Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Is Homosexuality Really That Different To Autism?

Homosexuality is often cited as an example of how the social construction of a condition can change radically in a relatively short span of time. The modern gay rights movement is believed to have started in 1969. Within four years they had accomplished a major feat: Deletion of homosexuality from the DSM-II. (It is disputed whether the gay rights movement had enough political power to achieve this, but it is clear that the social climate was shifting and not necessarily because of new scientific knowledge). Medicalized views of homosexuality have today been relegated to religious extremists for the most part.

An objection against the analogy between homosexuality and autism is that homosexuality is not disabling. That's fine. No analogy is ever going to be perfect. Some people think cancer is analogous to autism, despite the fact that cancer does not shape a person's way of being, and despite the fact that cancer gets gradually worse until the sufferer dies. Those same people who think cancer is analogous to autism are usually the ones who think homosexuality is a bad analogy. Go figure.

Incidentally, homosexuality has been compared to cancer.

Homosexuality is a disorder not in accord with Nature and, like cancer, heart disease or neurosis, is a reaction to circumstances non-existent in Nature but common in man-made circumstances.


What I was actually interested in researching is whether mainstream psychiatric opinion was that homosexuality is not disabling. I found some interesting parallels while doing so. The following is an excerpt of a 1967 letter to the British Medical Journal, by the authors of a paper on aversion therapy for homosexuality.

The argument that it is society that is wrong is very misguided. Which seems more unethical: To treat someone in distress, or to suggest to him that he waits until his practice is as socially acceptable as heterosexuality? The vast majority of our patients have been sad and unhappy individuals seeking help for a problem they see as central in their lives, and pleased with the results when these have been successful.


That is a familiar argument for sure. What are distress and sadness, except disabling? A similar view was expressed in retrospect by Charles W. Socarides in "How America Went Gay".

For most of this century, most of us in the helping professions considered this behavior aberrant. Not only was it "off the track"; the people caught up in it were suffering, which is why we called it a pathology. We had patients, early in their therapy, who would seek out one sex partner after another-total strangers-on a single night, then come limping into our offices the next day to tell us how they were hurting themselves. Since we were in the business of helping people learn how not to keep hurting themselves, many of us thought we were quietly doing God's work.

He then adds:

Excuse me. Gay is not good. Gay is not decidedly free. How do I know this? For more than 40 years, I have been in solidarity with hundreds of homosexuals, my patients, and I have spent most of my professional life engaged in exercising a kind of "pastoral care" on their behalf. But I do not help them by telling them they are O.K. when they are not O.K. Nor do I endorse their "new claim to self-definition and self-respect." Tell me: Have we dumped the idea that a man's self-esteem comes from something inside himself (sometimes called character) and from having a good education, a good job and a good family-and replaced that notion with this, that he has an affinity to love (and have sex with) other men?


Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber formed the Ad Hoc Committee Against the Deletion of Homosexuality from DSM-II in 1973 (source). Along with Edmund Bergler, these psychoanalysts were considered the last hold-outs of note against gay rights.

Edmund Bergler wrote a 1956 book whose title "Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?" is reminiscent of arguments we hear today portraying the autistic self-advocacy position as one stating that autism is an "alternative lifestyle". The book apparently received positive reviews, including one in Time Magazine (source). From a review elsewhere we learn of arguments that appear familiar.

He again deplores that "Kinsey's fanstastically exaggerated figures" have done a disservice by playing into the hands of certain true (compulsive) homosexuals who tend to glorify their disorder as a "superior way of life."

And then:

The author concludes that "... to counteract this we must disseminate knowledge that there is nothing glamorous about suffering from the disease known as homosexuality."


I am not sure if there really were gay people with the sort of views Bergler refers to. I suspect the following type of reasoning in Bergler's part probably has to do with it, however: If you do not think you are inferior, then you must think you are superior. Even some autistic adults seem to reason in this manner, judging by the following passage from "Send in the Idiots" by Kamran Nazeer.

What I found myself arguing...was that it was arrogant to believe that I was better because I was autistic; perhaps it did equip me well for certain things, perhaps some of these were not trivial, perhaps, for example, something of my intelligence was related to being autistic; however, I had only reached the threshold beyond which I could even have this discussion with them Thanks, surely to professional help... and a lot of consideration, and work, and care.

