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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

'Good riddance to bad pseudo-scientific psychiatry'

Pardon the paraphrasing of the Bette Davis line (from the 1934 film version of W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" ... just to establish my Bette-Davis-quoting queer gene), but Bette's "good riddance to bad rubbish" line seems like an appropriate send-off for one of the LGBT community's worst enemies.

Psychiatrist Charles W. Socarides, one of the founders of the "reparative therapy" movement that claimed psychotherapy could turn a sick homosexual into a functioning heterosexual member of society, died on Christmas Day in a New York hospital. Socarides helped found the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization dedicated to the premise that homosexuality can - and should! - be cured through therapy.

Ironically, I stumbled across one of Socarides' books back while I was beginning to come to term with being gay in the '70s. I found a paperback edition of The Overt Homosexual on the paperback rack at Kline's Drug Store back in my hometown. That drugstore - one of two along the four-block business section of Main Street that ran from the lumber yard on one end to the funeral home on the far end - had a certain reputation among my peers. The other drug store, by the way, was as clean and brightly lighted as Kline's was dark and dingy. I can't imagine a more suitable place for an adolescent boy to begin to explore that secret dirty adult world of S-E-X. If "Old Man Kline" was running the counter, there were never any questions asked if one of my classmates purchased a coveted copy of some of the spicier men's magazines of the times like Playboy, Oui, or Penthouse. Even the paperback rack could be spicy, too, with titles you wouldn't find (or would be too embarassed to ask for) at the public library.

Socarides' book was way too scandalous for me to even consider buying. So I stood there at the paperback rack off to the side of the front door and thumbed through the book. "Homosexual" was a recent addition to my vocabulary. Before I stumbled across it, I didn't have any word to describe the way in which I understood on a very basic level that I was different from the other boys I knew from school. I was just beginning to test this new word to see if it fit me.

What I found in Socarides' book didn't sound like me. The book told me about men in San Francisco who wore dresses and makeup and got kicked out of fancy department stores for using the women's restrooms. It told me about men who lived their lives around cruising for sex in public restrooms and in parks. It told me how many of them met tragic ends, though it was pointed out that their ends were their own doings ... an early sort of "blame the victim" argument. It told me these men were sick.

Suddenly, I begin to wonder if the word "homosexual" really did apply to me since I had never done any of those things.

I think Socarides' book was the beginning of my lifelong queasiness with the word "homosexual." Some in the LGBT community reject the word as being too clinical and a hold-over from the days when homosexuality was a sickness to be treated and not a description of people who were attracted to their own gender. I could (and still can) deal with being called a queer or a fag much better than being called a "homo." And I believe it all traces back to that afternoon at the paperback rack at Kline's Drug Store and Socarides' book.

"Socarides outlived his time," anthropologist Gilbert Herdt said in a New York Times article on Socarides' death. Even during his life he was out of step with much of the rest of the medical and scientific community. In 1972 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from it's list of illnesses, Socarides protested the move and claimed the change was masterminded by "a small band of very bright men and women, most of them gays and lesbians" as part of a deliberate strategy. (Apparently, this was before the phrase "the homosexual agenda" had been coined.) "He became a kind of anachronism, and a tragic one in the sense that he continued to inflict suffering on the lives of some gay and lesbian individuals, and the LGBT community in general," Herdt told the Times.

Among those that suffered was his own son, Richard, a gay rights activist who served as President Clinton's liaison to the LGBT community from 1995 to 1999. Richard is quoted in the Times as calling his relationship with his father "complex" and said they remained on speaking terms only when they both avoided the subject of homosexuality.

The unfortunate thing about Socarides is that he leaves behind him a legacy of prejudice wrapped in pseudo-science that continues to fuel the tiny but vocal reparative therapy movement. This, in turn, has given rise to the religion-based "conversion therapy" used by "ex-gay" groups who literally try to "pray away the gay."

But despite it all, I won't condemn Charles Socarides. Instead I'll again turn to the Gospel of Bette Davis in "Of Human Bondage" to offer Socarides a parting thought:

"You cad!, you dirty swine! I never cared for you not once! I was always makin' a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff, I hated ya! It made me SICK when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me, ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!"

Nuff said, indeed!