In 1973 Socarides and his cohorts had lost the professional war over homosexuality. But bad ideas seldom die, and the battle over "curing" homosexuality simply changed venues: now the idea that gay people could be cured — or rather "converted" to heterosexuality — became a fixation of the Christian religious right. In 1973 Love in Action (LIA), relying on the theories of Bieber and Socarides, gave birth to the "ex-gay movement." In 1976 Exodus International — "the largest Christian referral and information ministry" about homosexuality — started and other groups in the US and UK followed. These groups promoted therapies based on Bergler’s, Bieber’s, and Socarides’s precepts, but argued that "conversion" to heterosexuality would happen through prayer, not psychoanalysis. Not surprisingly, nearly every American and European professional health organization has discredited and condemned the work of "ex-gay ministries."
Historically, psychoanalysis was the scientific rebuttal to religious models of human motivation and behavior. Indeed, because Freud and many of his immediate successors were Jewish, it was commonly labeled "the Jewish science." How ironic, then, that as American culture has become increasingly accepting of gay people, the more conservative aspects of "the Jewish science" has become the basis for a bilious form of repressive Christian theology and a cornerstone in the right’s persistent war against gay people.
Yet more irony can be mined from this tale. It is clear in his early writings that Socarides — his outmoded psychoanalytic theories notwithstanding — originally wanted to help homosexuals. He protested antiquated homophobic laws and pleaded for tolerance, even as he held tightly to his "scientific" theories of psycho-sexual development. But by the mid 1970s, outcast by the culture and spurned by his profession, he had swung to the right. Now, anyone who argued that homosexuality was a natural variation in human sexuality became enemies of civilization and culture. As the culture became more liberal, Socarides became more politically right-wing, angry, and vitriolic. By 1995, in Homosexuality, A Freedom Too Far, he was suggesting that because of the rampant acceptance of homosexuality "the human species will become extinct." He also endorsed sodomy laws, claimed that gay men were child molesters, complained about films such as The Crying Game, stated that placing openly gay tutors in Harvard dorms was "just another form of child abuse," and that because of increased gay rights "democracy’s in trouble." The book is an ugly recitation of every far-right calumny against gay people.
But reading through Socarides’s work is also a sobering, deeply sad experience. Here is a once smart, well-meaning man trapped in history — doomed to become hate-filled and willfully ignorant. Charles Socarides’s life and writings over the past 30 years not only vindicate the hard work of ’70s-era gay liberationists, but offer a cautionary tale about what happens when well-meaning people refuse to accept the complexity of the world around them, refuse to rethink their deeply held beliefs, and fall into the pit of their own paranoia and bitterness.
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Michael Bronski: firstname.lastname@example.org