What prompted the modern gay rights movement

Was Freud "gay friendly"?

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May 6, 2020 marks the 164th anniversary of the birth of Freud. 2020 will also mark its 100th anniversary. Psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman, by proposing a theory about what "causes" homosexuality. For illustration purposes only, to this day nobody knows what "causes" heterosexuality or homosexuality.

For much of the 20th century, the field of psychoanalysis was hostile to gay people, mostly characterizing them as mentally ill. Fortunately, organizations like the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), which I joined in 2015, have become more "gay-friendly" over the past quarter century. The organization's president even apologized to the LGBT community last year.

In trying to find Freud's support for contemporary tolerant analytical attitudes, some portray him as a historical ally of gay people. In this case, the field's longstanding anti-gay antipathy is treated as a departure from Freud's original stance on acceptance. However, the reality is more complicated.

Although Freud did not believe that homosexuality was a disease, at first he did not consider it to be entirely normal either. Instead of an antisocial character flaw that deserves jail time, he called it a "developmental arrest," by which he meant some sort of stunted growth or psychological immaturity. As he put it, “It is one of the most obvious social injustices that the standard of civilization should require everyone to have the same sexual behavior - behavior which some people, thanks to their organization, can easily pursue, but which imposes the most serious psychological sacrifices for others ”(1908). It was this belief that led Freud to sign a declaration decriminalizing homosexuality in Germany and Austria in the 1930s.

Freud's 1905 Three essays on the theory of sexuality is another example of how his writings can be misunderstood when taken out of their original context and filtered through the lens of modern debates about the social status of gay people. In a new edition from 1914 he added a footnote: "Psychoanalytic research is decidedly against any attempt to separate homosexuals as a group of special characters from the rest of humanity."

That sounds good today. But what did that mean then? In Freud's day, a widespread "degeneracy theory" viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder caused by a decadent lifestyle. in the Three essays, Freud disagreed and gave examples of homosexuality as the present:

  • "In people who have no other serious deviations from normal";
  • in "People whose efficiency is not compromised and who are indeed characterized by a particularly high level of intellectual development and ethical culture";
  • as "an institution entrusted with important functions - among the peoples of antiquity at the height of their civilization."
  • and finally as "remarkably common among many savage and primitive races, while the concept of degeneracy is usually confined to states of high civilization".

Freud, on the other hand, also contradicted the 19th century “third sex theory”, an alternative view of homosexuality that suggested that a gay man had a woman's mind trapped in his body and that lesbians captured the minds of men in theirs had caught - and that too. Such a state was normal for them!

At the beginning of the 20th century, Magnus Hirschfeld, an openly “homosexual” psychiatrist who led the German homophile (gay rights) movement in Freud's day, was the leading proponent of the third sex theory (Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974). Hirschfeld was an early member of the psychoanalytic movement, but also an early dropout. Freud was known to abhor defectors.

After he left, Freud wrote to Carl Jung (who would later become a defector himself): “Magnus Hirschfeld left our ranks in Berlin. Not much of a loss, he's a limp, unsavory guy, absolutely incapable of learning anything. Of course he takes your remark at the Congress as a pretext; homosexual sensitivity. Not worth a tear (Freud, 1911).

Hirschfeld's departure eventually led Freud to criticize theories of the third sex more openly, although he did so without naming Hirschfeld. In other words, Freud, who "opposes any attempt to separate homosexuals as a group with a special character from the rest of humanity", is an expression of a central conviction of Hirschfeld's German homophile movement: "Homosexuals" are a third gender.

Until 1920, however, Freud was more despicable. in the Psychogenesis, He writes: "... homosexual men have experienced a particularly strong fixation on their mother ... in addition to their apparent homosexuality, a very significant amount of latent or latent unconscious homosexuality can be found in all normal people. When these results are taken into account, the assumption that nature created a "third gender" in a crazy mood clearly falls to the ground. "

Of course, early theorists shouldn't be judged by today's standards. However, neither should we over-idealize them by rewriting history and ascribing contemporary beliefs that they did not have. Freud was not a hero of the gay rights movement of his day, but neither was he rabidly homophobic. Despite his limitations, Freud gave us a lot to think about and remains a persuasive and complex thinker even today.

By Jack Drescher, MD


Drescher, J. (2008). A History of Homosexuality and Organized Psychoanalysis. J. American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36 (3): 443-460.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. The standard edition of Sigmund Freud's complete psychological works, 7: 123-246. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Freud, S. (1908). "Civilized" Sex Morality and Modern Mental Illness. Standard Edition, 9: 177-204. London: Hogarth Press, 1959.

Freud, S. (1911). Letter to Carl Jung. In: The Freud / Jung Letters, ed. W. McGuire, 1988. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 453-454.

Freud, S. (1920). The psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman. Standard Edition, 18: 145-172. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

Lauritsen, J. & Thorstad, D. (1974). The early gay rights movement (1864-1935). New York: Times Change Press.