During the 1950s and 1960s, debates over the legality and morality of homosexuality drove gay men and doctors to desperate and dangerous measures in their search for a ‘cure’, writes John-Pierre Joyce.
On the evening of September 5th, 1957 viewers in ITV’s Granada (North-west) and Rediffusion (London) regions were presented with an unusual spectacle. An anonymous doctor, seated in shadow, his back to the camera, admitted on live television to being a homosexual. When asked if he would prefer to be ‘normal’, the doctor responded: ‘Oh yes, I would. If there was a guaranteed cure – a hope – that I could become an ordinary normal person I would certainly welcome it. I think all homosexuals would like to be cured.’
The doctor’s comments reflected the attitudes of the medical profession towards homosexuality in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The programme – broadcast at 10:30pm and preceded by a warning about its controversial nature – was a discussion and debate about the Wolfenden Report, which had been published that day. The report was the result of a three-year investigation by a Home and Scottish Office-appointed committee chaired by John Wolfenden into the twin ‘problems’ of homosexuality and prostitution. While proposing tighter controls on street prostitution, it recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21.
The Wolfenden Committee also pondered the vexed question of whether or not homosexuality was a sickness or disease. To this end, it examined the views of a wide range of medical witnesses, including representatives of the British Medical Association, the British Psychological Society and two of the Wolfenden Committee’s own members, Desmond Curran and Joseph Whitby.
Ultimately, the committee decided that ‘the evidence put before us has not established to our satisfaction the proposition that homosexuality is a disease’. Citing the large-scale research undertaken by Alfred Kinsey in the US in the late 1940s, it acknowledged that homosexual tendencies could be present in most people in the course of their lifetime. This, the final report stated, ‘leads to the conclusion that homosexuals cannot reasonably be regarded as quite separate from the rest of mankind’. The committee also cast doubt on the claims of doctors to be able to ‘cure’ or reverse homosexuality. In a damning paragraph on therapeutic treatment, the report noted:
We were struck by the fact that none of our medical witnesses were able … to provide any reference in medical literature to a complete change of this kind. Our evidence leads us to the conclusion that a total reorientation from complete homosexuality to complete heterosexuality is very unlikely indeed.
Yet, despite these conclusions, doctors and gay men themselves continued to seek cures for homosexuality. There were three main reasons for this. First, all homosexual acts were a crime, at least until 1967. For many gay men, unable to form relationships in a punitive legal climate, or who risked prosecution, imprisonment, social shame, loss of career and even the break-up of marriages and families, the attractions of a cure were strong. Tony Kildwick, for example, married in the late 1950s but soon turned to his doctor for help: ‘I went to him and I said, “Now look, I get no sexual satisfaction at all in my married life. I still have these male fantasies. Do you think I’m homosexual?”’ Eventually, the psychiatrist concluded that Kildwick was homosexual and recommended treatment.
Hostile and disapproving public attitudes towards homosexuality during the 1950s and 60s also compelled many men to try to turn ‘normal’, either through marriage or medical treatment. Parents, too, feared that their children might become ‘queer’. One listener from Essex wrote to the ‘You Ask For It’ advice slot on BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour in July 1958:
Am I right in thinking that homosexuality is inborn in a small percentage of individuals? Is it inevitable? Is there a modern ‘miracle drug’ that works? Can it be discovered early enough for something to be done?
The guest psychiatrist, Clifford Allen, who had given evidence to Wolfenden, gave reassuring advice:
It can sometimes be cured, not by magic drugs, but by painstaking psychological treatment. Naturally, like other diseases, the earlier it is treated, the more likely it is to respond.
As Allen’s comments showed, the medical profession was undecided as to whether or not homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured. In an editorial on the Wolfenden Report in September 1957, The Lancet lamented that:
The claim of doctors to be heard on homosexuality is weakened by deep divisions of opinion within the profession. To the psychiatric wing, homosexuality is a medical disorder, but at the opposite extreme there are doctors to whom homosexual behaviour is the abominable offence – in the realm of morals not medicine.
