How Society Treated Male Homosexuality.
Traditionally in this country what the church said was a sin the state said was a crime and it was not to be until 1967 that partial decriminalisation took place. Until the age of 24 I was regarded as a criminal for the dastardly crime of falling in love with somebody of the same sex. But I was also regarded as suffering from a mental illness and it was not to be until 1992 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder and another decade before male homosexuals were to come anywhere near legal equality; and another couple before same sex marriage was legalised. Societal attitudes towards homosexuality can still be discriminatory and young people can suffer great mental stress in seeking to come to terms with it.
Historically its being a crime meant that you could be locked up for it. And many were.Many fell victim to blackmailers -the law having been accurately described as a blackmailers charter. Faced with this many committed suicide . Others married in a desperate bid to hide their homosexuality and often in the mistaken belief that their true nature could be changed. Of course it could not and wives also became victims and families still suffer from the consequences
The fact that homosexuality was regarded as a mental disorder meant that the medical professionals too thought that homosexuality could be ‘cured’ and homosexuals converted. Of course they could not and great psychological harm – and worse – was done. Sometimes people were referred for treatment by the courts instead of being sent to Jail. That must have seemed like a humanitarian alternative at the time – and their was widespread belief in the effectiveness of treatment being by the administration of drugs to lower or destroy libido, the use of electric aversion therapy, whereby victims were shown pictures of naked men and administered a shock and perhaps emitics, and then pictures of naked women when no such treatment was offered. But the treatment – apart from not working – perhaps from destroying the patients interest in sex altogether, could have worse consequences. In 1952 Alan Turing killed himself after having agreed to be chemically castrated as an alternative to prison. In 1962, Army Captain Billy Clegg Hill died during medically supervised aversion therapy, seen as an alternative to a prison sentence carried out by medics who believed that homosexuality was disease and could therefore be cured. In effect, Billy had been murdered by the state and officialdom hid the crime for several decades.
But not everyone who went for ‘treatment’ went as an alternative to prison. Many referred themselves because they could not face up to societal hostility. Others were referred by their families in a doomed attempt to ‘cure’ them. When, inevitably, this failed many blamed themselves for ‘failing’ to respond and committed suicide or lived with the detrimental effects for the rest of their lives. Even though treatment had tended to become based on talk rather than the administration of electric shocks, chemical treatment actually peaked in the years after partial decriminalisation. Societies attitude had partly shifted from condemnatory to pity for these poor people who could never find happiness. And of course there still were, and still are those religious bigots who thought that they could “Pray the gay away. They were of course similarly doomed to failure; and caused as much harm . Self-hatred is NOT therapy!
Acknowledgement by the Royal College of Psychiatrists that past ‘treatments’ caused harm.
But times change, and although we cannot change the course of history, we can acknowledge historical mistakes, learn from them and apologise to the victims. We should do what little we can to ameliorate their effect and above all make certain that they are not repeated. To their credit, last October the Royal College of Psychiatrists apologised for their past mistakes. The President of the College, Professor Wendy Burn, said “There are no words that can repair the damage done to anyone who has ever been deemed ‘mentally unwell’ simply for loving somebody of the same sex. For those who were then ‘treated’ using non-evidence based procedures by mental health professionals up until as late as the late 1970’s, the trauma of such experiences can never be erased. We cannot rewrite history but we can make it clear that today, principles of equality and diversity will be passionately upheld; homosexuality is not a disorder and should not be treated. ”
All of which can only be of limited comfort to those who survived this state-sponsored torture arising out of bigotry and prejudice. Many of the procedures were carried out by NHS staff and it was the courts who sentenced them. The British Government was complicit and should apologise to the victims and their families. They can admit past mistakes,
which must not be repeated. All forms of so-called Conversion Therapy should be banned. It has never worked, but has destroyed lives. Ban it now!