An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Society. – Review

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Society. – Review – book review

Kevin White

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Society. By Jennifer Terry (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xiv plus 537pp.).

Jennifer Terry’s ‘An American Obsession is a work of breathtaking scholarship and gravitas. For four hundred tightly-argued pages she expounds on a very important subject: how scientists and doctors have in the last hundred and thirty years shaped discourse on homosexuality. Yet although her core argument is interesting, her research impeccable, her theoretical sophistication state-of-the art this is a work which most readers of this journal, and certainly rigorous “annalistes” everywhere should view with alarm.

Predictably, Terry situates her work firmly in the ideas of sex/love philosopher/guru Michel Foucault. She argues for the centrality of discourses about homosexuality in defining what is “normal” and “abnormal” in American society. She cites Foucault’s adage that “where there is power, there is resistance” and that discourses on homosexuality make for “a starting point for an opposing strategy”, (pp 16-17) and hence were particularly important. She notes that Foucault’s medical model has been misused by scholars who have placed excessive stress on the role of doctors and scientists in defining sexuality. She, of course, is not guilty of this. She rejects the idea that doctors and scientists stimulated a “reverse discourse” from homosexuals. On the contrary, many of the scientists and doctors were themselves homosexual. Many homosexuals, far from launching a “reverse discourse” “beseeched (doctors) for help and support in protecting them from hostile police harassment and fierce social prejudice.” (p18). Terry , interestingly, insists that “the scientific and medical construction of homosexuality was and is a collaborative process involving sexual dissenters who appraised science and medicine as enlightened, unbiased, and potentially benevolent avenues for producing knowledge about homosexuality” (p18).

But, says Terry, those homosexuals who sought the help of science and medicine got “the short end of the stick” (p18). And this, in a nutshell, is the real theme of her book. For Terry’s work is a tale of dualisms and binaries and dichotomies galore, that is of goodies and baddies. For, while this book is an undoubted tour de force that interprets and synthesises a wide range of material on the medicalisation of homosexuality, Terry never takes her eye off her political agenda, thus seriously weakening the work’s worth.

To be sure, the story that Terry tells us is a pretty gruesome one. She begins by discussing science classification in the mid 19th century before moving to the early medicalisation of homosexuality and then on to discuss the Progressives’ anxieties about homosexuality as a possible focus for disorder. From the 1920’s, social surveys revealed the wide prevalence of homosexuality and hence ensured that such practices were seen very widely as threatening. Terry is particularly good on George Henry’s late 1930s study of “sex variants” in NYC. She then proceeds to analyse Alfred Kinsey’s celebrated surveys which she sees as representing in the context of the Cold War the acme of a debate about “objective statistical methods versus subjective psychiatric case studies”. Kinsey, the sexual liberationist, of course is on the side of the angels. She then develops in greater detail the “postwar paranoia” about homosexuality before discussing the rise of a gay and lesbian movement and a concomitant medical commentary th at, particularly in its insistence on the existence of a gay gene, recalls earlier simplistic, essentialist classifications of the homosexual.

Much of this material is inevitably, familiar, but it has rarely been placed together. It is not, however, over-ambition that causes Terry to come unstuck but rather her openly presentist view of historical method which she proudly and pompously displays in her introduction. While she does indicate her debt to Foucault’s concept of “effective history” her major historiographical influence is Nietzsche no less! She insists that he “decried what he called monumental, antiquarian and critical approaches to history, for each dealt on that past in a manner that distanced the past from the present” (p 25). For Terry’s view of history is firmly presentist, or as the blurb on the back of the book suggests, she is proposing here a “useable past”. Her hope is that readers comprehend the violence committed against sexual dissenters via discourses that officially proclaim them inferior, defective and maladjusted. She hopes that they comprehend how this violence deforms the lives of even the ‘normal’ and ‘unafflicted’. S he thus sets out her stall firmly as a Postmodernist, citing Haydn White that history has the special task of inducing in people “an awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices, which could, therefore be changed by further human action in precisely that degree” (p 25).

