The New Yorker
Originally posted June 26, 2019
Here is an excerpt:
As preposterous as the idea of homosexual panic may sound today, for much of the twentieth century it was treated as something like common sense. “When a beast attacks, you are justified in killing him,” is the way one defense attorney phrased the principle behind it, in 1940. The press, too, sometimes discussed the idea approvingly. The New York Daily News described a 1944 murder of a gay man as an “honor slaying.” In 1952, homosexual panic was listed as a mental disorder in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and, as late as the nineteen-nineties, the notion was still so current in the popular mind that a Christopher Street shop selling gay-themed T-shirts was called, in what seems to have been ironic homage, Don’t Panic.
It turns out that the psychological concept has a less than illustrious origin. The term “homosexual panic,” Polchin reports, was coined by a psychiatrist named Edward Kempf, in a 1920 treatise titled “Psychopathology.” Polchin garbles a key quote from Kempf, printing “sexually attracted” where Kempf wrote “sexually attractive,” and I took a look at the relevant chapter to see if I could make sense of it. It’s understandable that Polchin got confused. Kempf’s text is neither lucid nor coherent.
Kempf theorized that homosexual panic emerged from “the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings,” that is, from the frustration of homosexual urges that typically arose in same-sex environments, such as prison or the military. According to Kempf, symptoms of the panic included a fearfulness that could lead to catatonia, a “compulsion to seek or submit to assault,” and delusional perceptions of being poisoned or entranced. Indeed, the hallucinations and paranoid delusions that many of Kempf’s patients suffered from were quite serious. One patient imagined that broken pills were being surreptitiously put into his pudding; another went through spells of believing he was God.
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