‘Curing queers’

Mental nurses and their patients, 1935–74

Tommy Dickinson
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Anecdotal evidence of the testimonies of patients who received treatments for sexual deviations and medical attitudes towards them are scattered in the recorded accounts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex and queer/questioning (GLBTIQ) people. This book examines the plight of men who were institutionalised in British mental hospitals to receive 'treatment' for homosexuality and transvestism, and the perceptions and actions of the men and women who nursed them. It explores why the majority of the nurses followed orders in administering the treatment - in spite of the zero success-rate in 'straightening out' queer men - but also why a small number surreptitiously defied their superiors by engaging in fascinating subversive behaviours. The book is specifically about the treatments developed for sexual deviations in the UK. Transvestism was also treated fairly widely; however, not to the same extent as homosexuality. After an examination of the oppression and suppression of the sexual deviant, the introduction of aversion therapies for sexual deviance is considered. During the 1930s-1950s, mental health care witnessed a spirit of 'therapeutic optimism' as new somatic treatments and therapies were introduced in mental hospitals. The book also examines the impact these had on the role of mental nurses and explores how such treatments may have essentially normalised nurses to implement painful and distressing 'therapeutic' interventions . The book interprets the testimonies of these 'subversive nurses'. Finally, it explores the inception of 'nurse therapists' and discusses their role in administering aversion therapy.

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Winner of the Lavinia L. Dock Research Award, 2015


‘…an accomplished, lucid, important account, well contextualised and full of fascinating and often quite moving (and horrific) detail. Dickinson is to be congratulated on a very fine piece of scholarship that deserves a wide readership.'
Brian Lewis, Professor of History, McGill University, Canada

‘This is an excellent, thoroughly researched, well written work and makes for a very valuable and important contribution to the fields of nursing, literature and science.'
Catherine Bryce (BSc), Retired Mental Health Nurse
British Society for Literature and Science
November 2016

‘This is an extremely important, well researched and well written book. "Curing Queers" reminds us that it is vital to consider the principle of 'first do no harm', to seek out the evidence base for new treatments and to question practices which can harm our patients.'
Claire Hilton
British Journal of Psychiatry

‘Drawing on a vast range of scholarly literature, this book is a timely and cautionary account of how, in the recent past, homosexuality came to be seen as a psychiatric illness. The book explores with sensitivity and even-handedness the measures taken to "treat" it. Despite lack of both understanding and knowledge, doctors and nurses enthusiastically deployed untested theories to rid homosexuals of their "symptoms" and to alter their identity and sexual orientation. While some mental health personnel were genuinely attempting to relieve people from what they saw as the misery of their lives, others doubtless saw the management of homosexuality as an opportunity to promote psychiatry and advance their careers. The book is structured around two dominant themes, firstly that health services frequently come under political pressure to deliver more than they are capable of, and secondly that mental health personnel have frequently overstated their capabilities. Science, evidence and policy are necessary foundations upon which to build health services, but all of these must beware that they are not biased by prevailing mores if they are to be confident of doing no harm. What is deemed unacceptable behaviour may well be dependent on the social context in which it is displayed. This challenging and engaging book will inform and, on occasion, astonish those with an interest in mental health problems and service delivery. Tommy Dickinson has presented a salutary warning to maturing professions that they should learn from and analyse the influences that shaped the intentions and interventions of their predecessors. This book is a tour de force and should be read by everyone with an interest in mental health care and by all who recognise their democratic responsibility to ensure that those in need are assisted and neither deceived nor abused.'
Peter Nolan, Professor of Mental Health Nursing (Emeritus), Staffordshire University

‘This engaging text provides a historical overview of the sociocultural and legal frameworks that informed the classification and treatment of queer people up to 1974. The book provides a beautifully balanced argument to make visible the brutal "treatments" and care practices people were subjected to in the name of biomedicine and psychiatry. The heterosexual norms that underpinned the systems of diagnosis and classification are evident in the life narratives of those who accessed treatment, some against their will following referral via court orders. The text gives voice to the courage of queer people and practitioners to resist these norms. This form of resistance that coincided with the gay liberation movement and other historic events, were instrumental in the de-medicalisation of sexuality, where life became viable for those who differ from the norm. The book succeeds in giving an account of the advance towards gender and sexual plurality.'
Laetitia Zeeman, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, University of Brighton

‘This well structured book makes a valuable contribution to the historiographies of psychiatric treatments, mental health nursing and sexuality, and is, therefore, highly recommended to both students and established scholars. Not only does it reveal yet another dark episode of twentieth century psychiatry in Britain, but it raises important questions around clinical empathy and the consequences of societal attitudes and institutional structures on the very real lived experiences of residents and patients.'
Dr Louise Hide, Birkbeck, University of London
History of Psychiatry
February 2016

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