Edmund Bergler was a harsh critic of Alfred Kinsey, who is considered the father of sexology. To put Kinsey in historical perspective, think of him as the Laurent Mottron or Morton Ann Gernsbacher of that period. (I would mention Michelle Dawson, but it is not clear if Kinsey was gay). Kinsey argued that homosexuality was common, natural and not harmful; and that there was a sort of sexual orientation spectrum that went from "exclusively heterosexual" to "exclusively homosexual". He came up with the Kinsey scale, which attempts to measure sexual orientation. The Kinsey scale reminds me a little of the AQ Test.

Alfred Kinsey's views were attacked furiously by Bergler in a 1948 article titled "The Myth of a New National Disease". Some excerpts follow.

Consciously, these sick persons realize only their "righteous indignation," leading to self-defense and self-pity. They repress completely the fact of their own initial provocation, which began the sequence, as well as the masochistic enjoyment of self-pity. Thus the ego-strengthening illusion of "aggression" is maintained, and the dynamically decisive masochistic substructure is hidden. Those neurotics are "injustice collectors."


Sometimes homosexuals assert that they are completely "happy," the only thing bothering them being the "unreasonable approach" of the environment. That is a convenient blind. There are no happy homosexuals; and there would not be, even if the outer world left them in peace. The reason is an internal one: Unconsciously they want to be disappointed, as does every adherent of the "mechanism of orality." A man who unconsciously runs after disappointment cannot be consciously happy. The amount of conflict, of jealousy for instance, between homosexuals surpasses everything known even in bad heterosexual relationships.


Strangely enough, Kinsey sees only the antithesis: acceptance of homosexuality as a biologic fact vs. senseless segregation. He speaks disparagingly of treatment of homosexuality (he puts it ironically into quotation marks). The third possibility, namely to declare homosexuality a neurotic disease, does not even occur to him.


The fact remains that today homosexuality is a curable neurotic disease, requiring specific therapeutic techniques and prerequisites.


If these figures are only approximately correct (Kinsey sticks to percentages, and does not translate them into actual numbers), then "the homosexual outlet" is the predominant national disease, overshadowing in numbers cancer, tuberculosis, heart failure, infantile paralysis. Of course, Kinsey denies that the "homosexual outlet" is a disease in the first place. But psychiatrically, we are dealing with a disease, however you slice it.


Last but not least, Kinsey's erroneous psychological conclusions pertaining to homosexuality will be politically and propagandistically used against the United States abroad, stigmatizing the nation as a whole in a whisper campaign, especially since there are no comparative statistics available for other countries.


There were voices of relative reason besides Kinsey. See, for example, the work of Herbert Greenspan and John Campbell as early as 1945.

Both the psychiatric and social status of the invert is becoming increasingly more clear with the advancement of clinical psychiatry, and it is encouraging to note that society is being weaned away from the fallacy that homosexualism is a crime. We are gradually coming to the realization that the homosexual suffers from a regrettable sexual anomaly, but otherwise is a normal, productive individual, who is neither a burden nor a detriment to society. We hope that the recognition of the true nature of his problem will lead to a more rational and practical therapeutic approach, and that a more humane, understanding attitude will result.


The popular media began to take notice of social changes sorrounding homosexuality in the 1960s apparently. A 1966 Time Magazine article titled "The Homosexual in America" approaches the issue in a way that was probably considered "balanced" at the time.

That is the crux: most homosexuals apparently do not desire a cure. A generation ago, the view that homosexuality should be treated not as a vice but as a disease was considered progressive. Today in many quarters it is considered reactionary. Homophile opinion rejects the notion that homosexuals are sick, and argues that they simply have different tastes. Kinsey had a lot to do with this, for to him all sexual pleasure was equally valid. "The only unnatural sex act," he said, "is that which you cannot perform." His coauthor, Wardell Pomeroy, also argues that homosexuality should be accepted as a fact of human existence, and claims to have known many happy, well-adjusted homosexual couples.

Interestingly, the article includes some shadows of "epidemic" talk.

Whether the number of homosexuals has actually increased is hard to say.

It concludes as follows.

As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste – and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.


There's no question that the prevalence of overt homosexuality increased considerably at some point. In 19th century England, for example, homosexuality was extremely rare and criminalized (source). No doubt there was a "hidden horde" of gays and lesbians, if you will.

A well known medical similarity is in the type of treatment, which usually involves behavioral intervention. Some psychoanalysts claimed they could turn around 30% of homosexuals into full heterosexuals. O. Ivar Lovaas co-authored an article about the behavioral treatment of "deviant sex role behaviors" in children. The article was published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis (source).

The historical and political similarities are clearly substantial.


