Homosexuality As A Mental Illness

The 1950s was an incredibly controversial, conservative time. People back then were far less open-minded compared to the individuals of today’s modern society. It was a period of conformity, where everyone, except for the straight white male, was subjugated to systematic oppression, the effects of which still linger till today. There were set standards, and any deviation from them was directly or indirectly punished.

        Being gay, for instance, was severely frowned upon, not only by religion but several other institutions as well. Homosexual tendencies were a crime against nature, an abhorrent sin, and in the eyes of many – a mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychological Association that set the standard for the diagnosis of mental disorders, categorized homosexuality as a mental illness. It was only recently, in 1973, that homosexuality was declassified as a pathology.

        The beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, details instances such as this. His long-time partner, Peter Solomon, was forcibly put in a mental institution, to purge him from this gayness. Ginsberg also makes several homoerotic references throughout the piece. The poem was, unsurprising, banned. Prior to its decriminalization, gay men especially faced extreme discrimination and prejudice. They were often institutionalized in asylums without their consent, and were made to undergo treatment – conversion therapy, which encompassed various inhumane, pseudoscientific practices with the goal to reverse their orientation, and transform them, make them ‘normal’. Gay conversion camps were astoundingly common. A few still exist today. Below are but a few methods practitioners used to “fix” homosexuality.

Aversion therapy

Do you remember A Clockwork Orange, where Alex, the teenage “ultra-violence” enthusiast was conditioned to feel physically ill at any instance of violence? He was strapped to a chair and given a pill that induced a range of uncomfortable symptoms while being forced to watch violent videos while Beethoven compositions were played in the background. As a consequence of this, for a while at least, he became deathly ill at any occurrence of brutality, or whenever he heard Beethoven and was temporarily cured of his anti-social ways.

Or do you remember that episode of South Park, where a chip was inserted into Cartman, which administered an electric shock every time he swore? This too worked for a while, but naturally, the foul-mouthed child found his way around the situation.

Unfortunately, such callous treatments aren’t just used in works of fiction. Aversion therapy back in the day was primarily used to “cure” a person of their homosexuality. Essentially, this type of therapy follows the principle of classical conditioning. It and involves subjecting an individual to a particular stimulus while being simultaneously subjugated to feelings of extreme discomfort. Later, when the same person is exposed to similar stimuli, it brings about previously conditioned feelings of discomfort.

Individuals of the homosexual persuasion, just like Alex and Cartman, were either given electric shocks, sometimes even to their genitalia, or nausea-inducing pills while at the same time were exposed to same-sex erotica. Any act of homosexuality, after this “treatment”, would bring out a similar feeling of discomfort, thereby, creating an aversion for the attraction toward the same sex.

The problem with this treatment, apart from it being insanely cruel, was that it hardly ever worked or brought about an enduring change. People still reported instances of same-sex attraction even after therapy. Only now, they were more ashamed, depressed and anxiety-riddled than before. Perhaps, aversion therapy is best left to the books and movies.

Electroconvulsive therapy

To continue on the tangent of inhumane practices, Electroconvulsive therapy was also a very common treatment for homosexuality, because what can be a more effective method to rid a person of their same-sex attractions than artificially inducing a seizure by passing electric currents through their brain, that bring about permanent changes to their brain chemistry?


Imagine having a surgeon shove an ice pick-like instrument into your eye sockets to scrape away areas of the prefrontal cortex of your brain. This would be, at the least, quite a horrendous experience.  Lobotomies, more often than not resulted in irreversible brain damage and behavioral changes, and often left the subject in an unresponsive vegetative state, unable to move, speak or take care of themselves. But hey, at least they weren’t gay anymore.


Non-consensual castrations were also a very popular method of treatment. Chemical castrations were far more common than outright genital mutilation.  Alan Turing, for example, who played a pivotal role in cracking the Enigma code during the Second World War, lost his job working for the government and was forcibly chemically castrated because of his sexual orientation. This eventually led him to take his own life. This type of castration involves the use of antaphrodisiac drugs to reduce or suppress one’s libido or sex drive, and can lead to an increased risk of developing a range of diseases, and sometimes results in Gynecomastia in men.

Pray The Gay Away

Homosexuality has been condemned by religion for eons now. Gay conversion camps were and still are, offered by a number of religious institutions, where attempts are literally made to pray the gay away. Interventions were held, scriptures were read, and religious books were used to reinforce how much of a sin homosexuality was. Often, exorcisms were performed by pastors and other religious leaders, as they believed that gay men and women were possessed by a homosexual spirit.

Close Opposite-Sex Interactions

Several psychiatrists believed that if gay men forced themselves to be intimately involved with a woman, their sexual orientation would be reversed. They often persuaded these men to go on dates with women, sometimes the nurses of the institutions they were admitted in. Some psychiatrists even prescribed trips to brothels as a cure. This was, however, a treatment restricted only to men, Women were only allowed to engage in sexual activity with their husbands.

Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy was widely practiced during the first half of the 20th century. But pushback, especially during the 1960s and 70s by social activists led to the criminalization such activities that were used to “convert” gay people, coercing them to conform to standards of society. This resulted in driving such methods underground, and eventually dying out, but not completely. Homosexuality is still surrounded by an aura of stigma, and considered to be unnatural and repugnant by many, and is still illegal in several countries across the world. Conversion therapy, mostly advocated by religious groups, is still conducted on the down low, despite its controversy and lack or scientific evidence. Such practices absolutely do not change the sexuality of a gay man or woman, but instead, force them to repress their natural and completely valid tendencies, resulting in feelings of shame, confusion, depression, and anxiety, as well as low self-esteem and a shaky, unclear self-concept.

The author of the article is Potus.

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