The moment my co-author and I decided to submit a manuscript for Storm Moon Press’s Queer Fear anthology, we knew it would touch upon the topic of conversion therapy. “Matthew Powers Lives!” may be a ghost story, but at its core is the fear of being denied the right to express the fundamental part of one’s personality that is sexuality.
Western societies have a shameful tradition of condemning atypical sexual behavior. Throughout the Middle Ages, all the way ’til the French Revolution, homosexuality was universally considered a sin and a criminal act, which in some countries was punishable by death. The first person referring to it as an illness was Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, who claimed exclusively homosexual men suffered from a form of insanity. This view was then popularized by German activists such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who contributed to an explosion of scientific and pseudo-scientific theories of what caused homosexuality. The views on the topic polarized and ranged from acceptance of homosexuality as a variation of human behavior, to viewing it as a defect virtually impossible to cure, to continuous attempts to produce an effective form of therapy.
Regardless of the numerous negative outcomes of the medicalization of homosexuality we still see today, this new viewpoint left room for compassion. The 1919 German silent movie “Different from the others” told the story of a homosexual man whose life is being ruined by blackmail. The film was co-written by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and included educational scenes where the doctor himself explains homosexuality, dismissing the need to condemn or “cure” it. The movie ended with a meaningful sequence of a hand crossing out the paragraph that criminalized homosexual behavior from an open law book, but the plot also included a committed gay relationship, coming out, and parental reactions to their son’s sexuality. Pretty modern, if you ask me.
Unfortunately, the majority of professionals saw these matters in a completely different light. This period is most known for psychoanalytic interpretations of homosexuality, but many physicians believed that it might be caused by hormonal imbalance, or other physical defects. Those theories produced bizarre treatments such as rectal massage, or bladder washing, but some physicians went as far as castrating their patients or transplanting the testicles of heterosexual men into the homosexual men. Both castration and testosterone therapy are still being used as elements of conversion therapy, though in the less invasive form of pills.
Despite the popularity of Alfred Kinsey‘s publications and cross-cultural research that made it clear homosexuality is relatively widespread and natural, in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association included it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, contributing to the development of various forms of conversion therapy. At this time, behaviorism was all the rage, and within this movement, homosexuality was seen as an undesirable behavior that could be reconditioned, most often by aversive means.
It is reflected in the story we have written for the Queer Fear anthology. Trapped between reality and the spirit world, Matt relives the experiences of a deceased patient, going through some of the treatments he had to endure against his will. The therapy was aimed to make an association between undesirable arousal and pain, so electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs would be used during screenings of homoerotic pictures. Later, mental health professionals also started using masturbatory reconditioning, which is exactly what it sounds like: the patient would masturbate while watching heterosexual content. Other behavioral methods of reconditioning homosexuality included visualizations and social skills training (because, apparently, gay people developed them in a wrong way). As effective as the use of behavioral principles can be in certain situations, it is a stretch to try to meddle with one of the basic human drives. Trying to interfere with someone’s sexuality isn’t much different from attempting to condition them to take dietary advice from Bear Grylls. Wouldn’t kill you, but… why would you do that to yourself?
Taunting is another thing our main character has to endure. Most of the time, it is the byproduct of power, but that isn’t always the case. An extreme example of therapy gone off the rails was the collection of methods of Edmund Bergler, who used punishments, bullying, and broke patient confidentiality. Unfortunately, humiliation and guilting are very often used by modern “homosexuality therapists”, particularly those whose views are based in religion. Patients have been reported to be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes, bathe in icy water, or even be exorcised.
Some forms of therapy claim to be more humane. The basic idea behind reparative therapy (a program developed by Elisabeth Moberly and Joseph Nicolosi) is the need to condition a person to perform the “correct” gender role. For a male, this involves playing sports, while avoiding “effeminate” activities, such as attending the opera, and favoring male company over female (unless it’s for dating). Patients are expected to attend church and group therapy and subsequently become (hetero)sexually active and start a family. This kind of therapy was pointedly mocked in the 1999 movie “But I’m a Cheerleader”. Megan is sent into a gay rehab facility that looks as fake as its methods are ineffective. The patients wear gender-coded uniforms (blue for men, pink for women) and participate in activities associated with gender stereotypes. The whole process is finalized with a simulated sexual act performed in Adam/Eve tricots, complete with fig leaves (and an extra flower for the girls).
The main character of “Matthew Powers Lives!” is proud of his sexuality, but confronted with the hate and fear still lingering in the walls of the abandoned asylum, he experiences them in a very visceral way, up to the point where he can’t differentiate them from his own feelings. It isn’t just about mental and physical torture, there is something very personal being ripped away from him. For me, the motif of moral values determining what constitutes goodness and personal happiness is a major fear factor, because this kind of approach ends up with training or guilt-tripping people into repressing their instincts. And there isn’t anything good or natural about that.
K.A. Merikan is a joint project of Kat and Agnes Merikan, who jokingly claim to share one mind. They finish each other’s sentences and simultaneously come up with the same ideas. Their latest short story, “Matthew Powers Lives!”, can be found in Storm Moon Press’ Queer Fear anthology. Follow them on Twitter @KA_Merikan and @AgnesMerikan.