  1. Hi Joseph, as a person with mild autism, i must agree that homosexuality and autism are not analogous because homosexuality is not disabling. That is just a general point, however, there are many more specifics. Autism is also different than homosexuality because it is more of a drain on the taxpayers. Contrary to what you stated in a previous post the vast majority of autistics will be either unemployed or underemployed and many will be on SSI or other assistance programs and cost the taxpayers money. Homosexuality is not really a burden to the taxpayers as many of them work, sometimes in the highest paying high prestige professions.

    Another big difference you are missing is the fact that some of the neurodiverse crowd (possibly including yourself) believes that autistics can engage in self-advocacy and pursue civil rights in the same vein as have gay people. One reason for increases in gay rights and the rights of gays to legally marry is being pursued legislatively and in the courts because of many very wealthy gay people who have the money to devote for the cause not to mention all the countless gay lawyers willing to do pro bono work to defray the exhoribtant legal costs the gay movement would ordinarly have. If there are any practicing autistic lawyers at all they are few and far between and autists as a collective are not going to have the capital to pursue civil rights activities. A third difference is that homosexuality is not an overt condition and a gay person can stay in the closet and not be ostracized and no one will be the wiser. A highly self-stimulating misbehavin' autist is not going to have that luxury. It is a poor analogy really any way you slice it.

  2. Jon: Basically you're saying that homosexuals are rich and autistics are poor, and that's where the analogy breaks; in addition to homosexuals being better able to pass than a good portion of autistics. I don't see those as major points against the analogy, which is more about politics and history.

    I would also note that autistic self-advocates have something gay self-advocates did not have: the internet.

    Regarding employment, in the previous post you mention, I suggested that we don't know the outcome of children diagnosed today, since autism is diagnosed more broadly. Rates of institutionalization and so forth are going down. I think it's reasonable to extrapolate that rates of employment will go up. That without considering inclusion even, which would be one of the goals of self-advocacy.

  3. No expert on this but I wouldn't put Mottron and Gernsbacher in the same boat with Kinsey. AFAIK, Kinsey's idea of data had too much in common with the flexible variety encountered in behaviourist circles. It is apparently, whatever you want it to be.

  4. The gay rights movement brought about a major shift in public opinion in a very short time; I hope we can do the same.

    Those old quotes from Freudian psychologists certainly look bizarre today. Thanks for posting 'em. Maybe it won't be much longer before the ignorance of today's autism "experts" becomes just as obvious to society.

    As to the value of the Internet in autistic civil rights advocacy, have you seen Bill's latest post, Autism as an Historic Struggle for Rights, which describes a revolution by blog? I'll quote a little of it:

    for the first time in history, a group with literally, in some cases, no voice is gathering together in, for the most part, physically no place, for their rights to exist as individuals and a group.

  5. I'd say there are certainly some parallels between the two groups.

    Both basically boil down to the question that actually got the United States started - does an individual have the right to be different?

  6. I think Kinsey's figures were later disputed. The actual number of self-described gays and lesbians in the US is apparently far lower than Kinsey's 10%. There was no doubt quite a bit of bias in his data. The comparison I was making had to do solely with the fact that Kinsey was instrumental in depathologizing homosexuality.

  7. Kinsey's samples were very biased, but he did make some valid points.

    To put this in the context of the autism debate, I don't remember all these gay teens around back when I was in school. Why are we having so many gays today? Must be all the plant hormones in soy food and yams. And the hormones in beef and milk. Sue big agriculture!

  8. revolution by blog

    "The revolution will be blogged" is exactly what I thought in relation to this that might have happened in a well known mailing list.

  9. Looks like students on Prince Edward Island are about to be taught that 10% "fact". See here.

  10. [A reader wishing to remain anonymous sent in the following clarification for Jonathan.]

    [Jonathan] is referring to homosexuality IN the 21st century, not homosexuality across history. Up to the gay rights movement,
    homosexuals were NOT allowed to work in their chosen profession - if they were known as homosexuals. See for example, the great NYT obituary on "Dr. Anonymous" (aka: Dr. John Fryer), reprinted below and available at [here] and other places on the internet.

    [Check the link for text of the obituary.]

  11. "One of the most dangerous ways homosexuality invades family life is through popular music."


