I like to think that, were he alive today, Sigmund Freud would agree gay conversion therapy is unnecessary and cruel.

Share story

MONDAY’S Seattle City Council vote means it’s now illegal within city limits for licensed mental-health professionals to practice what’s commonly called “gay-conversion therapy” on anyone under the age of 18. Almost to a one, major medical and psychological associations in the United States have called gay-conversion therapy ill-conceived and brutal.

The politics of the matter, however, are far from settled. Five states, the District of Columbia, Miami Beach and Cincinnati already protect children from conversion therapy. But the platform of the Republican National Committee backs parents’ rights to choose conversion therapy for minors. Speaking at the Democratic convention, Chelsea Clinton called the RNC’s embrace of conversion therapy the “most offensive” aspect of its convention and she called conversion therapy “child abuse.”

For anyone wondering precisely what gay-conversion therapy is, there is no neat answer. It’s pretty much any emotionally coercive tactic that a therapist might want to use to try to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. That lack of precision and the “desperate times call for desperate measures” approach to a therapy inherently freighted with contempt was actually pioneered by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. And one of his early conversion patients seems to have been his own daughter.

At the age of 23, Anna Freud was content with her old-maid status and enjoying a special friendship with a young woman. That’s when (and, my guess is, why) her father invited her to meet with him nightly for analysis.

He considered lesbianism among adult women to be a far more serious matter — both a moral death sentence and a gateway to mental illness.”

Yes, Sigmund Freud considered homosexual impulses nearly universal in children and only neurotic in grown men. But he considered lesbianism among adult women to be a far more serious matter — both a moral death sentence and a gateway to mental illness.

Why? Sigmund Freud thought it had to do with male genitalia. (No surprise, right?) The castration complex is a boy’s fear, inherited from apes, that Papa will chop off his member for misbehavior. Fear of castration imbues a boy with morality. Having nothing protuberant to lose, according to Freud, girls never learn right from wrong. Worse, babies are their penis substitutes — or so Freud thought — and girls want them so badly that they hone skills like lying and manipulating, all in hopes of ensnaring a sperm donor.

Sigmund and Anna met six nights a week to discuss her dreams and fantasies. By my count, they met for about 1,000 clinical hours. Anna eventually became a psychoanalyst.

So, what happened? Did conversion therapy by the great Sigmund Freud turn Anna straight?

Anna’s attachment to her young friend did not survive the period of her analysis. Shortly after analysis ended, however, she met Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune. They were inseparable for 54 years. They raised Dorothy’s children together.

In 1938, after the Nazis occupied Vienna, the Freud family fled to England. Near London, Anna and Dorothy established a home for war orphans and children separated from their parents by the London Blitz. There they rescued more than 100 infants and children.

Although theirs was an enormous, hard-to-heat house, there was nothing institutional about the feel of their home. Each child was placed in a “family,” parented by a refugee from Eastern Europe, and was treated by an analyst attuned to separation anxiety and war trauma. After V-E Day, the children with living parents returned to their families.

Anna and Dorothy never did come out of the closet. And for decades, Sigmund Freud’s devotees have denied the sexual implications of their friendship. But in an interview with Freudian analyst Isaac Tylim for a 2011 article in the Buenos Aires Herald, Dorothy’s grandson Michael spilled the family beans. A deathbed note left by his father described Anna and Dorothy as intimate in every sense of the word.

I like to think that, were he alive today, Sigmund Freud would be impressed enough by the morality displayed by Anna and Dorothy to change his ideas about lesbians and women in general. I also like to think he would agree with the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians and virtually every other major medical or psychological association: Gay-conversion therapy is unnecessary and cruel. After all, he was a man of science.

Today, almost 100 years after he started analyzing his own daughter, no one has produced credible evidence that sexual orientation can be altered therapeutically. There is just as little real evidence that it should be attempted. And it’s a terrible thing to do to a child.