I was surprised by the outbreak of homophobia which greeted the appointment of Jeffrey John, an openly homosexual man, as an Anglican bishop.
Such was the outcry at the decision that the appointment was soon rescinded, and the cause of tolerance in church life was put back for an indefinate period. Bigots had won the day.
Freud would not have been as surprised as I was. Quite apart from his healthy scepticism about human progress and the veneer of civilisation which accompanies it, he lived in a time when homosexuality was itself illegal and subject to severe punishments.
Beset as it was with social disadvantages, it could hardly be a life-choice one would advocate unreservedly. Yet recognising the social disadvantages (and the psychological pain it caused to millions) his attitude displays a tolerance remarkably lacking in today’s furore.
Freud’s attitude is known from a letter he wrote to a distraught mother who had written him for advice. He replies:
I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual… 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, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc) It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.”
(Letter of April 9 1935)
Someone unfamiliar with Freud’s work may pick up on the phrase ‘produced by a certain arrest of sexual development’. In fact Freud considers that all forms of sexuality in civilized society are ‘severely impaired’, and he explains why in his book Civilization and its Discontents.
In a hitherto unknown letter, recently auctioned in London and bought by an anonymous buyer (if you read this, please reply to our letter!), Freud writes to a homosexual man clearly troubled by his sexual constitution, who had entered a relationship with a younger lover. The original letter is lost, and we do not know the identity of the man in question.
His executors, however, were clearly concerned that the contents of Freud’s letter should remain secret since the envelope in which it came is marked with the words: “This letter should not be opened but should be burned unopened”.
We are delighted to say that the instruction was ignored. Here are the contents of the newly discovered letter:
I am willing to give you information to the best of my knowledge.
I cannot agree with you when you call homosexuality a vice or a crime. It is neither of the two, whatever the legal codes of various countries might imply. But it is certainly a disadvantageous predisposition and efforts to overcome it are justified. If only they succeeded as easily!
Psychoanalysis has been of assistance in rare cases, in numerous others it has strengthened a concurrently existing predisposition to the point that the person in question can live bisexually; in most cases it fails to influence the abnormal inclination. Since such a treatment is lengthy and expensive, you probably have nothing to expect from this direction.
The case is perhaps different for your friend, since he is much younger his decision may not be definitive and you are taking on a certain responsibility if you create experiences which confirm him in his homosexuality. Advice about this will not achieve anything; he must decide between the two, which impulse is strongest.
The case of the homosexual in today’s society is not as hopeless as it seems to you. In every country there are a number of individuals who although they are outside the norm in this one instance prove themselves to be fully valid in many others, distinguishing themselves by outstanding achievements. It is also well known that some of the greatest personalities of the past were homosexual. Even more frequent is the case that men follow one sexual direction during a certain period of their lives and later exchange it for the other. Or that they remain susceptible to both sexes – that is bisexual – throughout their lives. Finally one cannot overlook the fact that a certain degree of inclination towards a homosexual object choice is part of the constitution of the so-called normal man.
Instead of advice I place these clarifications at your disposal.
Translation: Michael Molnar
Is it Freud’s awareness of the fluidity of sexuality – his own and other people’s – which lies at the root of his tolerant attitude? Or was it his ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty which led to his revolutionary understanding of sexuality?