The shameful history of psychedelic gay conversion therapy

Anti-gay preacher London Gay Pride 2011
London Pride 2011: Public and medical attitudes to homosexuality have come a long way since the psychedelic sixties, but in most countries “conversion therapy” remains legal in private practice and under the guise of religious “ex gay” counselling. Photo: Jason/Flickr

In the softly lit Acid Room of Hollywood Hospital, Ravel’s Bolero is playing through expensive speakers. Prints of Dali’s Crucifixion and Gauguin’s Buddha hang on the wall. Dressed in pyjamas and a bathrobe, a man swallows 400 micrograms of LSD – a truly heroic dose – stretches out on a plush couch and dons an eye mask. For the next 6 to 12 hours, a female and a male member of staff – representing his mother and father – will watch over him. “Just go with the experience – whatever happens,” they advise. Later, in the midst of the trip, they encourage him to gaze at photographs of his loved ones and contemplate his reflection in a hand mirror, dredging emotionally charged, repressed memories from his subconscious and sparking life-changing flashes of insight.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, wealthy clients paid to be psychoanalysed in the Acid Room at this private hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, for problems ranging from relationship difficulties to alcoholism, depression and – it now transpires – homosexuality. Research papers and medical records that have gathered dust for decades reveal that LSD and mescaline-assisted “conversion therapy” was available not only in Canada, but also in the US and the UK.

The drugs were outlawed in the late 1960s, but sweeping aside half a century of cultural taboo and legal constraints, a renaissance in psychedelic psychotherapy is in full swing. Clinical trials of psilocybin-assisted treatment for depression have launched in the UK and across Europe, and in October the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) awarded the potential treatment “breakthrough therapy” status, which will fast-track approval if results from the trials are positive. Other studies suggest these powerful drugs can ease the distress of life-threatening illnesses, help smokers quit and curb addiction to alcohol and hard drugs.

Public and political attitudes are changing, too, especially in the US. In Oregon, a measure to allow psilocybin-assisted therapy could be on the ballot in elections next year, and the citizens of Denver, Colorado, have just voted to decriminalise psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms – the first US city to do so and almost certainly not the last.

Amid all the renewed enthusiasm for the healing powers of drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, the dark history of psychedelic gay conversion therapy has been largely forgotten, but a history masters student at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada called Andrea Ens recently unearthed a dozen cases in the records of Hollywood Hospital.

Acid Room Hollywood Hospital
The Acid Room where clients paid to be psychoanalysed under the influence of LSD for issues ranging from alcoholism and relationship difficulties to homosexuality. Photo from J. R. MacLean et al, LSD-25 and Mescaline as Therapeutic Adjuvants, 1965

The hospital was internationally renowned for LSD-assisted psychoanalysis – among its clients were the actor Cary Grant, jazz singer Andy Williams and Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert. In 2016, as part of a project to create a database of its records from 1955 to 1973, Ens was trawling through correspondence when a single sentence leapt out at her. A patient she calls Charles Stroud (not his real name) wrote that after taking LSD at the hospital he discovered his “role in procreation”, experiencing sexual interest in women for the first time.

“That really caught my attention,” Ens told me. “I did some more digging over that summer and found a total of 12 patients who all came to Hollywood Hospital for treatment on the basis of their same-sex attraction to men.” The autobiographies written by clients as part of their treatment make for sobering reading. One described both himself and homosexuality as “evil”. Another described his low self-esteem, writing that he was “not worth reproducing”. One man suffered from depression, believing himself to be a “devious” person for concealing his true sexual desires, and had considered suicide.

Ens writes in her thesis that even though the men came from a wide variety of backgrounds – they included a professor of political science, a clothes designer, a teacher, a social worker and a Roman Catholic priest – they were united in their desperation to conform to prevailing heterosexual ideals. “These men wanted treatment because they wanted to be loved. They wanted to be happy. They wanted to be accepted by their friends, family, loved ones, co-workers, and society at large, and they believed they could not have these things for themselves if they were homosexual.”

In informal correspondence with the clinic after LSD sessions, three out of the 12 patients claimed to have become heterosexual or ceased homosexual activity. One wrote in an undated Christmas card that he was now married with a child on the way. But there was no systematic follow-up after the treatment. “There were some patients who believed that it helped set them on the right path, however they defined the right path,” Ens said. “But the fact is we don’t know what happened to most of these patients when they left the hospital doors.”

Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia
Rear view of Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster. Photo: The Province, 8 July 1975

Regardless of whether LSD changed the men’s sexual orientation, the records provide stark evidence of the loneliness and self-loathing engendered by the social and legal strictures of the times. “Some patients described having suicidal ideation, some described feeling very unsafe as same-sex attracted men in Canadian society, and for very good reason,” Ens said. “There was widespread state-sanctioned discrimination against same-sex attracted men.”

Sex between men was illegal in Canada, as it was almost everywhere, and in a spirit of Cold War paranoia a unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been set up to root out gay men – thought to be at risk of blackmail from Soviet agents – from the civil service, military and police. Part of the campaign was a project to develop a device that would be used to vet personnel by measuring changes in their pupil size and skin conductance in response to homoerotic images.

The setup, which became known as the “Fruit Machine”, was plagued by technical problems and never got beyond the development stage, but the wider campaign continued. The mounties would blackmail gay men and women into giving up the names of others they knew and by 1967 they had compiled nine thousand files on known or suspected homosexuals, many of whom lost their livelihoods as a result.

