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The Daily Agenda for Sunday, November 10

Jim Burroway

November 10th, 2013

Sir Francis Galton

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. He coined a word for these theories, Eugenics, from the Greek words for “good” and “born,” and he emphasized the inheritability of positive and negative traits, both through genetics and through environmental factors. In addition to Eugenics, which took a more narrow genetic human-husbandry approach to improving the population, his ideas also launched a broader “social hygiene” movement which had many positive influences: the regulation and eventual abolition of child labor, mandatory and free 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 against “race-mixing.” While not everyone involved in social hygiene programs were eugenicists, there were a great degree of crossed influences between the two areas, and the boundaries between them weren’t very clear. Indeed, few at the time thought that the boundaries needed to be clear; Eugenics didn’t become a toxic topic until the Nazis took those ideas to their more extreme yet logical conclusions.

Dr. William Alanson White

An interesting example of less toxic forms of social hygiene theories can be found in a textbook published in November 1917 by William Alanson White, a professor of nervous and mental diseases at Georgetown University and superintendent at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane. 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. The book is available in PDF and EPUB versions for free via Google Books here.]

Phyllis Lyon: 1924. The Oklahoma native earned a degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley in 1946 and worked as a reporter for a California paper before moving to Seattle to work at a trade magazine in 1950. That’s where she met the love of her life, Del Martin (see May 5). They became a couple in 1953 when they moved to San Francisco together. “We really only had problems our first year together,” she later told The Washington Post. “Del would leave her shoes in the middle of the room, and I’d throw them out the window.” Del responded “You’d have an argument with me and try to storm out the door. I had to teach you to fight back.”

Their life together was all about fighting back. In 1955 Phyllis and Del, along with six other women, formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization in the U.S. Phyllis was the first editor of the DOB’s groundbreaking newsletter, The Ladder from 1956 to 1960, when Del took over. Pseudonyms were common then, and Phillis edited The Ladder as “Ann Ferguson” for the first few months, but she killed her alter ego in an editorial encouraging their readers not to hide (see Jan 7). By October 1957, they had 400 subscribers across the country. In 1964, they helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, bringing together national religious leaders and gay and lesbian activists for a national discussion of gay rights. Phyllis became the first open lesbian to serve on the board of the National Organization for Women in 1973. Phyllis and Del were also active in San Francisco’s Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.

On February 12, 2004, Phyllis and Del married for the first time when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom ordered that marriage licenses be granted to same-sex couples. That marriage lasted until August 12, but not because the couple split up. That was when the California Supreme Court voided several thousand marriage licenses given to same-sex couples. Del and Phyllis were deeply dissapointed. “Del is 83 years old and I am 79,” Phyllis said at the time. “After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.”

Phyllis Lyon (right) and Del Martin (left) married in San Francisco in 2008, just a few months before voters approved Proposition 8.

But they had the luxury of just enough time. They were married again on June 16, 2008 after the California Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage was against the state constitution. Del and Phyllis were given the honor of being the first same-sex couple to be married, and they wore the same outfits in which they were first married in 2004. Del passed away two months later, on August 27, 2008.

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?



Paul Douglas
November 10th, 2013 | LINK

Wow, what a story. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were on the cutting edge of history.

November 10th, 2013 | LINK

Both of these were great stories, thanks for posting them.

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