Breeding injustice

By MICHAEL J. AMICO  |  August 10, 2006

Enter gay people, fashionably — and disastrously — on time for once. Progressive scientists no sooner discovered “homosexuality” as a distinct category, than the more eugenically minded among them categorized it as “psychopathic.” And so began the myth of the incomplete homosexual, limp wrist and all, ill-equipped to represent America in any way. As detailed by historian Allan Bérubé, in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women During World War Two (1990), the US Army weeded out gay people based on standards established in 1921 that listed “sexual psychopathy” as one of many “biologically based psychiatric conditions that, through heredity, bad habits, or injury, caused a person to lose the ability to adjust to civilized society.” Military psychiatrists “examined patients’ physiques, analyzed their urine, explored family backgrounds for hereditary evidence or developmental problems, [and] applied a battery of psychological tests.” According to this quack science, homosexuality was inferior and staunchly unpatriotic.

In this environment, gay people couldn’t catch a break. If they didn’t pass for straight, they were liable, in the more extreme instances, to be locked up in institutions and shipped off to be castrated. Sterilization was even considered a benign social-management strategy. As the Human Betterment Foundation put it in 1934, “Sterilization is not a punishment but a protection. It carries no stigma or humiliation. It is a humane measure designed to meet the best interest of all concerned, and for this purpose there is no known measure that can take its place.” There is now. The least conservative opponents of same-sex marriage make allowances for civil unions, which serve the same moral purpose as sterilization did for eugenicists. Civil unions, by creating a separate category for gay people, one that does not sanction their reproduction of children but merely recognizes their rights, have replaced eugenics as a means to keep homosexuals — the “unfit” — away from marriage.

ORDERING MINDS: The term "homosexual" was contrived at a time when scientists were intent on classifying all "mental conditions", as in the 1913 guide charting types of "juvenile mental defectives"
But in American culture, marriage has also been used to police gay people. At the height of the eugenics movement, the overall fear wasn’t that gay people would procreate, since they were predominantly attracted to the same sex, but that they would potentially destroy other people’s marriages by enticing married people into homosexuality. Still, there were some who seemed intent on making babies with straight people and contributing their dirty genes to the general pool, and they had to be monitored. In 1935, eugenic gynecologist Dr. Robert L. Dickinson conducted a study through the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants that aimed to identify “sexual maladjustment” in the population and stem its pollution of society. In 1936, eugenic psychologist Lewis M. Terman administered a personality test to gauge how masculine and feminine people were in order to determine their “fitness” for marriage.

It was also during this period that eugenicists redoubled their efforts to ensure that the “fittest” marriages provided the most morally proper and socially propitious environments in which to raise a family. Here, in what was called “positive eugenics,” — a clever linguistic spin that might have benefited the Third Reich — lie the most striking parallels between old-fashioned eugenics and the rationale to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying today. The right-wing’s position looks a lot like the American Eugenic Society’s 1936 platform: “The quality of the home is … the best existing measure of biological inheritance.”

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Bloody July: In just one month, six different State Supreme Courts have ruled against gay marriage. By Michael Amico

What is eugenics?
According to the second edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, published in 1934, eugenics is “The science that deals with influences … that improve inborn or hereditary qualities in a series of generations of race or breed, esp. of the human race.” In practice, that meant, among other things, seeking legislation to prohibit the “unfit” from marrying. In 1921, for example, New York State considered “An act to amend the domestic relations law, in relation to the prevention of hereditary blindness” that proposed giving judges power not to certify marriage between the blind if “by reason and the nature of such visual defects the children of such marriage might become blind and thereby be a charge upon the public.”