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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November 2003, 15:09 GMT
When gays were 'cured'
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

A bishop's suggestion that homosexuals see psychiatrists for "re-orientation" has caused a huge row. But it's not so long since the idea that homosexuality could be treated by science or medicine - even on the NHS - was mainstream.

According to consultant psychiatrist Michael Knight, who is about to publish a paper on the subject, "biological treatments for homosexuality" dominated the early part of the 20th Century.

In the 1920s, mainstream medical researchers in Germany implanted testicles from corpses into the bodies of homosexual men, usually without their knowledge. The idea was to boost testosterone levels.

"They were told they were going to have an operation, but not what was going to be done to them. These experiments were written up in the German equivalent of the BMJ or The Lancet, although they were later discredited after the Second World War."

Brainwashing techniques

In the 1950s and 1960s, behavioural therapy was used to try to "cure" gay men. Men convicted of homosexual acts were routinely given electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs and subjected to brainwashing techniques.

Peter Price
Peter Price volunteered for therapy
The most common form of treatment was aversion therapy, of the kind seen in Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange.

Those who volunteered for such treatments - often in preference to jail terms - were shown pictures of naked men and given a series electric shocks or drugs to make them vomit.

When they could stand it no longer, they were shown pictures of naked women, or films of nudist colonies, as a relief from the pain - or, in some cases, taken out on "dates" with young nurses.

DJ and stand-up comic Peter Price volunteered to undergo aversion therapy on the NHS when he was 18, after his mother found out he was gay.

'Scared'

He remembers being put into a windowless room in a psychiatric ward, where he had to listen to an audio tape disparaging his homosexuality "in the foulest language imaginable".

BISHOP CONTROVERSY
Bishop Peter Forster
Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option, but I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject, that's in the area of psychiatric health.
Bishop of Chester

The psychiatrist who made the tape then gave him a pile of 'dirty' books containing images of nude men and a crate of Guinness to drink.

"They then injected me with something that made me violently sick for about an hour and they left me there", he says. The doctors refused to give him a basin and insisted he vomit over himself.

"For 72 hours I lay in my own excrement and dirt, scared out of my wits," he says. He begged to be let out of the hospital after the psychiatrist told him the next stage of the treatment involved attaching electrodes to his penis.

Remarkable coincidence

He went home feeling "dirty, filthy and vile" and bathed for "about eight hours". "About two months later I accepted that I was gay," he says.

Then, by a remarkable coincidence, he says he bumped into the psychiatrist who had treated him a few weeks later - in a Liverpool gay club. "I was furious. I tried to attack him with a broken bottle," he says.

Mr Price says he did not speak about his experiences for more than 20 years, but now has a phone-in show on Liverpool's Radio City, where he tries to help young people come to terms with their sexuality.

'Almost grateful'

Jim Wood, 55, underwent a course of electric shocks as a teenager, after coming out to his father.

Mr Wood had a steady girlfriend at the time, and was desperate for the treatment to work - even though the young doctor administering the shocks tried to persuade him not to go through with it.

Two Egyptians put on trial for homosexuality in 2001
Mr Wood now describes himself as a "contented homosexual" and a Christian, and has been with the same partner for 27 years. He says: "I think the treatment helps you make your mind up. You can be almost grateful to them."

Another man, who did not want to be named, said his career as a family therapist was ruined after he volunteered for aversion therapy in the 1960s - and his details were passed on to the police.

"The whole thing was terrible - and absolutely futile, as far as I was concerned," he told BBC News Online.

Success rate

Last week the Bishop of Chester, the Right Reverend Dr Peter Forster, wrote a newspaper article in which he encouraged people who were "primarily homosexual" to consider psychiatric therapy to get "reoriented".

The Bishop made absolutely no suggestion that aversion therapy should be brought back.

But the row over his comments proves the debate about whether homosexuality can be "treated" or "cured" still incites strong opinions.

Aversion therapy died out in the late 1970s, after pressure from gay rights campaigners and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

Women at the Pride march in London earlier this year
Although the treatment's advocates claimed a success rate of 70%, it became increasingly obvious that it was not having the intended effect.

Dr Glenn Smith, of the Royal Free and University College Hospital, says that of the dozens of gay men he has tracked down in his research not one has become heterosexual after aversion treatment.

These days, people concerned about their sexuality are more likely to be offered counselling to help them come to terms with it.

'Essential being'

Gay rights campaigners object to terms such as "cure" because they say it suggests homosexuality is a disease.

Michael Knight says the mainstream medical orthodoxy in the UK is, increasingly, that sexual orientation is hard-wired from birth. "Behaviour can be modified, but not the essential being," he says.

But, he adds, some individual doctors or therapists still believe people who want treatment for homosexuality have a right to it, although, he adds, they are reluctant to speak out because of the anger the subject provokes.

In the US, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) campaigns for the right of gay people to be given access to treatment, if they want it.

The organisation points to controversial research by psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who claims 78% of gay men reported a change in their sexuality after undergoing therapy.

Professor Spitzer, who helped have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses in 1973, has had his work dismissed as "dangerous nonsense" by gay groups and some psychiatrists.

He says: "The current politically correct view is that this therapy never works.

I think it doesn't work a lot of the time, but in some people it does."

However the debate unfolds, the days of implants and electrodes seem to be firmly in the past.




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