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O n December 25, 2005 Dr. Charles Socarides died at the age of 83 in New York where he had lived and worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Socarides had been nationally famous in the 1960s, appearing as a popular guest on television and radio talk shows. Today he is probably only remembered by a small number of conservative psychoanalysts and by aging gay liberationists who—after the birth of the modern gay movement in 1969—vehemently, and effectively, protested his theories that homosexuality was a “perversion” and mental disorder, and that, through psychoanalysis, homosexuals could overcome this malady and become functioning heterosexuals.
Born in 1922 in Brockton, Massachusetts and educated at Harvard University and the New York Medical College, Socarides was, by the mid-1950s, a leader in New York’s psychoanalytic circles and an “expert” on the causes and “cures” for homosexuality. The concept of “curing” homosexuality was a distinctly post-war, mainly U.S. invention. Socarides was not a path breaker in this theory as psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler had already written a number of papers and popular books on the topic, including the influential 1956 Homo- sexuality: Disease or a Way of Life? and in 1962 Dr. Irving Bieber published an anthology Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study .
On June 28, 1968—one year before the Stonewall Riots ignited the gay liberation movement—Socar- ides published The Overt Homosexual . This study was promoted as, “The first comprehensive and authoritative psychoanalytic study by a single author of both male and female homosexuality.” While it garnered some positive mainstream reviews, it was harshly condemned by homophile activists as yet another baseless, unscientific attack on homosexuals and Bergler, Bieber, and Socarides became the axis of psychoanalytic evil—the most visible and powerful voices claiming that homosexuality was a mental illness. Socarides, the most vocal of the three, was singled out by gay activists as the most pernicious and dangerous.
It is misleading to see the activists attack on these men as personal. It was an attack on the psychoanalytic and therapeutic industries that had exacted such a toll on the lives of gay people, women, people of color, and anyone who did not fit into the cookie-cutter norm of conformity. Psychiatry and psychoanalysis—most often through the cheaper and more popular venue of psychotherapy—had a profound, often incredibly negative effect on minority populations. Gay men and lesbians were told that they had to be “cured.” An extreme—although not infrequent— method of this was through electroshock therapy, which allegedly rewired the brain, or aversion therapy in which male patients were given electric shocks when they were sexually stimulated by pictures of naked men. In addition, psychotherapy paradigms that labeled them as “sick and “perverted” were constantly used to get them fired from jobs, deprived of caring for their children, and kicked out of colleges.
O ther groups didn’t fare any better in the psychoanalytic realm of that time. Women were repeatedly told that they were unnatural if they chafed under the role of “wife” and “mother.” They were told that a desire to work outside of the home might be unhealthy, that their clitoral orgasms were “immature” and that they should strive for the more appropriate vaginal orgasms. (Some psychoanalysts even felt that too much female sexual enthusiasm was a sign of dysfunction.) People of color and poor people were diagnosed with anger disorders. Political activists were told that their rage at the system was an inappropriate, immature response. Women and men who were actually dealing with emotional and psychic conditions—from simple depression to schizophrenia—were often shamed, incarcerated, even tortured rather than given help.
By the 1970s this was changing. The radical therapy (RT) movement, as well as writers such as R.D. Laing and Thomas Saaz, were all in revolt against mainstream thinking about psychotherapy and the gay liberation critique and revolt against Socarides and his cohorts was part of this. The power wielded by Bergler, Bieber and Socarides slowly ended. In 1973, in response to gay liberation and a shift to the left in psychiatric and psychoanalytic circles, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) —after a bitter fight—removed homosexuality as a classification of mental illness from the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders ( DSM-II ). The battle was fought not only by gay activists from groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, but by gay men and lesbians in psychoanalytic and therapeutic professions who had come out as gay therapists. The removal of “homosexuality” from DSM-II was a major, and vital, step in changing the status quo. Not only did it alleviate the burden of being considered mentally ill, but it opened the way to massive changes in public policy and law that had always been blocked by the hindrance and humiliation of a medical diagnosis.
B ut bad ideas seldom die. The battle over “curing” homosexuality just changed venues. The idea that homosexuals could be cured—or rather “converted” to heterosexuality—became a fixation of the Christian religious right. In 1973 Love in Action (LIA), relying on the theories of Bieber and Socarides, began to publicize their “conversions” and formed an “ex- gay movement.” In 1976 Exodus International—“the largest Christian referral and information ministry” about homosexuality—started. Other groups in the U.S. and UK followed. These groups promoted homosexuality as being the result of inappropriate sexual and gender identifications in childhood. They argued that “conversion” to heterosexuality would happen through prayer, not psychoanalytic analysis. Not surprisingly the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and nearly every U.S. and European professional health organization have discredited and condemned the work of “ex-gay ministries.” But like their forerunners in the psychiatric establishment, these “ex-gay ministries” are established and often respected bulwarks of institutional homophobia. Because they hide behind the patina of religious belief, the mainstream press is often afraid to criticize them even as gay and lesbian teenagers are forced into these programs by their religious families.
In his early writings on homosexuality Charles Socarides—albeit using increasingly outmoded psychoanalytic theories—seemed to really want to “help” homosexuals. He protested antiquated homophobic laws and pleaded for tolerance, even as he held tightly to his “scientific” theories of sexual development. By the mid-1970s, outcast by the culture and spurned by his profession, he wrote Beyond Sexual Freedom and began a swing further to the right. Gay activists—and anyone who argued that homosexual was a natural variation in human sexuality—were the nefarious enemies of civilization and culture. As the culture became more liberal, Socarides became more politically right-wing, angry, and vitriolic. By 1995, in Homosexuality, A Freedom Too Far, he suggested that because of the rampant acceptance of homosexuality, “The human species will become extinct.” He also endorsed sodomy laws, claimed that gay men were child molesters, complained about films such as The Crying Game , stated that openly gay tutors in Harvard University dorms were “just another form of child abuse,” and that because of increased gay rights “democracy’s in trouble.”
Reading Homosexuality, A Freedom Too Far is a sobering experience. Here is a once well meaning person who is trapped in history, doomed to become hate-filled and wilfully ignorant. What began as misinformed or outdated theories became ugly and hateful. The radical therapy movement of the 1970s, which exists now in different forms and organizations, was a vital and indispensable attack on the deadly and stultifying psychic status of U.S. culture. Socarides (and other conservative psychoanalysts) did not have the will or the ability to respond to these critiques and, rather than change, they essentially died.
Charles Socarides’s life and writings in the last 30 years are a cautionary tale of what happens to people when they refuse to accept the complexity of the world around them, refuse to rethink their deeply held beliefs, and fall into the pit of their own paranoia and bitterness.
Michael Bronski has written numerous articles on gay and lesbian issues for both alternative and mainstream publications. He is the author and co-author of several books including his latest, Pulp Friction (St. Martin’s).
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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