4 min

Shocking treatment


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Homos in Canada are no longer regularly subjected to electroshock therapy to “cure” their homosexuality, but queers elsewhere in the world may still be subjected to the treatment — with or without their consent.

According to Bonnie Burstow, a professor at the Ontario Institute For Studies In Education at the University Of Toronto whose area of research includes shock therapy and psychiatric survivors, queers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were frequently subjected to electroshock therapy, which was supposed to restore the brain to normality, and thus rid the patient of homosexual urges. Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders until 1973.

Although the treatment was sometimes technically voluntary, Burstow says the “consent” of patients was often the result of threats from doctors and families.

“If you tell someone they’re going to end up in a back ward [in a mental institution] for the rest of their life, they’ll sign,” says Burstow.

But Burstow says queers were treated without their consent, too. Those under 18 were still in the charge of their parents or guardians, while for adults a refusal to accept treatment for homosexuality could be considered enough reason to commit a patient.

“When you agree with the treatment, they think you’re competent and if you disagree, you’re incompetent. Someone signed for them. By no one’s standard was it voluntary.”

In the 1985 book and corresponding art exhibit, Still Sane, writer and psychiatric survivor Sheila Gilhooly wrote about her commitment to a mental institution in the ’70s and being forced to undergo electroshock treatment for her lesbianism.

“I told my shrink I didn’t want to be cured of being a lesbian. He said that just proved how sick I was. He said I needed shock treatment… 19 shock treatments, and I still didn’t want to be cured of being a lesbian.”

Gilhooly became tangled in the psychiatric system after her first female lover suggested that she see a shrink to help her come to terms with her homosexuality.

“Diane was older and supposedly wiser and she said being a lesbian wasn’t that easy. She said I was bound to have lots of subconscious guilt which I would have to resolve in order to have a happy life. She’d been seeing a shrink for years. So I went to see a shrink, too; a woman shrink, which I thought would be easier.

“The shrink was very grave and said it was serious and bad. I got a bit upset and even shed six or seven tears, so the shrink gave me my first Valium. After I left, she phoned the Royal Hospital. She said she had this sicko lesbian who should be hospitalized for a while. She said she could certify me against my will since maybe I was self-destructive. After all, I had cried in her office and I was a lesbian to boot. I spent the next three years in and out of mental hospitals.”

Gilhooly blames the electroshock treatment she received for destroying her memory and ability to perform even basic tasks.

“After shock treatments my memory was kind of wrecked, even for following conversations or remembering what I’d had for breakfast. My shrink said it had nothing to do with shock… [that] it was ’cause I didn’t want to remember and stuff like that.

Electroshock therapy wasn’t the worst that patients being treated for homosexuality had to endure.

“By the 1940s homosexuality was discussed as an aspect of psychopathic, paranoid and schizoid personality disorders,” states an article on the treatment of homosexuality in the US, in The Atlantic magazine in 1997. “Having defined homosexuality as a pathology, psychiatrists and other doctors made bold to ‘treat’ it.

“James Harrison, a psychologist who produced the 1992 documentary film Changing Our Minds, notes that the medical profession viewed homosexuality with such abhorrence that virtually any proposed treatment seemed defensible. Lesbians were forced to submit to hysterectomies and estrogen injections, although it became clear that neither of these had any effect on their sexual orientation.

“Gay men were subjected to similar abuses. Changing Our Minds incorporates a film clip from the late 1940s, now slightly muddy, of a young gay man undergoing a transorbital lobotomy. We see a small device like an ice pick inserted through the eye socket, above the eyeball and into the brain. The pick is moved back and forth, reducing the prefrontal lobe to a hemorrhaging pulp.

“Harrison’s documentary also includes a grainy black-and-white clip from a 1950s educational film produced by the US Navy. A gay man lies in a hospital bed. Doctors strap him down and attach electrodes to his head. ‘We’re going to help you get better,’ says a male voice in the background. When the power is turned on, the body of the gay man jerks violently and he begins to scream.”

According to reports from the International Lesbian And Gay Association (ILGA) and other international human rights organizations, electroshock treatment is still being used on queers in some parts of the world. According to a 2000 report from ILGA for example, queers in Russia could still face such treatment through the ’90s.

“Until recently, it was exceedingly easy in Russia to commit someone to a psychiatric institution,” states the report. “Olga, 24, reports that when she was 17, a teacher at the technical school where she was a student found out she was having a relationship with another female student. The teacher contacted a psychiatric institution, and both young women were committed.

“Olga’s friend was released through the intervention of her parents, but Olga, who had only a mother who lived far away, remained in the hospital for three months. She says she was subjected to electroshock treatments and given drugs that severely altered her consciousness and caused hallucinations. After she was released from hospital, she was compelled to register with a local psychiatric clinic, where she was required to check in regularly, and her passport was stamped to indicate she had a psychiatric illness.”