December 2nd, 2012
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
What Probation Officers Can Do For Homosexuals: 1949. Until Illinois became the first state in the nation to decriminalize homosexuality in 1961 (see Jul 28), it was illegal, and often a felony, in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. When caught, some were imprisoned, some were sent to mental institutions, some were fined (and some were blackmailed and forced to pay bribes), and some were placed on probation. Which meant that the question of who to do with gay people became a probation officer’s problem, whose task it was to serve multiple roles: law enforcer, social worker, employment counselor, and psychologist. Naturally, probation officers sought the opinions of psychologists and psychiatrists on how to deal with the many problems that they encountered.
In December 1949, the professional journal Federal Probation published an article by Dr. Manly B. Root, staff psychiatrist at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which the journal’s editor emphasized, “is mustreading for all probation officers.” Dr. Root wrote that one of the more perplexing questions confronting probation officers is “how a normal baby with all potentialities for good grows into an individual whose lax moral standards, thoughtless hedonism, callous conscience, and rebellious aggressiveness make of his character and personality a person who has to be locked up by society for its own protection.” And among the different characters Root addressed were alcoholics, drug addicts, psychopathic personalities, neurotics, psychotics, and “sexual deviates.” Of the latter, he identified four categories:
Root defined the second and third categories this way:
Active homosexuality.– These persons have as their sexual object a person of the same sex; as their sexual aim, sexual union with the other person. They desire the masculine role, acting toward their homosexual lover as a normal person would toward a lover of the opposite sex.
Passive homosexuality.– These persons have as their sexual object a person of the same sex; as their sexual aim, sexual union with the other person. They desire the feminine role, acting toward their lovers as normal persons would toward lovers of the opposite sex.
Remember these distinctions: the active homosexual (when a man) treats a male lover as though he were a female. The passive homosexual (when a man) treats the male lover as though the lover were a male, and he (the passive homosexual) a female. All three of these types [Here, Root includes “uncontrolled heterosexuals”] may be aggressive or not; that is, they may seek the lover or may respond to the lover’s seeking. All three may be constantly true to their abnormal type, or may be what we call facultative; that is, sometimes “normal” and sometimes “abnormal.” In the field of personality distortions hardly anyone is the same sort of person all of the time.
As you can see, in 1949, the gender role played by gay men (and it was mostly men who were convicted) was still deemed to be of great significance, even though the advice Root gave was undifferentiated based on whether he was “active” or “passive.” His first piece of advice, aside from suggesting that probation officers read Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, was to “advise and discuss, but do not be ‘preachy’. Almost everyone has some peculiarities and worries and guilt feelings and conflicts about his or her sex life.” He also reminded his readers that “you cannot control another person’s sex life. You can only give guidance and leadership.” He continued:
Much of the good done by doctors, by friends, and by priests at the confessional, comes from what psychoanalysts call catharsis — letting off steam and relieving tension by talking to a sympathetic listener. Another point to remember is that the tension caused by a person tortured by psychosexual pathology can be relieved in only four ways, as follows:
(1) Frank acceptance of the abnormal sexual desires and frank yielding to them. This results in the individual becoming an overt participant in his particular kind of sexual pathological activity. He is then no longer ashamed of his longings and activities, enjoys them, and considers the people we call normal as narrow-minded. Tension leaves him for he has avoided conflict about the matter.
(2) Frank acceptance of the abnormal sexual desires but refusal to yield to them. This results in some tension because of the constant restraint, but the acceptance of the abnormal desires does away with the more serious conflict which always occurs when an individual refuses to admit his personality or character peculiarities, sexual or otherwise. His mental state is then to be compared on a heterosexual level to the normally sexed man or woman who for some reason remains unmarried and continent. He is consciously exercising self-control, not fighting an inward conflict.
(3) Relief of tension by sublimation. This word, which is taken from physics, refers to the purification of an impulse or tendency or desire into a socially acceptable form of activity. This is not done consciously like the solution discussed under (2), but is an unconsciously developed mechanism. Its explanation lies in the field of psychoanalytic theory, not at all universally accepted. It is pretty generally believed, however, that many people find happiness by satisfying their antisocial tendencies in a way which does good instead of harm. To give specific examples of this sublimation in a paper prepared for nonmedical readers might cause embarrassment. Suffice it to say here that any overpowering interest or vocation or avocation which your clients show may lead the way to a possible sublimation of antisocial or abnormal sexual tendencies.
I’m going to pause here to wonder aloud what he meant when he said that giving examples of sublimation “might cause embarrassment.” Did he sense there were a number of people with “abnormal sexual desires” among probation officers? Among mental health professionals? Anyway, he continued:
(4) Repression of the sexual conflict. Another and always tragic solution of an individual’s conflict about his sexual peculiarities involves its repression. According to psychoanalytic theory, at least, such a person is actually able to repress his conflict. Thus a homosexual, for instance, comes to believe that he is not a homosexual at all. If this were all, it would be a happy solution. Unfortunately for such a patient — for such persons then become psychotic — the repressed desires remain active and seek expression in some way. These ways take place through delusions and hallucinations in which homosexual threats seem to come from other persons. Depending upon the subject’s personality makeup, varied symptoms may develop and the individual becomes the victim, as he sees it, of a hostile world which is trying to force him into homosexuality, and of hallucinations and voices which accuse him of the very perversions he has repressed. Thus a person cannot safely repress his desires without becoming psychotic or exhibit some sex deviation.
Root conlcuded that “the only safe way of keeping his mental health are the first three alternatives,” ruling out the fourth for obvious reasons. But he advised probation officers to try to direct their charges to the second and third alternatives because “it is probable that we can do little to help the probationer as to the way in which he solves the conflict.” He left unmentioned that the first option might get the probationer in trouble with the law all over again, an option that the very audience Root is writing to would reject out of hand. Besides, Root added, “He is never as effective an individual as is the man who accepts his peculiarities and succeeds in controlling them” — and by “controlling them,” he meant “not doing it.” Easy advice for Root to dispense; he went home every night to his wife Dorothy and son Charles.
[Source: Manly B. Root “What the probation officer can do for special types of offenders.” Federal Probation 13, no. 4 (December 1949): 36-46.]
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