The Wolfenden Report advocated research into the origins of homosexuality and the effects of treatment. It recommended lifting the ban on oestrogen treatment for prisoners in England and Wales (it was still permitted in Scotland) in order to curb their sexual behaviour and so ‘reduce the number of homosexual offences and offenders’.
By the late 1950s, however, the belief that homosexuality could be controlled with female hormones was largely discredited. As Eustace Chesser (another medical witness for the Wolfenden Committee) pointed out in 1959, ‘it is possible to reduce sexual desire but not to change its direction by these means’. W. Lindesay Neustatter also noted in the Medico-Legal Journal in 1961 that injecting homosexuals with male hormones such as testosterone in a bid to reorient their sexual desires towards women also had ‘no curative effect’ and, indeed, increased ‘the inverted drive’. Such views led to the abandonment of treatment by means of hormone injections, which had been prescribed for the mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing as a condition of his probation order, following his conviction for gross indecency in 1952.
Doctors turned instead to increasingly fashionable behaviour therapy. The theory behind it was simple. Homosexuality, explained Clifford Allen in his 1958 book Homosexuality: Its Nature, Causation and Treatment, was the result of either hostility to the mother or father, or else excessive affection for one or other parent during infancy and childhood. The homosexual, he argued, ‘must be made to realise that he is not irrevocably homosexual, but has drifted into such behaviour’. Curing the fear of the female or fixation with the male was just a matter of emotional re-education; learning to be straight and unlearning to be gay. This could be achieved through either lengthy psychoanalysis or short-term (and cheaper) courses of ‘aversive conditioning’.
Early forms of aversion therapy had been developed in the United States in the 1940s to treat alcoholism and by the early 1960s it was being used in Britain to treat homosexuality. One of its earliest exponents was Basil James, who described the treatment of a 40-year-old man at Glenside Hospital, Bristol, in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in March 1962:
The treatment was carried out in a darkened single room and during this time no food or drink was allowed. At regular two-hour intervals he was given an emetic dose of apomorphine by injections followed by 2 oz of brandy. On each occasion when nausea was felt, a strong light was shone on a large piece of card on which were pasted several photographs of nude or near-nude men. Thereafter a tape was played twice over every two hours during the period of nausea. This began with an explanation of his homosexual attraction along the lines of father-deprivation. The adverse effect of this on him and its consequent social repercussions was then described in slow and graphic terms ending with words such as ‘sickening’, ‘nauseating’, etc., followed by the noise of someone vomiting.
After 24 hours the treatment was started again and the following night the patient was woken up every two hours and made to listen to a record which congratulated him on what he was doing and explained what would happen if his homosexuality was reversed. On the third, fourth and fifth days of treatment, ‘positive conditioning’ was introduced. This time, a card was placed in the patient’s room with ‘carefully selected photographs of sexually attractive young women’ pasted onto it. Each morning the patient was injected with testosterone and told to go to his room ‘when he felt any sexual excitement’. There, he was given a record-player and records of ‘a female vocalist whose performance is generally recognised as “sexy”’.
Basil claimed success. In a follow-up letter to the BMJ he reported that the patient ‘has had no recurrence of his homosexual drives’ and was now ‘courting’ a woman. He did, though, concede that the man’s ‘considerable physical satisfaction’ with his girlfriend did not have ‘the same emotional component as his homosexual experiences’ and he ‘occasionally found himself admiring pretty boys’.
The drug and alcohol-induced method of aversion therapy was widely used in clinics and hospitals across Britain. Peter Price, an 18-year-old, was referred by his GP for treatment at a Chester psychiatric hospital in 1964. ‘I sat in the doctor’s room with an old-fashioned tape recorder,’ he recalled:
The doctor was asking me questions, like did I realise how offensive it was to be homosexual? He … put me in a room with this male nurse and a stack of ‘dirty’ books of male bodies. And he said, ‘What do you drink?’ So I had a couple of cases of Guinness stacked up. He then gave me an injection. And the injection made me violently ill. I said, ‘I’m going to be sick,’ and he said, ‘Go on then, just be sick in the bed.’ I was vomiting everywhere. That lasted an hour, and every hour they gave me an injection.
