The Daily Agenda for Sunday, September 29
September 29th, 2013
Other Events This Weekend: Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco, CA.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
New York TV Station Airs “Homosexuality, A Psychological Approach”: 1956. The pioneering WRCA-TV (now WNBC) aired an award-winning weekly panel discussion program called “The Open Mind,” hosted by Richard Heffner. It is probably the longest running program still on the air today with its original host, now for American Public Television. In August, Heffner hosted the first televised discussion on the East Coast on homosexuality (see Aug 4). Despite the obvious prejudices, the program was relatively evenhanded and balanced — as balanced as a program like this could be where people were talking about another group of people who weren’t in the room. Heffner opened this program with a re-cap of the previous program, and the response that it generated
Our panel tried to distinguish between that homosexual activity which harms society and that which does not. And the point was made that our legal attitude towards homosexuality often does not reflect medical opinion, for the law frequently considers it a crime, a crime to be punished rather than a problem to be treated. Now, of course, we touched on many other aspects of homosexuality as well. And from your response to our program it was obvious that a good many of you felt precisely as we did; that we have here a problem that affects us all; affects us as parents and as good citizens concerned with our nation’s mental health. And that his problem should and can be discussed openly and freely. Many of your letter contained questions concerning the cause of homosexuality, its origins, particularly in childhood, its treatment, and the preventative measures that can be taken by the parent.
What’s most fascinating about this program is how closely the discussion mimics the messaging coming out of the ex-gay movement today, nearly than sixty years later. It is as though the ex-gay movement is frozen in time to an earlier era, free from the nettlesome knowledge that the mental health professions have picked up in the intervening six decades.
And what did the mental health professions believe before the subsequent six decodes of research? To answer that, this program’s panel consisted of Dr. Philip Polatin of the New York Psychiatric Institute, and Dr. Harry Bakwin, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who had written extensively about psychological issues in children, including, if not altogether accurately, homosexuality (“The condition occurs in white children of all nationalities but is rare in the Negro,” he would write a year later.) In response to the question of how homosexuals became homosexuals. Bakwin opened which what he called the “constitutional cause”:
There is a small but quite definite group of children in whom I think this is an inborn deviation. These children, from the earliest childhood, boys particularly, dress up on the clothes of the opposite sex. They posture like members of the opposite sex. They experiment with cosmetics. You know, we see these as children, but we don’t know what becomes of them as adults. These are termed by the psychiatrist “transvestites”. And the psychiatrist doesn’t consider the transvestite and the homosexual as necessarily the same.
Apparently knowing that Polatin didn’t care much for the idea of inborn homosexuality, Bakwin threw the question over to Polatin, who acknolweged that “we have an entirely different view”:
We don’t in any way ignore the possible factor of the constitutional element, but we, working with homosexuals or other sexual deviates, find that the early parent-child relationship bears a greater relationship to the development to this condition than other factors. For example, we find that one of the most common expressions of difficulty is the aggressive, dominant, controlling mother and a very passive, meek, compliant father. So that the boy, in the development of his psychological life, identifies with a parent of the opposite sex rather than with a parent of the same sex. Because we know that in the course of psychological growth there is the normal period of what we call “the latency period” or “the homosexual period” between the ages of about six and 12, in which little boys play with each other. They play the Hardy Boys game. They have games in groups. And little girls play together themselves. And they indulge in feminine activities, playing with dolls and with cooking utensils and they want to help mother. In other words, gradually they are beginning to identify themselves with the parent of the same sex, so that at the age of puberty when there is a tremendous psychological and physiological upheaval, they now become men if they are boys, and they now become women if they are girls, and then they can go out like father did or like mother did into the world and seek for themselves a mate on a heterosexual level. The homosexual has somehow or other become fixed or limited in his development at the immature level of psychological growth.
Heffner turned the question back to “constitutional” homosexuality (“and by that you mean congenital,” Heffner clarified). Polatin agreed that it may be possible but considered it rare. Bakwin placed a bit more emphasis on genetic possibilities, but even he preferred to emphasize “other factors,” which he likened to the “soil” in which a child’s sexuality takes root:
BAKWIN: I would emphasize other factors. I think the soil is different. Of course the parental reaction to different children is different. Parents are different toward their children just as they’re different toward their friends. And I don’t think that’s generally appreciated. A certain objectivity. And so it isn’t the same parent for each child. However, I think also the soil is different. And I think there is a difference in susceptibility of different individuals toward this deviation. Now, I think given this soil, given an unhappy home, given a child who is exposed to an aggressive adult, that under those circumstances if the adult is of the same sex, this child may fall prey to this particular deviation. This was brought out in a very interesting study by Greco and Wright some years ago. They studied a group of homosexual boys and also studied a group of control children. And they found that in these homosexual boys that had commonly been exposed to an experience during a period when they were unhappy, to a sex experience with an individual of the same sex in whom they had faith, in whom they had confidence. And I think it’s sort of a non-specific unhappiness, plus the chance meeting with some aggressive adult of the same sex, that plays a major role.
BAKWIN: And the difference in the soil, and there’s a difference in susceptibility.
POLATIN: Yes. Well, that’s just it. I want to emphasize that. I think what Dr. Bakwin says is correct, that many homosexuals have been seduced, so to speak, in the pre-adolescent phase. But often when we study these people the soil has been right. Because we know many perfectly healthy, well-integrated, mature people who have been seduced in the pre-adolescent phase and who somehow or other have come through it unscathed and unscarred and function perfectly well. So that he soil is different in these people who are exposed to older homosexual fantasy.
HEFFNER: Well, are you putting your emphasis, Dr. Bakwin, on some traumatic experience, some single experience?
BAKWIN: Usually not a single experience. Usually repeated experiences, according to the studies and the literature.
HEFFNER: And something outside of the individual rather than inside?
BAKWIN: No, I would say first a fertile soil. Second, unhappy surroundings. And third, the chance meeting with an aggressive adult.
The topic soon turned to prevention. Bakwin’s advise was fairly general: just make sure the child has “a happy home.” Also:
I think if a child shows homosexual tendencies that he should go, if he’s a boy, say, to a coeducational school. I don’t think he should be sent to a school simply for boys. I think he’s much better off when exposed to members of the opposite sex. I don’t know what else one can do.
Polatin, on the other hand, was full of suggestions:
The father cannot shirk his responsibilities. He should take the boy with him fishing, tennis, all the activities which a man indulges in. The Boy Scouts, the minister, the priest, the rabbi play a role in this process of identification with the male, with a man. And a girl, too. The mother must take an active role with this little girl because she has to be a woman. And to permit the little child to be with her when she is cooking or baking or cleaning and have the little child participate. I’ve heard so many children who say, “I was never permitted to do any housework. My mother treated me like a queen. I wasn’t permitted to engage in any of these activities, and I miss it”. So that these are important.
For a fascinating look at how 1950s television handled the topic, you can see the entire half-hour program and transcript in the Open Mind’s archives here.
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?