The Daily Agenda for Saturday, November 24
November 24th, 2012
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
The Mental Hygiene Aspects of Homosexuality: 1917. The theories behind the Eugenics movement were formulated by Sir Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Drawing on Darwin’s theories of evolution, Galton sought to create a practical application of those theories in his 1883 book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, in which he suggested that, through carefully considered interventions, the human condition could be improved. In addition to Eugenics, which took a more narrow human-husbandry approach to improving the population, those ideas launched a broader “social hygiene” movement which had many positive results: the regulation and eventual abolition of child labor, mandatory and free education primary and (eventually) secondary education, workplace health and safety rules, anti-tenement ordinances, pre-natal care, food safety regulations, immunizations, sanitation, and birth control — although the latter, in some of its manifestations, also had its negative qualities as well. Particularly where forced sterilization of “undesired” population groups were concerned.
Eugenics was the dark side of the social hygiene movement, as was its “racial hygiene” component which simply provided a weak scientific gloss over longstanding prejudices and racial policies designed to prevent “race-mixing.” While not everyone involved in social hygienes were eugenicists, there was often a certain degree of crossed influences between the two areas of discussion. We can best see this in a textbook which was published in November 1917 by William Alanson White, a professor of nervous and mental diseases at Georgetown University. In The Principles of Mental Hygiene, he touched on a large number of topics, including homosexuality. That passage is particularly striking because of the way White described homosexuality according to its impact on “the herd.”
This social group, like the others, is a complex and heterogeneous one and one, too, that we have only recently come to study scientifically. Perhaps no group of individuals have suffered from less understanding, have been treated with greater lack of consideration, than this group. The antipathic emotions have held almost complete sway and so have made the scientific approach to the problem practically impossible. The history of society’s attitude towards the homosexual is much the same as the history of its attitude towards the prostitute except that it has, if possible, been more completely dominated by the antipathic emotions.
Homosexuality has come of late to have a much broader meaning than that usually connoted by the popular speech. It means that degree of attraction for the same sex which turns the individual aside on the path towards a heterosexual goal and therefore away from those activities which naturally lead to procreation and are therefore race-preservative. The term by no means necessarily connotes actual concrete acts of sexual perversion. In this large sense it is readily seen why it should be tabooed by the herd. Its tendency is destructive to the interests of the herd as a biological unit and therefore the reaction against it. The reaction of hate and its congeners is the instinctive way of self-protection and must necessarily precede any judicial, intelligent attitude based upon scientific knowledge which can only come in the course of development when instinct shall have been controlled and directed by reason.
As already intimated, the homosexual group is a large and complex one and we are only beginning to be able to approach its problems with a clear scientific vision, but as we are able to do this we come more and more to an appreciation of how widely this particular type of inefficiency is distributed. Again, therefore, we come to appreciate the emphasis which I have all along put upon the necessity for studying the individual in order that he may be dealt with for what he is rather than perfunctorily classified with this or that social group just because, and for no other reason, the accident of circumstance has found him momentarily identified with it. Distinct homosexual types are found among the insane, the criminal, the feeble-minded, the epileptic, the vagrant, etc., etc., so that we must come to realize that it is a type of reaction, not a label to distinguish a given individual from all others, and try in our investigations to evaluate the part it has played in the social inadequacy of the particular individual under consideration.
Viewed in this way it becomes a problem like all the others and the objects of treatment come out clearly instead of being befogged by a haze of emotion.
The homosexual reaction should be corrected if possible. Psychotherapy is the most hopeful way of approach. Failing this the individual should be taught to use his energies as best he can based upon an understanding of himself. The ideal, next to cure, would be a direction of the energies into socially useful channels, which direction would at the same time afford an adequate fulfilment (sic) of the individual.
Homosexuality, in the broad sense here used, is found as a type of reaction in a great many conditions which constitute or lead to social inadequacy. It, therefore, offers a natural barrier to procreation of the socially inadequate classes the immense value of which, to the herd, has not been appreciated. It is, so to speak, a natural means of sterilization.
[Source: William A. White. The Principles of Mental Hygiene (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917): 208-211.]
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