Three days later Peter Price discharged himself.
As well as patient intolerance to the procedure, chemical aversion therapy had other disadvantages. In an article in the BMJ of January 1964, R.J. McGuire and M. Vallance pointed out that the time taken between the patient’s viewing of gay pornography and the sickening effect of the drug and alcohol was unpredictable. They also warned of ‘dangerous side-effects’, as in the case of 29-year-old Gerald William (‘Billy’) Clegg-Hill, a captain in the Royal Tank Regiment convicted of homosexual offences at Somerset Assizes in 1962. Put on probation for three years on condition of in-patient treatment at a military psychiatric hospital at Netley, near Southampton, he died after being injected with apomorphine. Stomach haemorrhages led to convulsions and a coma, although his death was quietly attributed to ‘natural causes’ in order to spare his family’s embarrassment.
The drive for efficiency and better clinical outcomes drew doctors to another medium for curing homosexuality: electricity. The treatment was first outlined by J.G. Thorpe, E. Schmidt and D. Castell in an article in Behaviour Research and Therapy published in March 1964. In it, the three doctors described how a 35-year-old homosexual had asked for psychiatric help after reading an account in a Sunday newspaper of Basil James’ treatment at Bristol. Demanding aversion therapy and even bringing his own stash of nude male photographs, he was admitted to Banstead Hospital in Surrey for a course of ‘positive and negative aversive conditioning’. The treatment began with an effort to stimulate heterosexual desires:
The patient was directed into a small room, having a three by three feet floor area which was completely covered by an electrical grid. The door was closed and all lights switched off. In front of the patient, at head height, was a picture of an attractive, scantily dressed female, which was visible only when illuminated by the operation of a switch by the psychologist. The patient was supplied with tissues and instructed to masturbate in the darkness, using whatever fantasy he desired. He should, however, keep his eyes open, look ahead of him, and report ‘now’ when he felt that orgasm was being reached. This served as the cue to illuminate the female picture, which remained illuminated until the patient reported ‘finished’ immediately following ejaculation.
By the 16th session, the patient had still not learned normal sexual desires so ‘negative conditioning’ was applied. As in the chemical treatment of the early 1960s, the patient was shown male nude photographs (his own), but with a new twist. Each time the pictures were lit up, the patient was given a shock on his bare feet through the floor grid. Reminiscent of Pavlov’s experiments on dogs in the 1900s, ‘the patient was very soon reporting sensations of electric shock when the picture was illuminated, irrespective of whether shock actually followed’. After three sessions he was masturbating ‘100 per cent’ to heterosexual fantasies.
This apparent success was not to last. After a week out of hospital, the patient reported slipping back into his old ways. He ‘became extremely emotional, accusing the psychologists of a complete lack of understanding of him as a person. He claimed that we had been critical of him right from the start and that we were more interested in our experimental results than in him’. Treatment was later resumed but the results were inconclusive. Eight months after discharge, the patient reported that he had tried and failed to have sex with a woman and, the doctors noted, ‘occasional homosexual patterns of behaviour had occurred’. Whereas before treatment he had only been aroused by men and boys, ‘he now considered persons of both sexes. This occurred only in hot weather, of which there was not much in an English summer’.
Over the course of the decade the electric shock method of aversion therapy was refined further. Doctors based at hospitals and clinics in Manchester, London, Chester, Birmingham and Oxford treated hundreds of men and described their techniques with increasing confidence. McGuire and Vallance told the BMJ in January 1964 about their portable Do-It-Yourself kit: a six-inch square box fitted with a nine-volt battery and electrodes connected to arm cuffs. The patient could decide how strong the shocks could be and, after initial training, ‘he can treat himself and take the apparatus home to continue the treatment there’.