Hence Terry’s own work seems to epitomise the difficulties of the Postmodern method. Her “useable past” is not the carefully weighed scholarship that can help prevent future error that Van Wyck Brooks coined the term for. Indeed Brooks is probably rolling in his grave. For because Terry’s eye never strays from the present, she fails to notice the past. She has not recognised what Warren Susman once called “the pastness of the past”. Because she has decided what her findings would be before she started, she has failed to let her sources speak to her.

In this book scientists are either helpful to the homosexual cause or hindering of it. Throughout the work she refers to those of “conservative” moral views. From this vantage point, it is very hard to see where the “conservatives” are. Is Terry referring to “Progressives” or to “Victorians”? It is hard to tell as the word “conservative”, perhaps applicable to the religious right today, would not have been used to tarnish “Progressives” or “Victorians” in the early 20th century. At one stage (p 331) she refers to “reactionaries”(who) demanded a return to “tradition” but we are no wiser as this definition must have included pretty much everyone in early 20th century America beyond bohemian circles.

If she is free with her criticisms, she is equally ready to praise. The social surveyor, George Henry, is described as “more pitying and sympathetic” (p 287). Margaret Mead is praised as “nonjudgemental” of homosexuals (p 170). Psychoanalyst A.A. Brill has a “sympathetic perspective” (p 110) and adopts “a more generous approach”. A group of doctors is charged with showing “very little of the pity and compassion” of another group (p 79). Havelock Ellis “apparently” had a much more “charitable approach” than other doctors. Hence an array of complex positions is praised or blamed, named or shamed according to the most presentist of criteria. Terry knows who the goodies are.

This is alarming enough, but as Terry moves closer and closer to the present she loses perspective altogether. She laughably describes Kinsey as having adopted “objective statistical methods” and as having sought a “representative sample of sex histories” (pp 24, 388) But Kinsey is surely a classic example of a snowball sample; he took histories wherever he could find them, especially if they were from frequenters of gay bars and from prisoners. Terry seems blissfully unaware of the current debate around Kinsey’s methods and ethics. But, then, as she writes, Kinsey was “useful in campaigns to gain homosexual rights” (p 362). Ah, so therefore we should forgive him?

Terry seems, however, to completely lose her grip in her epilogue where she offers a bizarre discussion of her views on the current culture wars. In particular, she rails against the efforts to find a gay gene by Simon Le Vay, whom she describes out of the blue, as appealing to “white or middle class gay men”. While she makes it clear that Le Vay is meant to be a reincarnation of the essentialist, biological Victorian scientist, it is quite unclear what she suddenly has against the majority of gay men whom she has so consistently defended in her book, including no doubt many of her colleagues and students at the OSU Division of Comparative Studies.

Her next move is even weirder. She adopts the hysterical tones herself of the Christian Right, describing as “dangerous” the views of Le Vay (p 396). A social worker who works with suicidal gay teens recently remarked that the biology or destiny line can be deadly “because they, apparently, find the position that male / female is biologically rooted harder to live with than that at some time they made a choice”. She then links both the Christian Right and heterosexuals as a whole with the horrible murder of gay teenager Matthew Shephard. “During the very week in October 1998 when a gay college student was brutally beaten and murdered by two heterosexual men who entrapped him, a series of full-page advertisements appeared in national newspapers across the United States urging gays and lesbians to turn to God and give up their sinful ways”. (p 384) Because the authors of the ads refused to reiterate “their opposition to proposed hate crimes legislation,” for Terry they are tainted. What precisely does this opp osition to such legislation have to do with Shephard’s murder?

Terry’s work then, is a warning of the perils of postmodernist historiographical approaches. But it also serves to make us aware that, however hard it may be to leave our biases behind when we write history, we must try. Terry, for all her gargantuan efforts, has not in fact helped her cause. Gays and Lesbians deserve much, much more than a “useable past” as defined by Terry. For in Terry’s hands a “useable past” is surely, to paraphrase Warren Susman again, a useless past. Whatever their politics all historians must muster and master (as many have) the techniques of a “traditional” history. And, if some of the findings prove unpalatable then they must be reported nonetheless. The history of the United States is much too serious a matter for the whole world for it to be reduced to a mere battleground for the current culture wars. This smacks of the very decadent elitism that Postmodemists like Terry claim to transcend.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Carnegie Mellon University Press

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