My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. That book had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.
Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!
Strangely, this 1953 tome was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This, needless to say, was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.
Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration – by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation. Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds.
He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”. Nordau angrily dismissed this as “anti-social ego mania”.
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In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation. Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!
And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”. He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.
In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology. But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.
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And incredibly, the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its ICD classification in 1992. ICD stands for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”. Nordau would have approved of that classification!