Thursday, May 11, 2006

Mental Instability [II, 36]

Not so long ago it was commonly accepted that the field of psychology had two main branches: normal and abnormal. Almost by definition homosexuals fell on the abnormal side of the ledger. Of course the term abnormal can be taken in a purely descriptive sense, in that opera divas and astronauts are abnormal. The usual impression, however, is that abnormality is equivalent to deviance. Impaired functioning is assumed. Such seemingly clinical terms as aberration, degeneration, and perversion are part of this discourse.

This assumption that gay people “have problems” is reinforced by two phenomena. Disproportionately those homosexuals who seek psychiatric intervention will be drawn from a subset of the larger group—from a vastly larger pool, that is, that consists mainly of a large number of people who do not need help. For a long time, though, the psychiatrists who saw these persons who were disturbed, or thought they were, defined the nature of homosexuality. This school, champtioned such supposed experts as Edmund Bergler and Irving Bieber, was prominent in mid-twentieth-century America. Ironically, this professional bias was reinforced by popular fixation on flamboyant queens, who seemed to be “acting out.” Quieter, better-integrated gays—most of them remaining in the closet—attracted no attention and did not figure in the equation.

In the nineteenth century, however, some astute observers noticed that many homosexuals, and others who had been psychiatrically stigmatized, seemed to be able to function as well as anyone else. To address this paradox an English physician James Cowell Prichard (1786-1848) advanced the concept of moral insanity. He defined this concept as “madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the intellect or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucination.” Translation: these people are insane—and not insane.

Still Krafft-Ebing and others continued to propagate the concept of psychopathia sexualis. It was left to Evelyn Hooker and other psychologists working in the second half of the twentieth century to show that gays and lesbians were indistinguishable from the rest of the population in terms of functioning.

All the same the stereotype persists that gays are extravagant and mercurial in their behavior—that they are crazy queens. This stereotype finds reinforcement in the behavior of some young people, who feel the need to “let it all hang out,” to be flamboyant and attention-grabbing as part of the coming out process. Indulgence in drugs and alcohol may play a role in such extravagance. The media coverage of exhibitionists in the annual gay pride parades in June of each year provides a continuing stream of images that seem to support this stereotype. Some youthful participants in these events have been known to wear teeshirts with the motto: “I can’t even think straight.”

Slang terms combine the idea of mental instability with effeminacy: thus French folle (as in the film and musical “La Cage aux Folles”) and Spanish loca. While both terms are of the feminine gender, they apply to male homosexuals. In English one may speak of a crazy or dizzy queen. Prior to its recent supposed defanging, queer trenched on this notion. During the 1930s there was some currency of the term bananas to designate an extravagant gay person.

There is a broader tradition associating being in love with insanity. The ancient Romans summed this up in the equation “amantes amentes." Famous exemplars were the medieval Tristan and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. In the twentieth century the Surrealists spoke of “l’amour fou” (crazy love). Still, homosexual madness is conceived of in a less tragic key, being stereotyped as farcical and (perhaps) pretended. It seems that the drama queen enjoys the effect (s)he produces.


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