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Outdated Theories

When homosexuality was an “illness” …

On today´s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and exactly 30 years after homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Disease of the WHO, I want to point out how medical research contributed to today´s homophobia.

From the 19th and 20th century medical research contributed a lot to today´s homophobia, especially to the understanding of homosexuality as a curable illness. But its finding in the late 20th century also help(ed) to reduce homophobia.

Even in today´s research the focus is set on male homosexuality, which was criminalized till the 20th century (and still is in some countries). There are less sources on female homosexuality: If lesbians were “treated”, the same methods were used as on gay men. Lesbians in England (1950-1970s) were more likely to seek help for their “condition” then men.

Homosexuality as “illness”

Until the 19th century homosexuality was dominated by religious stigmas and jurisdiction. The upcoming idea of homosexuality as an illness led (sometimes) to lighter criminal punishment but also to the hypothesis that homosexuality could be “cured”.

Conversion Therapy: Make you straight again

The understanding of homosexuality as a disease led to many different approaches to “cure” it – some are physical and other mental “remedies”. Under the term “conversion therapy” the following “treatments” were used:

  • hypnosis: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed in 1899 that 45 hypnosis sessions and a few visits at a brothel, made his patient straight. This was the start of “conversion therapy”.
  • (ice-pick) lobotomies: The US neurologist Walter Freeman used (ice-pick) lobotomy on homosexual patients. Without any formal surgical training he left many disabled for the rest of their lives.
  • bladder washing and rectal massage
  • chemical castration with hormonal treatment
  • testicle transplantation experiments in the 1920s: based on Eugen Steinach´s research gay men were first castrated and then given “heterosexual” testicles.
  • aversive conditioning: Electric shocks and nausea-inducing drugs were used while same-sex erotic images were shown to “strengthen” heterosexual feelings.
  • electroconvulsive therapy
  • psychoanalysis.

Alan Turing as victims of conversion therapy

Alan Turing (1912 –1954), who is well-known for his Enigma machine, is one of the most famous victims of conversion therapy.

On 23rd January 1952 Turing reported that his house was burgled. In the investigation the police found out on his homosexual relationship: In the trial Turing could decide between imprisonment and probation. He agreed on his probation and was “treated” with DES, a synthetic oestrogen to reduce libido.
Due to his conviction Turing list his job at the GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, and was denied entry into the US.

In 1954 Turing died on cyanide poisoning with an half-eaten apple next to his bed: Some argue that it had been suicide inspired by Turing´s favourite fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”; others say that he died on an accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes. For conspiracy lovers, he was assassinated.

NS-medicine and homosexuality

The committal of a gay man in the KZ Sachsenhausen

The Nazis wanted to eradicate homosexuality: They sent homosexuals to KZs – especially Buchenwald – and forced them to wear a pink triangle on their left chest.

Did you know …
that the pink triangle was meant as a symbol of shame by the Nazis but became an international symbol for the LGBTQ community in the 1970s.

The treatment included:

  • sexual intercourse
  • castration
  • used in “medical experiments”: The Danish SS Dr Carl Værnet, conducted medical experiments on gay concentration camp prisoners in the KZ Buchenwald: He insert ed artificial hormone glands in their groins. Two patient died from infections. After WWII he escaped to Argentina, where continued his research.

Many died within these experiments and others were executed. But some survived like Bernhard Langer: The physician Bernhard Langer (1901-1979) worked as captain in the medical corps of the SA until 1936. When his homosexuality was discovered, he was convicted and sent to the KZ Sachsenhausen in 1943, where he worked as an inmate´s doctor.

Late 20th century approaches in the US

They included:

  • counselling
  • visualization
  • social skills training
  • psychoanalytic therapy – as long term therapy (4-8 years)
  • spiritual interventions – including prayers and peer groups.
  • gay conversion camps for teenagers

Conversion therapy – especially in its early form – can be said to be a form of torture: It did hardly work, but left the patients shamed, physically and mentally damaged, conflicted and fearful about their identity. Many blamed themselves why the therapy did not work on them.

The promised rate of “healing” was said to be between 50%- nearly 100%, which is absolute nonsense!!!

New understanding

Medical research pioneered by Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) and protests of the LGBTQ community in the 1960s and 1970s led to a new understanding of homosexuality:

Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), the US sexologist and developer of the Kinsey Scale, and the US psychology Evelyn Hooker (1907 – 1996), set the basis for a new era:

  • 17.05.1990 the WHO removed “homosexuality” from its list of mental illness.
  • In March 2018, the European parliament passed a resolution condemning conversion therapy and urged EU member states to ban conversion therapy.
  • On 7th May 2020, German parliament banned conversion therapy for minors and forbids advertising for it.

HIV/AIDS as the “gay´s disease”

A setback was the coming up of AIDS: In 1982 a new disease was named: gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) as the first cases were homosexual men. Till 1985 the term “gay plague” was used for AIDS in general and “gay cancer” and “gay pneumonia” for with AIDS associated conditions.

GRID was never a medical term but was used in the popular press for some months; in popular literature it had its peak in 1995.

Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers were powerful in shaping the public opinion onwards and the self-perception of LGBTQ.
Defining homosexuality as an illness showed that there is one cure to homophobia: social respect and understanding.

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