Dr. Strangelove

The man who wanted to "cure" homosexuality succumbs to a lifetime of controversy
By MICHAEL BRONSKI  |  January 18, 2006

On December 25, Dr. Charles W. Socarides, one of the last of the old-school scourges of the gay community, died at the age of 83 in New York. A popular guest on television and radio talk shows in the 1960s, Socarides is today remembered only by a small number of conservative psychoanalysts and aging gay liberationists who — after the birth of the modern gay-rights movement in 1969 — vehemently, and effectively, protested his view that homosexuality was a mental disorder that, with proper treatment, could be overcome.

DR. CHARLES W. SOCARIDES: A once smart, well-meaning man doomed to become hate-filled and willfully ignorant.Born in 1922 in Brockton, and educated at Harvard and New York Medical College, Socarides was, by the mid 1950s, a leader in New York psychoanalytic circles and an "expert" on the causes of and cures for homosexuality. Psychoanalysts never viewed same-sex desire as "normal" or healthy, since they argued that it is the result of inappropriate sexual and gender identifications in childhood. But from the field’s beginnings in early-19th-century Vienna, analysts’ attitudes toward homosexuality ranged widely, with some (including Freud, in some writings) regarding it as merely a small impediment to a full life. The concept of "curing" it, however, was a distinctly post-war, and mainly American, invention that found its strongest polemicists in Drs. Edmund Bergler and Irving Bieber, and Socarides — who was the last of the nefarious triumvirate to pass away.

As the social confusions of the post-war 1950s careered into the more openly sexual 1960s, Bergler, Bieber, and Socarides all became important, media-savvy "experts" on maintaining the traditional sexual status quo. They were against divorce, permissive child care, assertive female sexuality, and any deviation from a strictly defined heterosexual norm. All three came under continual criticism by the Mattachine Review and the Ladder, early homophile-movement publications, for advancing ideas detrimental to the mental heath of gay people. On June 28, 1968 — one year to the day before the Stonewall Riots that ignited the gay-liberation movement — Socarides published The Overt Homosexual, which catapulted him to a position of prominence in the ’60s culture wars. Promoted as "the first comprehensive and authoritative psychoanalytic study by a single author of both male and female homosexuality," the book garnered some positive reviews, but it was harshly condemned by homophile activists as yet another baseless, unscientific attack on homosexuals. By the time gay liberation went into high gear the following year, Socarides, who had grown extremely vocal, was singled out as the most pernicious and dangerous of the movement’s three psychoanalytic enemies.

In 1973, in response to gay liberation and a shift to the left in psychiatric circles, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) — after a prolonged bitter and divisive fight — removed homosexuality as a classification of mental illness from the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM — II). Although the cultural tide had changed, Bieber and Socarides (Bergler had died in 1963) — who, rather than examine the actual lives of gay men and women, simply insisted on the truth of their abstract developmental theory — continued to pathologize homosexuality. Until his death in 1991 Bieber persisted in arguing that homosexuality was a mental disorder that could be "cured," as did Socarides, who, in 1995 at the age of 73, published Homosexuality, A Freedom Too Far.

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