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Homosexuality is Not a Mental Illness but Homophobia Is

Before 1973 homosexuality was described as a mental illness in the DSM — the diagnostic and statistical manual.

This really boggles my mind. It means that in my life-time when doctors — people who had been to medical school — had to make a list of illnesses they could go “Cancer. Common cold. Homosexuality.”

It’s a strange idea. People and those with professional training could look at another person who expressed love and intimacy with another person and think “Aha! That’s just like cancer!” or “Aha! That belongs in the same conceptual basket as compulsive hand-washing.” They think “Yes we all suffer from horrible loneliness, and to love someone, and take solace from their physical naked body takes an amazing leap of trust. But in this particular instance of it I classify it in the same category as somebody who can’t get in an elevator without throwing up.”

It’s hard for me to put myself in that person’s shoes, the shoes of the psychiatrist who looks at the gay man and says “Their minds are ill!”. I can only think that such a person is motivated by some sort of unconscious terror. “If those people are actually okay expressing intimacy and vulnerability to each other that threatens me. It is an assault on the integrity of my mind and of my body. My sexual self is going to open me up to the maelstrom — maybe to death — if I don’t take the sexual relationship between those two and classify it as illness.” And all this conversation going on beneath the surface of consciousness, so to the conscious mind it seems like “I’m just being a scientist here! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

Which is a psychologically ill thing to think, clearly.

I imagine two time travelers from the future getting out of their craft who have lost their way in time. They don’t know what era they have landed in. They ask two questions “Is homosexuality a mental illness?” The native person they are talking to says “No, I don’t think so.” And one time traveller says “We are not in prehistoric times.” And then they ask “What about homophobia, the view that homosexuals are mentally ill — is that a mental illness?” And the person says “No. That’s just a personal point of view. Some very admirable, religious people think that. My parents think that and they’re not crazy.” And then they realize “Aha. We are not in prehistoric times, but we are not in historic times either. We are still in the Dark Ages, the time when humanity rolls around on its bed and its eyelids flutter, but it is still asleep.”

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8 thoughts on “Homosexuality is Not a Mental Illness but Homophobia Is

  1. IMHO, it depends partly on how you define “illness.”

    If an illness is a condition that causes people to suffer and prevents them from leading happy, fulfilling, and productive lives, then there is no *prima facie* reason to consider homosexuality an illness. However, in a society that is hostile toward homosexuals and persecutes them, it fits the definition — not because of any inherent aspects of homosexuality itself, but because of social conditions.

    Mental illness in particular is partly socially defined. Recall that in the Soviet Union, dissidents were often diagnosed as mentally ill, committed to institutions, and subjected to horrific “treatments” — just as homosexuals were in the West, as in the famously tragic case of Alan Turing. In the United States, homosexuals were subjected to electroshock treatment and even prefrontal lobotomy.

    One of my favorite “Star Trek” quotes states that “in an insane society, the sane man must be perceived as insane.” To the extent that a society is insane about the topic of homosexuality, then it will stigmatize homosexuals as insane — which of course is our modern, secularized word for “sinful.”

    • “Insane… is our modern, secularized word for ‘sinful.’” We should define our terms: What is insanity? What is sin?

      In Jewish thought sin is a moral failing, missing the mark. חֵטְא (Ḥet) is usually, and incorrectly, translated as “sin.” However, it rather indicates an otherwise legitimate action at the wrong time, or in the wrong place. A less abstract and more concrete translation is “miss,” as is written, Every one of them could sling a stone at a hair, and not יַחֲטִא (yaḥati), miss (Judges 20:16)—פֶּשַׁע (pesha) is the word for a rebellious act; transgression.

      Also, the question of בְּחִירָה חָפְשִׁית (behira ḥafshit), freedom of choice, problematizes things: “Man’s freedom of choice is only as thick as a garlic skin” (Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izhbits, Me ha-Shiloaḥ, Qoraḥ, 1:2).

  2. That’s a thoughtful, well-written reply. Thanks. Of course, by that logic, since homophobia does not tend to cause suffering or interfere with quotidian life, but rather bonds one with one’s social in-group, it’s not an illness. I don’t know what I’d call it, but members of social groups identify out-groups, and ascribe to them all sorts of negative qualities to justify their being out-groups. I suspect it’s all post-hoc rationalizations. Nevertheless, it promotes social cohesion and is probably evolutionarily positive. So bigotry is not well-described by the word “illness”, unless, perhaps, it’s in a social context that marginalizes bigot.
    Complicated.

  3. Not to excuse homophobia, but rather, towards an understanding of it Professor Jonathan Haidt’s work on Purity, Disgust, and Morality is very useful. Actually I think the ancient Rabbis accept that homosexuality maybe a natural drive and not a mental illness. However, our identity politics certainly do not figure into their vision of community. For example the “Kid friendly Drag Queen Story Time” hosted by the local JCC.

    “Rabbi El’azar son of Azariyah said: From where [do we know] that a person should not say, ‘I do not like pork’ [see Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:7–8], or ‘It is uncomfortable for me to wear a [prohibited] mixture [of wool and linen, see Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11],’ or ‘I do not desire forbidden sexual relationships;’ but rather, ‘I indeed wish to, but what can I do since my Father in Heaven has decreed these upon me?’ I YHWH am holy and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine (Leviticus 20:26)—so one should remove himself from offence and accept the yoke of Heaven” (Sifra Qedoshim, 9:13).

    The scriptural context is illuminating:

    The Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews, as it was תּוֹעֵבָה (to’evah), abhorrent, to Egypt (Genesis 43:32).

    You shall eat no תּוֹעֵבָה (to’evah), abhorrent thing (Deuteronomy 14:3).

    They will not teach you to do like all תּוֹעֲבֹתָם (to’avotam), their abhorrent things, that they did for their gods, and you would offend YHWH your God (Deuteronomy 20:18).

    There shall not be a man’s gear on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment, for whoever does all these is an תוֹעֲבַת (to’evat), abhorrence, of YHWH your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).

    When a man takes a wife and cohabits with her, it shall be, if she does not find favor in his eyes because he finds in her some shamefully exposed thing, and he writes her a document of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her away from his house… [he] shall not be able to come back and take her to be his wife after she has been defiled, for it is an תּוֹעֵבָה (to’evah), abhorrence, before YHWH (Deuteronomy 24:1).

    A whole and honest weight-stone you shall have… For תוֹעֲבַת (to’evat), abhorrence, of YHWH your God is anyone who does all these things, who commits any fraud (Deuteronomy 25:15–16).

    Who turns his ear from listening to teaching, his very prayer is תּוֹעֵבָה (to’evah), loathsome (Proverbs 28:9).

    • My guess is that the rabbis protested too much. They were in a very homo-social environment and they viewed themselves as having a female relationship with a male God. So they became homophobic as a resistance against their repressed homosexual tendencies.

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