This series is based on the book Gay American History by Johnathan Katz. While Part 1 related a general overview of how gay women and men were treated under the banner of religious piety in early America, Part 2 deals more specifically with treatments meted out by the medical and scientific establishments in order to “cure” homosexuals so they could be returned to “polite society.”
Considering the grip religion had over all aspects of life in our nation’s early history, some may question whether it was really necessary to shift the control structure which was designed to protect “normal” people from aberration, but nonetheless, this shift occurred. About the time when scientific experiments by Louis Pasteur and others began to gently cajole thinkers into looking at religion in more logical, pragmatic, and skeptical ways, many started to apply new reasoning to the subject of homosexuality. If nature is rife with examples of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, then why wouldn’t it be considered a natural occurrence? The results of these observations didn’t argue the existence of God, but, instead, argued that God was logical and reasonable.
While this fact was seen as both good and bad in terms of the acceptance of homosexuality in humans, one could no longer use terms like peccatum contra naturam, or “sin against nature,” against gay men and women. There were certainly other new complaints to lodge, but that old standby was now insufficient to enthrall a population more willing to question established notions by thinking logically and reasonably.
For most, it basically came down to the shifting sources of trustworthy information. Many simply began to trust doctors and scientists more than clergymen, especially when their results couldn’t be denied. In modern times, a new control must be established to keep pace with ever-evolving information sources.
In U.S. history, unfortunately, that control took the form of new scientific and medical definitions of homosexuality as an “aberration from the norm.” Considering academia and the medical profession often set legal precedents, and laws often reflect the current established views about societal morality, that fact is not something to dismiss. The religious establishment may have already been dictating much of the law, but when a professional, medical precedent is set the cultural stigma is cemented even further.
It’s one thing to be mocked by religious zealots; one can often dismiss those attacks as simply delusions based on perpetuated dogma, especially when it’s no longer legal to be lynched or burned at stake. But it’s another thing completely when the academic and medical establishments are finding justifications to eradicate you. In the modern age, if one feels estranged from religion one can simply avoid going to church, in most cases. But how do you avoid your doctor if you need medical care? Who can you turn to when you need a psychological helping hand?
If you were a gay woman or man prior to 1973, when homosexuality stopped being classified as a “mental disorder” by the APA, then the answer to those questions was almost nobody.
The new medical categorizations provided even more basis to excuse treating people horribly. Suddenly it’s not just against God to be homosexual, it was against the scientific representation of order in the universe. Suddenly, when looked at under the lens of medical soundness, it becomes a disease, a sickness, not just a “bad habit” like sloth or pride. You’re not just worthy of derision, you’re worthy of being quarantined from society at large. There’s a new medical basis for this treatment, and the innocent must be protected. As a homosexual, “the innocent” was not you.
But what were these so-called treatments designed to cure homosexuality?
Those who’ve read Part 1 already know how bad these were. For those who haven’t, prepare yourself.
The main weapons used against homosexuals were grouped under the heading of “aversion therapy,” or the forced juxtaposition of erotic images, in combination with extreme pain. The main form this pain took was electrocution from a 12-volt car battery while strapped into a hospital cot so that their limbs wouldn’t thrash about. The patient would have a large wad of gauze shoved into their mouths to both keep them from spontaneously biting off their tongues and to stifle their screams.
Solitary confinement was used regularly, as was anything else that provided a negative association for the person’s experience. It was not intended to be pleasant, it was intended to be as horrible as possible. Initial sessions were often shorter in duration, perhaps 2-3 days in a facility after having been arrested under suspicion of homosexual activity. Repeat offenders, or those arrested on other additional charges, often endured more extreme treatment as “lost causes.” In these cases, lobotomies, clitorectomies, and chemical sterilization and castration were the order of the day. If it was determined that they were beyond curing, the next priority was to protect society by locking them away in an asylum.
Though this is a history of homosexual treatment in the U.S., it’s worth noting that things were no better in the UK at the time. Not even national heroes, like Alan Touring, were spared from “treatment.”
The message these dubious treatments doled out was that homosexuals were sick and, therefore, must live as pariahs. To closeted homosexuals and bisexuals in society, the message was that there’s a difference between themselves and those unfortunate souls in solitary confinement. They could keep themselves “healthy” by lying to themselves and everyone else.
Considering how horrible the treatments were, what made them worse was the fact that all of these procedures were highly secretive. The only people who knew what was really going on were the doctors and staff of psychiatric facilities, their victims, and their families. Everyone knew the law, but not everyone knew the full extent of what happened when one broke it. Those who did, were not likely to regale their experiences. Still, the fear of arrest and torturous punishment was enough to keep most in the closet.
Possibly the most heartbreaking aspect of these treatments and schemes is that many homosexual men and women were so desperate to be regarded by society as “normal human beings” that they willingly underwent them. Whether there by choice, by family intervention, or by police action, the interred were promised release upon successful treatment. Often, that release never came. If it did, those who underwent the procedures were often scarred from them for the rest of their lives.
While it’s good that these procedures and attitudes are now considered barbaric, as a nation, we must never forget what homosexuals have endured throughout our history. We must never lose awareness of our shared past, no matter what our sexual orientation. We must strive to never lose sight of the human lives at stake when we deny the autonomous rights to any population in our society.