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On December 25, Dr. Charles W. Socarides, one of the last of the old-school scourges of the gay community, died at the age of 83 in New York. A popular guest on television and radio talk shows in the 1960s, Socarides is today remembered only by a small number of conservative psychoanalysts and aging gay liberationists who — after the birth of the modern gay-rights movement in 1969 — vehemently, and effectively, protested his view that homosexuality was a mental disorder that, with proper treatment, could be overcome.
Born in 1922 in Brockton, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard and New York Medical College, Socarides was, by the mid 1950s, a leader in New York psychoanalytic circles and an "expert" on the causes of and cures for homosexuality. Psychoanalysts never viewed same-sex desire as "normal" or healthy, since they argued that it is the result of inappropriate sexual and gender identifications in childhood. But from the field’s beginnings in early-19th-century Vienna, analysts’ attitudes toward homosexuality ranged widely, with some (including Freud, in some writings) regarding it as merely a small impediment to a full life. The concept of "curing" it, however, was a distinctly post-war, and mainly American, invention that found its strongest polemicists in Drs. Edmund Bergler and Irving Bieber, and Socarides — who was the last of the nefarious triumvirate to pass away.
As the social confusions of the post-war 1950s careered into the more openly sexual 1960s, Bergler, Bieber, and Socarides all became important, media-savvy "experts" on maintaining the traditional sexual status quo. They were against divorce, permissive child care, assertive female sexuality, and any deviation from a strictly defined heterosexual norm. All three came under continual criticism by the Mattachine Review and the Ladder, early homophile-movement publications, for advancing ideas detrimental to the mental heath of gay people. On June 28, 1968 — one year to the day before the Stonewall Riots that ignited the gay-liberation movement — Socarides published The Overt Homosexual, which catapulted him to a position of prominence in the ’60s culture wars. Promoted as "the first comprehensive and authoritative psychoanalytic study by a single author of both male and female homosexuality," the book garnered some positive reviews, but it was harshly condemned by homophile activists as yet another baseless, unscientific attack on homosexuals. By the time gay liberation went into high gear the following year, Socarides, who had grown extremely vocal, was singled out as the most pernicious and dangerous of the movement’s three psychoanalytic enemies.
In 1973, in response to gay liberation and a shift to the left in psychiatric circles, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) — after a prolonged bitter and divisive fight — removed homosexuality as a classification of mental illness from the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM — II). Although the cultural tide had changed, Bieber and Socarides (Bergler had died in 1963) — who, rather than examine the actual lives of gay men and women, simply insisted on the truth of their abstract developmental theory — continued to pathologize homosexuality. Until his death in 1991 Bieber persisted in arguing that homosexuality was a mental disorder that could be "cured," as did Socarides, who, in 1995 at the age of 73, published Homosexuality, A Freedom Too Far.
In 1973 Socarides and his cohorts had lost the professional war over homosexuality. But bad ideas seldom die, and the battle over "curing" homosexuality simply changed venues: now the idea that gay people 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, gave birth to the "ex-gay movement." In 1976 Exodus International — "the largest Christian referral and information ministry" about homosexuality — started and other groups in the US and UK followed. These groups promoted therapies based on Bergler’s, Bieber’s, and Socarides’s precepts, but argued that "conversion" to heterosexuality would happen through prayer, not psychoanalysis. Not surprisingly, nearly every American and European professional health organization has discredited and condemned the work of "ex-gay ministries."
Historically, psychoanalysis was the scientific rebuttal to religious models of human motivation and behavior. Indeed, because Freud and many of his immediate successors were Jewish, it was commonly labeled "the Jewish science." How ironic, then, that as American culture has become increasingly accepting of gay people, the more conservative aspects of "the Jewish science" has become the basis for a bilious form of repressive Christian theology and a cornerstone in the right’s persistent war against gay people.
Yet more irony can be mined from this tale. It is clear in his early writings that Socarides — his outmoded psychoanalytic theories notwithstanding — originally wanted to help homosexuals. He protested antiquated homophobic laws and pleaded for tolerance, even as he held tightly to his "scientific" theories of psycho-sexual development. But by the mid 1970s, outcast by the culture and spurned by his profession, he had swung to the right. Now, anyone who argued that homosexuality was a natural variation in human sexuality became 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 was suggesting 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 placing openly gay tutors in Harvard dorms was "just another form of child abuse," and that because of increased gay rights "democracy’s in trouble." The book is an ugly recitation of every far-right calumny against gay people.
But reading through Socarides’s work is also a sobering, deeply sad experience. Here is a once smart, well-meaning man trapped in history — doomed to become hate-filled and willfully ignorant. Charles Socarides’s life and writings over the past 30 years not only vindicate the hard work of ’70s-era gay liberationists, but offer a cautionary tale about what happens when well-meaning people 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, the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin's Press, 2004), can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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