The Colorful Modern History of Gay Conversion Therapy

Including Sigmund Freud's analysis of Anna Freud

Posted Jul 25, 2014

One July 24, Michigan State Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) introduced legislation that would outlaw the practice of gay conversion therapy on minors. Legislation like this is already in place in New York, New Jersey, and California. 

Two linked stories, one of the hysteria epidemic in Europe in the late 1800s, and the other of a remarkable conversion therapy case, show that conversion therapy has been damaging and useless from the beginning of its modern history. Indeed, sometimes the injuries inflicted by medical professionals in the name of conversion have been quite literal, reaching far beyond psychic scars that can't be seen.

The first story is of the hysteria epidemic that swept Europe in the late 19th century. Most of the afflicted were female. Symptoms could include twitching, fainting, hearing voices, talking in tongues, and paralysis. But lesbianism in and of itself was considered symptomatic of hysteria. To provide relief, some doctors prescribed opiates. Some gave lesbians pelvic massages administered with vibrating devices. And, not uncommonly, surgeons performed ovariectomies or clitorodectomies on lesbians.

To my knowledge, during that epidemic, the young neurologist Sigmund Freud offered no drastic medical or surgical treatments. Instead he talked to his hysterical patients, and was fascinated by those conversations. This was when he was developing his science of psychoanalysis and his ideas about how men and women stray from developmental paths that he and his colleagues considered normal.

Fast forward a few decades, a period that included a few of Freud’s most phallocentric pronouncements.

—Men acquire morality through the castration complex. Any disobedient boy worries that his father may punish him by chopping off his penis. Fear of castration, then, is what helps a boy form moral virtue. A penis is so precious and the fear of its loss so complete that, once a boy acquires morality, he does not misplace it.

—Having no penis, a girl has no morality—until she acquires babies, which are penis substitutes, and accepts direction from her husband.

—Lesbianism is a gateway to mental illness because it removes a woman from the chain of life and from daily guidance from a man.

—Lesbianism is always the fault of the woman’s father. He either parented too distantly, giving a girl no one on whom to Oedipallly attach, or too closely, scaring the dickens out of her.

—Lesbianism—indeed all homosexuality—is curable by psychoanalysis.

Fast forward several decades for the second story. Now it is 1918. With other young women Sigmund Freud’s own 23-year-old daughter, Anna, is enjoying serially monogamous friendships that have romantic overtones.

Ask yourself: What would you do if you were Sigmund?

What he did was take Anna into psychoanalysis, and I believe it was in an attempt to convert her. Over two separate periods on a nightly basis they discussed her dreams and masturbation fantasies. In the fantasies, a young man who has made a mistake about a matter over which he has no real control is imprisoned and beaten by a knight. The beating helps bring Anna to orgasm. The young man of her fantasies, Anna knew, represented her. And the knight, I hope she knew, represented her father, who was figuratively beating her every session for the “mistake” of her lesbianism, an “error” over which she had no real control.

You can’t make this stuff up. Anna became a psychoanalyst. Both she and Sigmund published papers about these analytic sessions.

And then what happened? Did conversion therapy by the man who invented it, by the best psychoanalyst in the world, work? Well, it did wed Anna to her father and his ideas—not surprising, given that Sigmund believed that strong erotic bonds are formed in psychoanalysis. As Sigmund aged, Anna remained his dearest and most tireless companion.

Ah, but he may not have been hers. For as it turned out Anna Freud (1895-1982) loved Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune, for 54 years. They raised a family. During World War II they did great humanitarian work, setting up a war orphanage and rescuing babies and children from ruin.

Anna and Dorothy never declared themselves lovers, wife and wife, or any such thing. One didn't "come out" in those years; certainly it would have been impossible to do so and maintain a career as a psychoanalyst, which is the profession that Dorothy took on, as well. And I'm not sure that Anna really disagreed with Sigmund that lesbianism was a neurotic disorder. I know, for example, that she practiced gay conversion therapy on at least one adult patient. But undeniably she loved Dorothy. The two of them carried on as each other's primary relationship for the rest of their lives, letting no man or woman come between them. 

Anna and Dorothy's relationship was so enriching and stabilizing for both of them that even Sigmund seems, in the recollection of his friends and family, to have gradually relaxed his misgivings about the two of them. Though to my knowledge he never formally retracted his ideas about lesbianism. I like to imagine, though, that had he lived just a little longer than he did he would have publicly acknowledged that conversion therapy is misguided at best. For Anna seems to have emerged from psychoanalysis just as capable of forming an attachment to a woman as she was when she entered it.

The youngest of Anna and Dorothy’s war orphans would be in their late 80s now. My guess is that, to a one, they’d say that Sigmund Freud was wrong about one of his fundamental concerns about lesbians. They are probably not inherently a-moral. In those children's eyes, I'm sure, the lack of a male partner didn't diminished Anna’s righteousness one jot. She fed them, protected them, taught them, and gave them "families" within the framework of the orphanage so that they could grow up physically well and emotionally alive. Indeed, I'll bet that, to those children, the love of a good woman seemed to keep Anna's moral compass astonishingly on point.


Rebecca Coffey's new novel is HYSTERICAL: Anna Freud's Storythe fact-based, fictional autobiography of Sigmund freud's lesbian daughter. Booklist called it "complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny." LAMDA Literary said it's "got a plot so rife with tension it’ll make you squirm." Oprah's magazine recommended it in the June 2014 issue.

Coffey is a science and psychology journalist writing for Scientific American and Discover Magazines and several radio outlets. She is the author of two nonfiction books and of one book of literary humor. More information is at


Update: A previous version of this story said that, "[A]s reported today in the Ann Arbor Journal, Zemke himself underwent ten years of conversion therapy as a child. According to Zemke, much of it left lasting psychic scars, and the rest of it was pointless." A conversation with Representative Zemke clarified that it was a friend of his who had undergone conversion therapy.]

The opinions expressed here are the author's own. Nonfiction sources for the history of gay conversion therapy include:

  • Appignanesi, Lisa and John Forrester, Freud’s Women (New York: Other Press, 2001).
  • Cole, Robert, Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993).
  • Crews, Frederick, (ed.), Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute (New York: The New York Review of Books Press, 1997).
  • ___, Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend (New York: Viking Press, 1998).
  • Dyer, Raymond, The Work of Anna Freud (Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson, 1983).
  • Forrester, John, Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and Its Passions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
  • Freud, Anna, Lectures for Child Analysts and Teachers 1922-1935 (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1974).
  • Freud, Martin, Glory Reflected: Sigmund Freud—Man and Father (Melbourne: Angus & Robertson, 1957).
  • Freud, Sigmund, The Diary of Sigmund Freud 1929-1939: A Record of the Final Decade (London: Hogarth Press, 1992).
  • ___, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. And Trans. James Strachey et al (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974).
  • Gay, Peter, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
  • Jones, Ernest, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. I, The Formative Years and The Great Discoveries (1856-1900). (New York: Basic Books, 1953).
  • ___, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. II, Years of Maturity (1901-1919) (New York: Basic Books, 1956).
  • ___, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. III, The Last Phase (1919-1939) (New York: Basic Books, 1957).
  • Person, Ethel Spector (ed.,) On Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
  • Roazen, Paul, How Freud Worked: First-Hand Accounts of Patients, (Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson, 1995).
  • ___, Meeting Freud’s Family (Amherst, MA: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993).
  • ___, Anna Freud: A Biography (New York: Summit, 1988).



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