  12. http://www.salon.com/books/review/2007/02/01/everett/?source=rss

    "... coming out "was a mistake if you really want to have a career in show business. I think I would have thought twice about coming out in show business knowing what I know now."
    - Rupert Everett

    (freaky - word verif = "glads")

  13. Love your blog, Joseph. I’ve got to laugh about Jonathan’s idea that gays are rich and autistics are poor. I know a now unattached lesbian who has been a “battler” for as long as I can remember, and isn’t the richest man in the world supposed to be autistic? Is homosexuality not a disability? A gay or lesbian couple cannot produce a child who has half of her genes from one parent and half from the other parent, and I think that is a hugely important thing. It’s a really lovely thing to look at your own child and see that it is “ours and ours only”.

    Joseph made a couple of good points about the similarity of some of the slurs that get hung on gay and autistic activists alike. A few times I’ve been accused of being an autistic supremacist and some kind of aspie snob by other autistics. I think I also recall having the word “lifestyle” used in my direction by a well-known autie in a public online discussion which unfortunately doesn’t have a search facility, because I’d love to track down that text. If autism isn’t a disability for a person then it must be just a lifestyle choice, apparently.

    It is interesting that homosexuals were once described as “sufferers” in much the same way as aspies and auties are today. I personally object to the routine use of this word by writers, professionals and journalists (as you can see in my blog). It appears that practitioners of the psychoanalytic bent particularly like to lay on the pity when writing about AS. I’ve just had a look at a paper about the philosopher Jeremy Bentham by Phillip Lucas and Anne Sheeran who are fond of using the dreaded “S” word, and other prominent writers about “dead famous aspies” tend to lay on the pity with a trowel. I wonder if some form of organized protest against the unthinking use of the “S” word could be organized amongst proud autistics?

  14. Interestingly, lesbianism doesn't seem to have existed back then.

    Thank you for this article, Joseph, and for doing the research.

    As someone who is both autistic, (not mildly) and gay, (not mildly either!) I would say there is a DEFINITE parallel. You've only touched the tip of it.

  15. Well written piece, and you've hit on a subject that has crossed my mind. The stereotype of the "rich homosexual" is more often false than not.

    Similarly, the one about autistics being a drain on the system, again that depends on whether they are given a chance to participate in the workforce. Sometimes, the accommodation required by the employer is no more than dropping some of the social requirements (that are often irrelevant to the job!) during the interview/recruitment process. How many times do you see a company hire that bright and bubbly person for some internal job, only to find that they're not suitable at all?

  16. http://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/ultrasoundrodgers.asp

    I'd love you to take a look at that article if it interests you.

  17. Thanks to Chaz for pointing me to this article. Likewise, thanks Joseph for doing the research.

    Many professionals are strangely silent about the 'hidden horde' of bisexuals. I wonder why that is? If anyone wants a random sample of this proposed "hidden horde" get yourself a personal profile in a relevant web site and mention "discrete". As a strictly monogamous gay male I've spent a lot of time considering this issue (and deflecting often overbearing requests to "hook up"). To those who don't want their wives or ex wives to know, who don't want their children or grown children to know, I ask, "what's wrong with honesty"? The answer from high ranking officials is they'd lose their job and social status (and maybe everything else). The answer from middle class individuals is a kind of miserable ambivalence. Another answer is that homosexuals are not human and exist only as commodity and convenience for those who are 'truly human'.

    In an earlier list discussion one contributor suggested that some scientists might prefer to label autism an extreme disease rather than acknowledge autistic features in themselves. Maybe similar questions and answers apply?

    Apologies if this is a bit too 'blunt' for some people.

  18. I read your blog. It sounds good. Im making one similar, Your talking about a very good point.


  19. In the blog, the arguement is present whether or not homosexuality is a disorder, disability, sickness, or emotional instability.

    The bottom line is this: in order for something to be considered a mental illness, it must render the patient unable to function in their daily life. According to the American Psychiatric Association however, a mental illness may also render the patient unable to socialize appropriately.

    Now, many will say, "well then homosexuality has to be a disorder because whether homosexuality is right or wrong, it causes the homosexual to be depressed"

    The reason why homosexuals are depressed is not the fact that they are homosexual. It is the way they are being treated in society.

    With that in mind, homosexuals not being depressed directly but indirectly by homosexuality, and being able to socialize appropriately with peers who accept them, homosexuality does NOT fit the discription of a mental disorder.

    You may be wondering, "well it has to be a disorder because it's not normal!"

    Well, first off, yes it is normal. Countless studies have been conducted over and over and over again! All the possibilities are being checked, but, the result is the same every time!

