How Sexology Pathologized Identity

Clark A. Pomerleau

File:Portrait of Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), Psychologist and Biologist (2575987702) crop.jpg

Havelock Ellis, a pioneering figure in sexology

Simultaneous with community self-definition, European sexology repackaged marital reproduction and widespread views on sin and crime in the language of medical science when they articulated the concepts of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” (Katz, 1995).The earliest sexologists campaigned against sodomy laws by asserting that same-sex attraction was benign variation, that is, harmless identities that differed from those focused on reproducing. Most sexologists, though, argued same-sex attraction correlated with gender transgression as a pathological identity (Chauncey, 1990; Duggan, 2000; Somerville, 1996). By 1892 the pathology model played a role in a Memphis insanity inquisition. In this case, women whom relatives originally considered romantic friends planned to marry each other by having one assume a male identity. Newspapers had recurring exposés on working-class women “passing” as men for work and freedom. But when family broke up this middle-class relationship, the distraught “masculine” half murdered her lover, and the defense lawyer her father hired used sexology to argue insanity (Duggan, 1993, pp. 795-798).

With the addition of sexology, gender non-normativity and same-sex attraction fit into religious ideas about sin, criminal laws, and now mental illness. Although queer communities continued to spread, society’s validation of romantic friendships declined, and anti-vice campaigns rose by the 1920s that punished queer public expression. After Prohibition ended, federal and state officials enacted alcoholic beverage control laws to police respectability in bars. State agents held authority to revoke alcohol licenses if bar owners allowed the presence of “undesirables” like prostitutes, gamblers, gays or lesbians (popular culture terms by the 1920s) who, according to these laws, made establishments disorderly (Chauncey, 1994, pp. 16-17; Zimmerman, 2003, pp. 776-777). From the 1930s through the 1960s police freely busted bar patrons on suspicion of homosexuality (Chauncey, 1994, pp. 336-337).