Cured is showing at BFI Flare from Wednesday, 17th March – Sunday, 28th March; book tickets here.
As the British government continues to kick their promise to ban conversion therapy into the long grass, Cured could not be more timely and urgent. The documentary’s exploration of the treatment of LGBTQ+ people by the American Psychiatric Association is powerful, stark and emotional. Cured opens with a grainy black-and-white reminder of the past. as a group of school kids sit listening to a middle-aged man preach about the dangers of homosexuality. His words are full of hate, bile and anger as he declares, “You will be caught, and the rest of your life will be a living hell” this is then followed by interviews on streetcorners where passers-by state, “Give them homes like they do the mentally insane,” and “Homosexuality can be unlearned”.
These discriminatory views are not with people at birth; they are learnt over years from the state and its institutions. The psychiatric profession was one of the trusted voices encouraging a view of homosexuality as a mental illness and sexual deviance from the 1930s to the 1970s. In the United States, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952) listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, while in the UK, experimental ‘treatments’ were an alternative to jail time for many gay men, with many undergoing forced electroshock therapies.
Meanwhile, on the world stage, homosexuality was classified as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation up until 1992. The open, public oppression of LGBTQ+ people encouraged discrimination, hate and violence while medicalising the very foundations of sexuality and love. Many LGBTQ+ people who were interned in concentration camps by Hitler’s Third Reich found little freedom in liberation as they were re-arrested. The heinous crimes and human rights abuses committed against them conveniently brushed under the carpet as another cell door slammed shut.
However, many of the homophobic views circulating in psychology were also challenged by brave psychologists willing to stand in defiance. For example, for all his faults, Freud claimed, “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function”. Meanwhile, Alfred Kinsey openly explored sexuality in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), developing the very notion that sexuality existed on a scale or spectrum. However, in wider psychological practice, sexuality continued to be seen as a ‘problem’ with many debates rooted in the murky and dark past of eugenics.
The 1960s saw the emergence of a more confident campaign for LGBTQ+ equality in both the USA and the UK, with the fight against psychiatric diagnoses and treatment led by a small but dedicated group of psychologists. While many view the Stonewall riots as the birth of the gay liberation movement in 1969, many brave US activists already had APA and the psychology profession in their sights by this point, disrupting psychiatric conventions, while slowly gaining the confidence of leading psychologists in their field. Despite the conservative opinions surrounding them from psychiatrists like Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber this group would win the trust of others and make significant progress by the early 1970s.
Combining interviews with archive footage, filmmakers Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer provide us with a deeply emotional, hopeful and urgent exploration of the campaign for LGBTQ+ human rights. Here the key leaders of that fight are given space to explore the complexities and challenges of their brave and bold march for justice in an urgent, timely and long-overdue documentary.
However, this is a battle that still rages, from gender identity in psychology to the devastating continued use of conversion therapy; and one thing is clear, the fight isn’t over! As we attempt to move further forward, the brave campaigners and activists of the past call out to us to continue the fight for justice; as Ron Gold said, “You don’t have the right to decide that perfectly happy people are sick.” This is a message we all need to take forward, for the world wasn’t cured of homophobia in 1973, but the fight began in earnest, with each new generation tasked with its completion.