May 6, 2020 marks the 164th anniversary of Freud’s birth. 2020 also marks the 100th anniversary of his publication, Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman, in which he lays out a theory about what “causes” homosexuality. Just for the record, still today, no one knows what “causes” either heterosexuality or homosexuality.
For much of the 20th century, the field of psychoanalysis was hostile to gay people, mostly characterizing them as mentally ill. Fortunately, in the last quarter-century, organizations like the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), which I joined in 2015, have become more “gay-friendly.” The organization's president even issued an apology to the LGBT community last year.
Yet, in attempts to find Freud’s support for contemporary, tolerant analytic attitudes, some portray him as a historic ally of gay people. In making this case, the field’s many years of anti-gay antipathy are treated as a deviation from Freud’s original attitude of acceptance. The reality, however, is more complicated.
To start, while Freud did not believe homosexuality was an illness, he did not think it was entirely normal either. Rather than an antisocial character flaw meriting prison time, he called it a “developmental arrest,” by which he meant a kind of stunted growth or psychological immaturity. As he put it, “It is one of the obvious social injustices that the standard of civilization should demand from everyone the same conduct of sexual life—conduct which can be followed without any difficulty by some people, thanks to their organization, but which imposes the heaviest psychical sacrifices on others” (1908). It was this belief that led Freud to sign a statement to decriminalize homosexuality in 1930s Germany and Austria.
Freud’s 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is another example of how his writings can be misunderstood if taken out of their original context and filtered through the lens of modern debates about the social status of gay people. He added a footnote in a 1914 re-edition stating, “Psychoanalytic research is most decidedly opposed to any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of special character.”
This sounds good today. But what did this mean back then? In Freud’s time, a widely held “degeneracy theory” saw homosexuality as a mental disorder brought on by a decadent lifestyle. In Three Essays, Freud disagreed and gave examples of homosexuality as present:
- “in people who exhibit no other serious deviations from the normal";
- in “people whose efficiency is unimpaired, and who are indeed distinguished by specially high intellectual development and ethical culture";
- as “an institution charged with important functions—among the peoples of antiquity at the height of their civilization.”
- and, finally, as “remarkably widespread among many savage and primitive races, whereas the concept of degeneracy is usually restricted to states of high civilization.”
On the other hand, Freud was also at odds with 19th-century “third sex theory,” an alternative view of homosexuality that hypothesized a gay man had a woman’s spirit trapped in his body and that lesbians had men’s spirits trapped in theirs—and that such a condition was normal for them!
In the early 20th century, the leading proponent of third sex theory was Magnus Hirschfeld, an openly “homosexual” psychiatrist who led the German homophile (gay rights) movement in Freud’s time (Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974). Hirschfeld was an early member of the psychoanalytic movement, but an early dropout as well. Freud was famously known to detest defectors.
After he left, Freud wrote to Carl Jung (who would later become a defector himself), “Magnus Hirschfeld has left our ranks in Berlin. No great loss, he is a flabby, unappetizing fellow, absolutely incapable of learning anything. Of course, he takes your remark at the Congress as a pretext; homosexual touchiness. Not worth a tear (Freud, 1911).
Hirschfeld’s departure, however, eventually led Freud to more openly criticize third sex theories, although he did so without mentioning Hirschfeld by name. In other words, Freud opposing “any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of special character” is a put-down of a central belief of Hirschfeld’s German homophile movement: that “homosexuals” are a third sex.
By 1920, however, Freud was more contemptuous. In Psychogenesis, he writes: “ ... homosexual men have experienced a specially strong fixation on their mother ... in addition to their manifest homosexuality, a very considerable measure of latent or unconscious homosexuality can be detected in all normal people. If these findings are taken into account, then, clearly, the supposition that nature in a freakish mood created a ‘third sex’ falls to the ground.”
Certainly, one should not judge early theorists by today’s standards. Yet, neither should we overly idealize them by rewriting history and attributing contemporary beliefs they did not have. Freud was not a hero to the gay rights movement of his time, but neither was he rabidly homophobic. Nevertheless, despite his limitations, Freud gave us much to think about and even today remains a compelling and complex thinker.
By Jack Drescher, MD
Drescher, J. (2008). A history of homosexuality and organized psychoanalysis. J. American Academy of Psychoanalysis & Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(3):443-460.
Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 7:123-246. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.
Freud, S. (1908). “Civilized” sexual morality and modern mental illness. Standard Edition, 9:177-204. London: Hogarth Press, 1959.
Freud, S. (1911). Letter to Carl Jung. In: The Freud/Jung Letters, ed. W. McGuire, 1988. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 453-454.
Freud, S. (1920). The psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman. Standard Edition, 18:145-172. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.
Lauritsen, J. & Thorstad, D. (1974). The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935). New York: Times Change Press.