Volume > Issue > On Homosexuality

On Homosexuality

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | March 1984

This is another subject, like abortion, I find quite difficult to discuss: the matter of one’s atti­tude toward homosexuality — i.e., one’s moral and religious view with respect to the increasing phe­nomenon of a particular sexual orientation or incli­nation becoming the basis for social affirmations and political actions of various sorts. Like most psychiatrists, I’ve worked with young men and women who, out of nowhere it often seems to them, have found themselves to be “visited” (one patient put it) by a “condition,” he called it, which he’d not chosen, and didn’t know what to think of, morally, let alone (in the course of everyday life) live with or accept as a particular fate. Like most psychiatrists, too, I’ve learned that Freud was right to emphasize (as any number of novelists and poets have done before and after him) that just about all of us have (a matter of common sense, really) strong emotional involvements with both men and women (mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, classmates of both sexes, and so on), and such involvements, like all human in­volvements, become highly charged, so to speak. Put differently, our affections are not at all confin­ed to those of one sex, and in our minds (the back of them, and sometimes a bit near to the front) we feel in ourselves a strength of affection that may not be precisely sexual, but draws on the mind’s, the body’s sense of intimacy and devotion.

Freud was rather proper, his research interests notwithstanding. On social and cultural matters he was, actually, conservative. He was, really, a mid­dle-class burgher in many ways. When he wrote of our “bisexuality,” he did not mean what that word now has come to mean — namely, an active sexuality that embraces both sexes. He simply (or not so simply!) means that as children we usually de­velop quite strong attachments to adults of both sexes, our mothers and fathers especially, and our brothers and sisters, and that those attachments are quite physical in nature, involve touching and hug­ging and kissing: stimulation of mind and body both. Such experiences have their own persistence, stay with us throughout life; albeit, in most of us, they get sorted out in such a way that our later at­tachments to the opposite sex are much strength­ened versions (physically) of those earlier attach­ments, whereas our attachments to the same sex are — well, I guess the word is — “attenuated,” or characterized by what Freud called the “sublima­tions” civilized people are wont to achieve: urgent and demanding passions stripped of their compell­ing energy, which get channeled elsewhere, that is, into the thoughts and deeds of decent, reflective, law-abiding citizens.

In some of us, however, it does not work like that — and for reasons I don’t think (at least in many instances) any of us in my field really quite understand. Not that theories or all-too dogmatic, insistent explanations don’t abound: genes, early childhood experiences (of course!), later traumas of various kinds, hormonal imbalances, severe loss­es and disappointments, the pressures of a given life which prompt reactions of various kinds, in­cluding sexual ones. In any event, every year thou­sands of young men and women find themselves aware, suddenly, or not so suddenly, of homosexu­al fantasies, dreams, impulses, desires, longings — find themselves, not rarely, deciding that they have a “problem” or “conflict” in that regard, or that they “are” homosexual, and that is that. Psychia­trists see an uncertain percentage of such men and women. It is my hunch that we are seeing fewer rather than more homosexually inclined youths — probably because there is, without question, less social stigmatization at stake and, consequently, less so-called “secondary anxiety,” based on the fear of what would happen if the person in question acted upon his or her sexual desires. Moreover, many of us psychiatrists have in the past had our own kind of zealotry — our decision to call homo­sexuals not only “troubled” (and aren’t we all, in one way or another!), but sick, sick, sick. In fact, of course, there is a not so pleasing (to some peo­ple, at least) egalitarianism in Freudian theory: everyone is “neurotic” in one fashion or another (according to that theory) and we all are supposed to be holding on hard for dear (psychological) life, though admittedly, some of us are stronger, are more successful in so doing than others. A col­league of mine, in that tradition, says that every­one’s mind is like Macy’s basement: you can find just about anything in it, if you probe long and hard enough. A decent clinician, it seems to me, ought to be humble and considerate and respectful when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. Maybe that clinician would be (one hopes and prays) honest enough to reach out, to acknowledge life’s mysteries, to try to help another of God’s children, in whatever way possible, even as we all need a helping hand in one way or another.

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