treatment. Meantime this patient and his companions who had also been treated went on with their homosexual activities, except that some of them suffered from an increased drive — the result of the injections of androgens.
Unfortunately, Reider doesn’t provide a reference for the published report which featured this patient.
[Source: Norman Reider. "Problems of homosexuality." California Medicine, 86, no. 6 (June 1957): 381-384. Available online here.]
First Gay Rights March on Washington: 1979. About 75,000 people from across the country and around the world marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for a rally at the Washington Monument for the first national gay rights march in U.S. history. Demands included the repeal of sodomy laws, approval of a proposed expansion of the Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation, an end to discrimination in child custody cases, and a presidential order ending the ban on gays in the military. Steve Ault, the march’s organizer, declared “This rally marks the first time that the gay constituency has pulled together on a national level and that is a very important political step for us.”
Congress Bans Federal Funds for AIDS Programs that “Promote Homosexuality”: 1987. The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on an an amendment proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms to restrict federal funds for AIDS education to materials stressing sexual abstinence and which did not “promote homosexuality.” Citing comic books produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York — material that had not been paid for by federal funds — Helms complained, “If the American people saw these books, they would be on the verge of revolt.” He claimed the books showed “graphic detail of a sexual encounter between two homosexual men. The comic books do not encourage a change in that perverted behavior. In fact, the comic books promote sodomy.”
The only senators voting against the measure were Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and Sen. Lowell Weiker (R-CT), who said, “If you’re going to censor that education, you’ve got no solution” to the AIDs crisis. The amendment would later be approved by the House on a 358-47 vote. It would remain the law of the land until 1992, when a federal court ruled that the restrictions were so vague they violated AIDS service organizations’ First and Fifth Amendment rights.
Gay Son Denounces California Marriage Ban Sponsor: 1999. When California State Sen. Pete Knight was first elected to the state Senate in 1996, he twice tried but failed to pass an amendment to the California Family Law statute to restrict marriage to a man and a woman. Those failures convinced Knight that the only way to pass his cherished legislation was to go around the legislature entirely and put the proposed law on the ballot as a state initiative. He then formed a campaign committee which spent eleven months collecting thousands of signatures. In November of 1998, the popularly-called Knight Initiative qualified for the March 2000 ballot as Proposition 22. That marked the start of a bruising campaign aimed squarely, once again, at California’s gay community.
There was one person in the gay community who took Knights efforts more personally than anyone else. That was Knights son, David Knight, a Gulf War veteran who published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, blasting his father for pushing Prop 22 to further his conservative political ends despite having a gay son, as well as a gay brother who died of AIDS. “I believe, based on my experience, that his is a blind, uncaring, uninformed knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing about but which serves his political career,” the younger Knight wrote. He also said that three years earlier — do the math: that would be at about the time Knight first tried to ban same-sex marriage in the state legislature — David told his father that he was gay and had a life partner. From that point on, “my relationship with my father was over. I can’t begin to explain the hurt that has come from this rejection.”
The elder Knight’s response to his son’s op-ed could barely conceal his embarrassment. “I regret that my son felt he needed to force a private, family matter into the public forum through an editorial. Although I don’t believe he was fair in describing the true nature of our relationship, that is a subject which should remain between the two of us. I care deeply about my son.”
Prop 22 would go on to pass in March of 2000, 61% to 39%. But because it was an initiative rather than a constitutional amendment, it could be struck down if the California Supreme Court were to decide that it ran contrary to the state constitution. The Court did precisely that on May 15, 2008, which then opened the fight for Prop 8 later that year.
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