    Second of all, even if homosexuality is not normal or natural, that does NOT mean that it's a disorder! There are many things that are not considered 'normal' but are not disorders. Displaying extreme hatred toward people such as homosexuals is NOT normal, but that's not a disorder! That's what it is too! HATRED! NOT healing! NOT hope! These people who try to 'heal' or 'give hope' to homosexuals are only telling themselves that to comfort themselves so that they don't have to deal with the fact that they are full of hatred!!!

    If you ask me, HOMOPHOBIA is a mental disorder, because it disables someone's ability to interact with homosexuals in a positive way!

    The common excuse for having homophobia is, "well it's not that we don't want to interact with them, it's just that we don't want to be recruited to their lifestyle!"

    Again, their weaknesses are revealed! The vast majority of homosexuals do NOT want to subvert anyone to what you would call their 'lifestyle'. You have to realize the fact that every human has an innate need to love and be loved! This is even true for serial killers!

    With that being said, homosexuals do not desire sex from people at all, they want a loving and committed relationship with a member of the same sex! Since they know they are not likely to get that from straight people, they are uninteresting as partners!

    There is NO excuse for homophobia! What is it that you use to justify your homophobia?

    If you are homophobic, you really should get help and stop living in your own little world where different equals wrong!!!

  20. Anon: I agree completely with your assessment of homosexuality. What in the world, though, gave you the idea that I was writing from a homophobic viewpoint?

  21. Perhaps Anonymous didn't actually read your article, and since assuming that autism = disease/mental disorder, that you were making the point that homosexuality is a disease/mental disorder. People react to my analogies in a similar way sometimes, and then when I tell them I myself am gay and proud, then they get a confused look, then I say, I'm also autistic and proud, then they get a sheepish kind of look of sort of understanding but still having their head spin.

  22. Some gay people really don't like being gay and would rather be straight. Other gay folks are perfectly happy with who they are. Same goes for Autism, Aspergers, and most other genetic abnormalities.

    I think, in the coming century, one of the most important fights that we're going to have to wage and win, is the fight for the right of man to determine his or her own genetic destiny rather than being at nature's fickle mercy.

  23. This was a great read. If you don't mind I might read some from it on my talk show tomorrow night. I am also Autistic (HFA) and doing a show on Autism tomorrow night at 8:00pm Eastern. I am also PRO neurodiversity...if you get a chance you should come give a listen and even call in with YOUR opinions I would love that. The link is www.blogtalkradio.com/madasahatter and my email is v.show (at) ymail(dot)com :-) I am going to blogroll this on my wordpress blog as well so I can keep up!

  24. After fighting my homosexuality all my life, at age 63, with a wife of 38 years, I "saw the light." I am who I am, period. Having been "delivered," "prayed over," psychoanalyzied and having lived a loyal straight life all these years, avoiding any and all gay media, not even letting myself mastrubate to gay thoughts for at least 25 years, here I am --- a born-again, fundamental Catholic who loves Jesus and would certainly marry any man I fell in love with should my wife precede me in death. So there --- and now that the truth has finally set me free I AM a happy gay man --- with one exception --- I cannot have a gay relationship because it would break my wife's heart and I never want to hurt her. I love her and she has given me her life. How could I ever just dump her? The price for living out MY natural attraction (I had sex with my wife many times but was never sexually attracted to her -- not in any manner close to the way I am toward men and have been all my life) the price for me to live out this natural attraction would be heinously high. Sadly, the only unnatural thing I did was to enter into a lifelong sexual committment that was the opposite of my most instinctive attraction. It was what I grew up with , as a boy and then man of faith, believing God wanted me to do. I abandoned a wonderful young man I loved with all my heart because neither of us thought we had a choice, married my wife, and then he died in an auto accident. What do I look forward to in the life hearafter? After standing before the loving God I have served all my life, I look forward to an eternity of closeness with that boy who died in that auto accident. And since Jesus said there is no sex in heaven, I assure you this gay man wants that total relationship with his deceased male friend --- not for sex -- but because I love him from the depth of my heart -- inside out. THIS IS NOT AN ILLNESS. THIS IS NOT A DISORDER. THIS IS JUST THE WAY GOD HAS ALLOWED ME TO KNOW THE DEEPEST HUMAN LOVE. As a denying-gay man for so many years who even produced homophobic media material I know when I was "sick" and when I am "well." I was truly sick, depressed, angry and unhappy living the straight life. I am happy now that those around me, including my wife and employer, know the truth. Would it not hurt my loved ones, I could now stand on a mountain top and shout to the world --- I am gay and I am happy and I am glad God made me this way. I just wish so many of the self-righteous would mind their own business and let gay people be who they are it. It is as it is.

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