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Coffey: Conversion Therapy Ban

It’s called Gay Conversion Therapy, and five states, the District of Columbia, and the city of Cincinnati already ban it from being used on children and adolescents. Anecdotal evidence ties it to teen suicide, homelessness, and substance abuse. Every major medical and psychological association in the country has flagged it as useless and brutal. Even so, some states have rejected legislative bans.

But perhaps a bit of medical history can offer some clarity in the debate.

Sigmund Freud may have been the first modern practitioner of conversion therapy. He considered homosexuality to be a normal stage of pre-teen sexual development. But because same-sex attractions take men’s attention away from their families, Freud labeled homosexuality in adult men “neurotic.” But then everyone has neuroses, Freud thought.

At the same time, he was truly distressed by lesbianism.

You see, having read about apes in colonies, Freud thought that subconscious memories of father apes punitively castrating sons are what help teach boys right from wrong.

Where Freud imagined a castration complex keeping young men in line, he imagined penis envy motivating women to flirt, lie, and cheat. Freud thought that, without moral guidance from husbands, women could become seriously mentally ill.

In the nine years of research I conducted into Freud’s life, I learned that, when his youngest daughter Anna was an “old maid” of 23, he took her into analysis. In their nightly sessions they discussed Anna’s “non-normative” sexual fantasies. By my count, this went on episodically for about a thousand clinical hours.

Then, not long after her analysis ended, Anna met Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune. The two of them never “came out” as anything but good friends. But they raised a family together, and according to their grandson Michael, in the 54 years they lived together Anna and Dorothy were sexual partners.

Today, with the legislative tide turning against gay conversion therapy - as it just has in Vermont - parents concerned about their own children might want to read a page from his playbook.

Freud gave up trying to change Anna. He welcomed Dorothy into the family. He welcomed the children. And for the rest of their natural lives, everyone lived happily ever after.

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and the author of the fact-based novel, Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story.
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