Joseph Nicolosi wasn’t the first therapist to try to ‘cure’ homosexuality

Joseph Nicolosi wasn’t the first therapist to try to ‘cure’ homosexuality
Protesters demonstrate outside a gathering for the National Association For Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2013. Photo: DAVID CRARY, AP
“You should never say bad things when someone dies, only good things. Joan Crawford’s dead….Good.”
— Betty Davis

An essential element of liberty is the freedom to define oneself. One of the chief violators of this principle, Joseph Nicolosi, died recently at age 70.

Nicolosi established and promoted so-called “reparative therapy” (a.k.a. conversion therapy). As a psychologist and a co-founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Nicolosi advanced his belief that people drawn sexually to their own sex can and should change to heterosexuality in the process of “therapy.” He enumerated his theories about human sexuality in his highly controversial and contested book Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach.

Most reputable mental health associations have opposed and declared “reparative therapy” not only as ineffective, but as psychologically destructive and dangerous: from the Academy of Pediatrics and American School Counseling Association to the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and National Association of Social Workers, among many others.

Five states have already outlawed “reparative therapy:” California, Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Setting the Context

From the so-called “Eugenics Movement” of the mid-nineteenth century though the twentieth century and beyond, medical and psychological professions have often proposed and addressed, in starkly medical terms, the alleged “deficiencies,” “mental diseases,” and even “physical” differences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people compared to heterosexual and cisgender people.

During what has come to be known as the “Eugenics” movement in science (coined by Francis Galton in England in 1883 from the Greek word meaning “well born” or “of good origins or breeding” in which the socially constructed hierarchical concept of “race” was codified), some members of the scientific community viewed people attracted to their own sex as constituting a distinct biological or racial type — those who could be distinguished from “normal” people through anatomical markers.

For example, Dr. G. Frank Lydston, a urologist, surgeon, and professor from Chicago, in 1889 delivered a lecture titled “Sexual Perversion” at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago in which he referred to homosexuals as “sexual perverts” who are “physically abnormal.”

“…the unfortunate class of individuals who are characterized by perverted sexuality have been viewed in the light of their moral responsibility rather than as the victims of a physical and incidentally of a mental defect…. Even to the moralist there should be much satisfaction in the thought that a large class of sexual perverts are physically abnormal rather than morally leprous.”

Also, the American medical doctor, Allan McLane Hamilton, wrote in 1896 in his article “The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts, in the American Journal of Insanity:

“The [female homosexual] is usually of a masculine type, or if she presented none of the ‘characteristics’ of the male, was a subject of pelvic disorder, with scanty menstruation, and was more or less hysterical and insane.”

Physician Perry M. Lichtenstein published in his 1921 medical journal article “The Fairy and the Lady Lover,” that: “A physical examination of [female homosexuals] will in practically every instance disclose an abnormally prominent clitoris,” and that the “fairy” is a “freak of nature who in every way attempts to imitate women.”

And in 1857 in France, the physician August Ambroise Tardieu wrote in his book Medico-Legal Attacks on Morals that:

“This degeneracy is evidenced in men who engage in same-sex eroticism by their underdeveloped, tapered penis resembling that of a dog, and a naturally smooth anus lacking in radial folds.”

In addition, rather than considering homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender non-conformity merely as emotional, gender, and sexual differences along a broad spectrum of human potential, some sectors of the medical and psychological communities force pathologizing language onto people with same-sex and all-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender identities and expression.

Dr. Sigmund Freud, for example, saw homosexuality as a developmental disorder, a fixation at one of the intermediate “pregenital” stages. He believed this was caused, at least in part, by an incomplete resolution in males of the Oedipal complex.

The Swiss physician August Forel wrote in his 1905 book The Sexual Issue:

“The [sexual] excesses of female inverts [homosexuals] exceed those of the male…and this is their one thought night and day, almost without interruption. [Male inverts] feel the need for passive submission…and occupy themselves with feminine pursuits. Nearly all [female and male] inverts are in a more or less marked degree psychopaths or neurotics.”

