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 powerful, stark and emotional. The documentary opens with a grainy black and white reminder of the past. Here, 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 intimidation as he declares, “You will be caught, and the rest of your life will be a living hell”. Meanwhile, interviews with American citizens only further demonstrate this hate and contempt with statements such as, “Give them homes like they do the mentally insane” and “Homosexuality can be unlearned”.
Views of this nature do not just appear at birth; people in power encourage and inform such opinions. The psychiatric profession was one of those trusted voices keen to encourage a view of homosexuality built around mental illness and sexual deviance from the 1930s to the 1970s. For example, in the USA, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952) freely listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. While in the UK, experimental ‘treatment’ was an alternative to jail time for many gay men, figures such as Alan Turin 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. This open, public oppression of LGBTQ+ people encouraged discrimination, hate and violence while medicalising sexuality. For example, it is no secret that many LGBTQ+ people interned in concentration camps by Hitler’s Third Reich found little freedom on liberation. In fact, many found themselves re-arrested, the heinous crimes and human rights abuses committed against them conveniently brushed under the carpet. In a world where differing sexualities were viewed as deviant. The heterosexual world built on ideas of gender conformity, superior masculinity and subservient feminity.
However, it is interesting to note that many of the homophobic ideas circulating in psychology also defied prominent historical views. For example, 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”. Alfred Kinsey further explored this view in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), where the Kinsey scale of sexuality was born. However, in wider psychological practice, sexuality continued to be seen as a ‘problem’—many of the debates stemming from psychologies murky past in 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 at the heart of a small but dedicated fight for change. And 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. By the early 1970s, these activists would begin to disrupt psychiatric conventions, slowly gaining the confidence of leading psychologists in their cause, despite the conservative opinions surrounding them from psychiatrists like Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber. Both of whom tried to hide their blatant homophobia and discrimination under a veil of scientific prowess.
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. The fight’s key leaders given space to explore the complexities and challenges of their brave and bold fight for justice. In an urgent, timely and long overdue documentary exploring the dangerous and thinly veiled scientific beliefs held aloft by those who believed in social oppression. Beliefs that would ultimately affect the lives of every LGBTQ+ person throughout modern history.
However, this is a battle that still rages, from gender identity in psychology to the devastating continued use of conversion therapy. The waves of those very ideologies and practices continuing to impact the experience of LGBTQ+ people today, some 50 years on. And as governments continue to debate a ban on conversion therapy, one thing is clear; the fight isn’t over. The brave campaigners and activists of the past, calling out to us all to continue fighting for justice. And as Ron Gold famously stated, “You don’t have the right to decide that perfectly happy people are sick.” A message we all need to take forward in further challenging the injustices that still exist in our modern society. Was the world cured of homophobia in 1973? No, but the fight began in earnest; each new generation tasked with its completion.