Is being gay a mental illness?

by Kevyn Jacobs
May 1996

Those of you who read my column last week know that many homosexuals, including myself, didn't choose to be attracted to members of the same gender.

But if it isn't a choice, then what causes it? Was I born this way? Is it the result of my upbringing? Am I in some way mentally ill?

The evidence seems to suggest no. Now, I don't claim to be a mental-health expert. I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist or an expert on early childhood development. I'm just an interested lay individual who is giving you his subjective insight on the topic. And from my perspective, I don't think homosexuality is an illness. Nor do I think my sexual orientation can be changed with any kind of therapy.

And the mental-health profession generally seems to agree with me here.

There has long been a school of individuals who have viewed homosexuality as a developmental disorder or an illness. In the early decades of this century, homosexual males were castrated, injected with hormones, subjected to electroshock and aversion therapies, encouraged to "bond" with masculine, father-figure role models, or were even lobotomized in an effort to find a "cure" for what was then considered to be "sick" behavior.

These "treatments" did nothing to stop homosexual tendencies in the subjects. Eventually, the "treatments" were discontinued, being called inhumane efforts to fix something that wasn't broken.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association finally concluded that homosexuality, while possibly resulting from environmental factors, was immutable once set -- you couldn't change it. They removed homosexuality from their lists of illnesses, citing the fact that most homosexuals lived healthy, constructive lives free from any other mental illness, and therefore homosexuality probably was just a normal variation on the human sexuality theme. The evidence just didn't support it being an illness.

The emphasis in the mental-health field ever since has been on helping homosexuals adjust to living healthy, happy lives, accepting the way they are.

Mind you, there ARE still those in the mental-health field who still believe a homosexual orientation to be dysfunction and who attempt to change their patients' sexual orientation. These practitioners are in a decided minority, and there is growing evidence that the kind of "reparative" therapy they provide often does more harm than good to the patient's mental state.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, had a lot of influence on modern attitudes about the "pathology" of homosexuality. Freud is famous for suggesting that homosexuality develops in early childhood as a result of a strong mother and a weak or absent father. (Incidentally, Freud believed that once set, a person's sexual orientation could not be changed -- it was set for life.)

Freud's reasoning in this matter has been largely discounted by a modern mental-health profession that sees homosexuality as a normal deviance in human sexuality. But there are still people who believe that Freud was correct about the causality of homosexuality.

Personally, I find Freud's idea particularly fascinating because I come from the very background that Freud was describing -- my parents were divorced, and I was raised by my single mother, whom I consider to be VERY strong. (If being able to work full-time AND single-handedly raise healthy, well-adjusted kids isn't a good definition of strong, then I don't know what is.)

Now, you might say this is evidence that Freud was right. But wait! I have a brother less than two years different from me in age, raised in the exact same environment with that same absent father and strong mother. And he is most definitely heterosexual. If it's the environment that does it, then why isn't he gay, too?

Many of you reading this right now know about the kind of home situation I am talking about -- we are a generation that understands divorce and growing up in single-parent households. Many of you were raised in situations similar to mine, by single, strong mothers, without fathers present to help in the day-to-day tasks of raising kids.

Many of you grew up in environments just like that -- and grew up to be heterosexual.

That leads me to believe that environment isn't the whole story. Oh, it certainly may play a part, I won't deny that. But maybe there is something else going on here other than just the family situation I grew up in.

Which leads me to my topic for next week: is it biology that caused my homosexuality?

UPDATE ON HETEROSEXIST & RACIST T-SHIRTS: Two columns ago, I reported to you that Hot Line Gifts in the Manhattan Town Center was selling heterosexist and racist shirts.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that the manager of Hot Line Gifts called me this week and informed me that the shirts are no longer being sold there -- the owner has pulled them from the shelves.

I applaud Hot Line gifts for taking this very reasonable step. It shows great courage and fortitude on the owner's part, and I wish to publicly thank the manager for the great job she has done in handling this difficult situation.

Hot Line Gifts has done the right thing.

This article was originally published on Monday, February 27, 1995

Kevyn Jacobs is a sophomore in art at Kansas State University. From January to December 1995, Jacobs wrote a queer-themed column in the Kansas State Collegian. The columns are being reprinted in Oasis in chronological order with permission of the author.
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