Educational opportunities for primarily middle-class women improved somewhat during mid-19th century in the United States. Often locked out of institutions of higher learning, they founded several women’s colleges such as Mt. Holyoke College, Vassar College, Smith College, Wellesley College, and Bryn Mawr.

There were, however, many conservative critics who attacked this new trend, warning that educated women would be unfit to fill traditional roles in society, and others, like Dr. Edward Clarke, in his 1873 article, “Sex in Education or A Fair Chance for the Girls,” warned that study would interfere with women’s fertility, causing them chronic uterine disease.

And Dr. Havelock Ellis, in Psychology of Sex, concluded:

“Women’s colleges are the great breeding ground of lesbianism. When young women are thrown together, they manifest an increasing affection by the usual tokens. They kiss each other fondly on every occasion…They learn the pleasure of direct contact…and after this, the normal sex act fails to satisfy them.”

Ellis posited that female homosexuality was increasing because of the rise of feminism, which taught women to be independent of men.

This context has resulted in members of the medical professions committing lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, and those who transgress so-called “normative” gender identities and expressions, often against their will, into hospitals, mental institutions, jails, and penitentiaries and forcing pre-frontal lobotomies, electroshock, castration, and sterilization. We have been made to endure “aversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” “Christian counseling,” and genetic counseling.

The first Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) (the American Psychiatric Association-sponsored and endorsed handbook of mental disorders) published in 1952 listed homosexuality, for example, as “Sociopathic Personality Disorder.” The “updated” 1968 DSM-II described homosexuality as “Sexual Orientation Disorder (SOD).”

The physician Irving Bieber co-authored a study in 1962, “Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals” sponsored by the New York Society of Psychoanalysts, in which he concluded that homosexuality constituted a psychopathology that could be cured or prevented with psychoanalysis. Bieber later said in an interview in the New York Times, Dec. 23, 1973:

“A homosexual is a person whose heterosexual function is crippled, like the legs of a polio victim.”

In addition, the psychiatrist Charles Socarides, another co-founder of NARTH, argued that homosexuality is an illness, a neurosis, possibly caused by an over-attachment to the mother, which he too argued could be treated. Bieber and Socrarides became the “authoritative” and often-referenced researchers in the area of causation and “treatment” of homosexuality.

(As a side note, Socarides’ son Richard came out as gay and served as a White House counselor and principle advisor on LGBT rights to President Bill Clinton.)

By 1973, the American Psychiatric Association had finally changed its designation of homosexuality for those comfortable with their sexual orientation, now asserting that it does not constitute a disorder.

Two years later, in 1975, the American Psychological Association followed suit and urged mental health professionals “to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.” It declared:

“[H]omosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities.”

The American Psychiatric Association, in its DSM-V, changed the diagnosis of “gender identity disorder,” which the manual imposed upon transgender people since it published DSM-III in 1980, to the designation, “gender dysphoria,” which APA considers as a descriptive term rather than as diagnostic and pathologizing one.

In the case of LGBTQ people, the scientific community has consistently deployed the “medical model” to investigate and pathologize the “other.” In so doing, heteronormativity and cissupremacy (oppression and colonization against trans people), therefore, became perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” unquestioned hegemonic norms against which all others are judged.

Heterosexual and cisgender norms have justified and explained away the otherwise unacceptable persecution and oppression of non-conforming sexual and gender identity groups, while evading issues of domination, privilege, subordination, and marginalization. This “medicalization” of homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender non-conformity only serves to strengthen oppression and heterosexual and cisgender privilege through its relative invisibility.

Given this invisibility, issues of oppression and privilege are neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted by members of the dominant group. But we have taken back the discourse and proudly assert again and again that “an essential element of liberty is the freedom to define oneself.”

The death of Nicolosi signifies, at the very least, that we have reached the middle of the end of externalized definitions of our bodies and our identities.

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