M.P. Feldman and M.J. MacCulloch, two of aversion therapy’s strongest advocates, reported in Behaviour Research and Therapy in January 1965 that their attempt to ‘reproduce the method used with dogs’ involved a viewing box with colour and black and white slides of men and women. These were placed in a ‘hierarchy of attractiveness’ and the patient was allowed to remove or recall the slides before, during or in between shocks. In the same journal in August 1966 John Bancroft, together with H. Gwynne Jones and B.R. Pullan, introduced their wire ‘strain gauge for measuring penile erection’, which could more accurately test the degree of arousal and better control the timing and intensity of electric shocks.
While doctors’ techniques were being evolved, doubts about the effectiveness and even the morality of gay cures were beginning to emerge. The first signs of uncertainty came from the medical practitioners themselves. Despite their enthusiasm, doctors were unable to prove that treatment was successful. Most of the case studies presented in journals between 1957 and 1959 were based on single patients whose longer-term sexual reorientation was unrecorded. Where follow-up studies were made, the outcomes were hardly resounding successes. In 1958 the Czech psychiatrist Kurt Freund reported that only a quarter of 47 patients treated with chemical aversion therapy showed ‘improvement’ three to five years later and none were completely rid of their homosexual desires. In the next largest study, published in the BMJ in June 1967, MacCulloch and Feldman found that 20 out of 43 patients (including two women) treated with electric shocks were ‘actively practising heterosexually’ 12 months later, although what this meant and whether or not the improvement lasted beyond a year was not noted. In August 1968 John Bancroft and Isaac Marks informed the Royal Society of Medicine that, out of ten homosexuals treated, only one was ‘much improved’.
Crucially, gay men themselves found that the treatment did not work. Tony Kildwick, who had been referred to a psychiatrist by his family doctor, went to hospital in Bristol for treatment in the 1960s:
This chap explained to me that he would present pictures of attractive young men, and if I suddenly got sexually aroused I should be given an electric shock, which would hopefully turn me off. He started off by showing me a lot of brunette moustachioed Latins and I was really attracted to blond Nords, so it didn’t work very well, and I thought ‘This is ridiculous’.
Journalists and social commentators were also increasingly uncomfortable with aversion therapy. ‘What baffles me’, wrote Monica Furlong in the Daily Mail in October 1964, ‘is that people do not consider this process infinitely more immoral, more damaging to everyone who takes part in it, than the condition it sets out to cure.’ In 1965 the sociologist Michael Schofield – himself gay – condemned behaviour therapy as ‘brain washing’ and, the following year, philosopher and writer Bryan Magee ridiculed the very notion of sexual reorientation:
Presumably if one made the treatment violent or prolonged enough one could give a happily married man a violent aversion to heterosexual intercourse by associating it with nausea, vomiting and electric shocks.
Public attitudes towards homosexuality were also changing. A National Opinion Poll published in the Daily Mail in 1965 found that 93 per cent of the public thought that homosexuals were in need of medical or psychological treatment. By 1969, when Geoffrey Gorer interviewed almost 2,000 people for his book Sex and Marriage in England Today (1971), that figure had dropped to just two per cent. Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, finally implementing the main recommendation of the Wolfenden Report: that sex between consenting adult men over 21 should no longer be a criminal offence. The fear of arrest and prosecution – and the need to seek a cure for their illegal behaviour – was at once removed for millions of men.
Under-21s remained outside the law and feelings of shame and denial persisted for many. Aversion therapy continued to be available to those who wanted it, but as trust in the scientific certainties of the 1960s gave way to the scepticism and assertiveness of social movements, such as the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, gay men learned not to change, but to be more comfortable with themselves. Eventually, even doctors shifted their opinions. Writing in the British Journal of Hospital Medicine in February 1970, John Bancroft conceded that:
If the patient does not wish to lose his homosexuality or to become more heterosexual, then there is little point in advising him to do so. It should be made clear that a person can still have homosexual tendencies and be a likeable, decent person. It should be stressed that homosexuality is a normal variant of sexual behaviour.
John-Pierre Joyce is a writer, journalist and teacher. He is currently working on a gay history of Britain, 1957-70.