Analysis This




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









As
the decade progressed Bergler, Bieber, and Socarides all became
important media “experts” for maintaining the traditional
sexual status quo. They were against divorce, permissive parenting,
assertive female sexuality, and any deviation from strict heterosexual
norms. They inveighed vociferously against the unstoppable social
and sexual freedoms of the 1960s. 


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. 








Although
the cultural tide had changed, Bieber and Socarides (Bergler died
in 1963) felt that the science of psychoanalysis had been hijacked
by left-wing, social change politics and continued pathologizing
homosexuality. Up until his death in 1991 Bieber persisted in arguing
that homosexuality was a mental disorder and could be cured. Socarides
continued publishing books advocating a “cure” for homosexuality
and warned against the dangers of the women’s and gay rights’
movements. In 1995, at the age of 73, he published

Homosexuality,
A Freedom Too Far: A Psychoanalyst Answers 1,000 Questions About
Causes and Cure and the Impact of the Gay Rights Move- ment on American
Society




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).