A conference was held yesterday (Tuesday 14 April) in London about ‘gay conversion therapy’. Its organisers included various ‘christian’ groups; it was reported in the Independent (here), Guardian (here) and Daily Telegraph (here). Parts of the meeting were closed to the press, to allow private discussion. One of the organisers’ concerns was that any opposition to their motives curtailed their ‘religious freedoms’.
The recent history of homosexuality in the UK has seen remarkable changes, particularly in the last few decades. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was a response to the ‘revelations’ by the yellow journalist WT Stead of the widespread—and very largely imaginary—‘white slave trade’, a classical ‘moral panic’. The Act raised the age of consent from 13 to 16. Almost unnoticed, an amendment to criminalise homosexuality as ‘gross indecency’ was introduced. This ‘blackmailers charter’ was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and very many others.
Heterosexual and homosexual (from the Greek for ‘same’, not the Latin for ‘male’) were terms first used in the late 19th century by Kraft-Ebbing, with notions of sexuality being later advanced by Freud. His response to a worried mother in the 1930s describes his thoughts then:
I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual…it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies, which are present in every homosexual; in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 in Britain, though much later in N Ireland. Despite Freud’s message, conversion therapy has been attempted to convert ‘abnormality’ to ‘normality’, from ‘unnatural’ to ‘natural’. Turing escaped jail by agreeing to hormonal therapy; it seems to have made him so miserable that in the end he took his own life.
The simplistic idea that things can be divided in a binary, either or, fashion goes back to the ancient Greeks. Even they had problems with it; the Pythagoreans were very disconcerted by numbers that weren’t ‘real’ and whole—the diagonal of a square of side 1 is √2. Sexuality likewise isn’t a matter of exclusively homo- or heterosexual; many people have traits in-between the extremes. And some people can switch quite dramatically between extremes; think of John Maynard Keynes, once exclusively, rampantly homosexual, then an uxorious husband to a Russian ballerina.
What then is ‘normal’? In medical, statistical terms is is that area under the normal distribution curve within ± 2 standard deviations from the mean, roughly 95% of the total. We recognise though, that values inside these limits may be abnormal, and values outside them may normal. In common usage, ‘normal’ probably means what is commonly, ordinarily done, something done by the majority. Is then an activity done by a minority ‘abnormal’? (Does that make the great artists, clearly in the minority, ‘abnormal’?) And is homosexuality only something that humans do? Well no, homosexual activity has been described in very many mammalian species, as well as in birds and fish. What does that mean?
And why is heterosexuality ‘natural’? There are no easy answers, really only the reverse; that lying with another man is ‘abomination’ as is beard trimming, being tattooed and wearing mixed fabrics. Prescriptive certainly, but not very enlightening.
Medicine, alas, doesn’t have an unblemished record with homosexuality. It was, until around a quarter of a century ago classified as a ‘mental disorder’, a disease, an illness—one comical result of this was that, so it’s said, that Swedish men who fancied some time off work would call in saying that they ‘felt ill, felt a little gay’. So it’s unsurprising that there was medical support at one time for conversion therapies, whether hormonal, electrical or talking. Equally unsurprisingly, they didn’t work. The consensus today between psychiatrists, therapists and others is that conversion therapy is unwise, unethical and harmful.
A medical view point, you say; indeed, it is. Now, explain why sex, and a sexual inclination, is so obsessively important to a belief in a God, and not just any sex, but the right, normal, natural kind of sex. The production of virgins, those purest of all? Better still, why not chastity, purity, remaining ‘uncontaminated’, ‘unfallen’ from a state of grace? The biologist answers to say that this is utter bilge, garbage; that celibacy is totally abnormal; and even Abraham Maslow, the managerial theorist, agreed at his most basic level.
What then of ‘religious freedom’ that is complained of? Firstly, we should ask in what way is sexuality a matter for mainstream religion? Why does the orientation of an individual who believes in the fundamentals of Christianity—love, tolerance, compassion, mercy and forgiveness—matter so much that there are those who would seek to change it? Are some of us still in thrall to the maniacal, utterly, grotesquely repressed ideas of the early doctors of the Church? And why are some parts of your meeting held in secret? What have you got to hide? You are at perfect liberty to spout your false, poisonous rubbish, as much as I am to refute it; but you have no freedom to expect that you can manipulate the confused, the concerned, the unhappy to your rigidly formulated ways of thinking.
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.