Most psychiatrists considered homosexuality to be an illness: it was listed as a personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973. Ens writes that psychiatric and legal experts nonetheless disagreed on its nature: “Some believed it was a disease, others thought it was a crime, and, interestingly, there were many individuals who conceptualised it as a combination of the two; homosexuality was in their opinion a psychopathic disorder which necessarily led to criminal actions.”

This mindset was evident at the Forensic Clinic at Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, where “sexual deviants” – a classification that included not only exhibitionists and paedophiles but also homosexuals – were referred by the courts for psychoanalysis from 1956 onwards. Men and women also volunteered themselves for therapy or were referred by their families or community organisations. In the 1960s, however, after it became apparent that psychoanalysis alone was ineffective, the clinic turned increasingly to consciousness-altering drugs such as the barbiturate sodium amytal and LSD.

Before moving to Canada, one of the clinic’s psychiatrists, J. R. Ball, described giving the powerful psychedelic to “sexual perverts” in the UK at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1961, he reported in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal that he had treated a transvestite, a “transsexualist”, five gay men and one lesbian. He doesn’t appear to have had much success. “None of these have been treated more than five months ago, but the impression gained is that, whilst they usually claim to be improved, the improvement is not confirmed by subsequent behaviour,” he wrote.

“An enormous amount of energy from every fiber of your body is released under LSD especially sexual energy. There is no question that LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man.” Timothy Leary

From the early 1960s, LSD conversion therapy was also available in London at the Marlborough Day Hospital, where a Freudian analyst called Joyce Martin claimed in 1962 that seven out of 12 gay men she had treated became heterosexual, with only one “slight relapse” during a three- to six-year follow-up.

Doctors in the US, including the renowned Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, are known to have offered psychedelic conversion to their patients, though there is scant documentary evidence of its efficacy. In their 1966 book The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, for example, Jean Houston and Robert Masters wrote that they observed “a marked trend towards heterosexualisation” in a gay man in the weeks after he took mescaline. While not claiming a “cure”, they reported that other homosexual patients who took psychedelics under their supervision exhibited increased masculinity, including “heightened aggressiveness, an impression of greater self-confidence and probably better self-esteem, with a notable deepening of the voice in some cases”.  

About this time, psychedelics’ reputation as “gay cures” got a boost from none other than Timothy Leary, the scientist notorious for exhorting American youth to “turn on, tune in, drop out”. Leary told an interviewer from Playboy magazine in 1966: “An enormous amount of energy from every fiber of your body is released under LSD especially sexual energy. There is no question that LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man.” He went on to claim that this made the drug “a specific cure” for homosexuality in both men and women.

Timothy Leary Playboy interview
Screenshot of Timothy Leary’s interview for Playboy magazine in 1966

“That quotation from Leary, who was really the high priest of the gospel of LSD, gives us a window into how people understood psychedelics at this time period and their relation to sexuality,” Ens said. Leary conceded there was no guarantee of the drug’s effect. “One man may take LSD and leave wife and family and go off to be a monk on the banks of the Ganges. Another may take LSD and go back to his wife.” Nonetheless, he boasted to the interviewer about all the priests, monks and nuns to whom he had given LSD who experienced “the most intense sexual reaction” and packed in the holy life for good.

Leary’s former colleague Richard Alpert was one of those whose transformation was spiritual rather than sexual. Alpert and Leary had been kicked out of Harvard in 1963 after Leary’s psychedelic proselytising on campus and their questionable research practices fatally undermined any claims of scientific objectivity. But while Leary would wind up in prison after attempting to smuggle cannabis into the US across the Mexican border, Alpert embarked on a pilgrimage to India in 1967 and returned as the guru Ram Dass.

In his former incarnation as a psychedelic researcher and therapist, Alpert attempted to convert a bisexual man to heterosexuality through a series of LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions in the presence of a woman his client knew, culminating in their having sex. The patient had written to Alpert asking for the treatment, which apparently led to his first heterosexual relationship (with a different woman), though again there was no formal, long-term follow-up to confirm whether or not his sexuality had actually changed.

Reflecting the medical orthodoxy of the times, the scientist wrote in an article published by Psychedelic Review in 1969 that LSD showed promise for “alleviating sexual pathology”. What he didn’t mention was that he was himself happily bisexual, something which in his later life as a spiritual guru he would make no secret of. In a recent interview for GQ, Ram Dass even suggests that sexuality may have played an indirect role in his sacking from Harvard. The specific reason for the dismissal was that he gave psychedelics to a male undergraduate, breaking a prior agreement with the Dean. “He was an attractive kid,” he says.

Alex Belser, a clinical psychologist and psychedelic researcher at New York University, told me that even in the psychedelic research community it is not widely known that psychiatrists were using LSD and mescaline in conversion attempts in the 60s and 70s. “It’s terrifying that these medicines have been used in this way,” he said. For his doctoral thesis, Belser investigated suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents. “Conversion therapy is horribly harmful. I frequently treat people who are survivors of it. Most professional communities and even states and governments have now banned it because they consider it unethical, so the idea that you would combine it with a powerful medicine like LSD really reflects something about the times.”

“These men wanted treatment because they wanted to be loved. They wanted to be happy. They wanted to be accepted by their friends, family, loved ones, co-workers, and society at large, and they believed they could not have these things for themselves if they were homosexual.” Andrea Ens

A range of other gay “treatments” were also in use, not only mind-altering drugs but also aversion therapy with electric shocks, and chemical castration. Following his conviction for gross indecency in 1952, the British mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing was one of those who opted to take a female sex hormone to avoid imprisonment.

Conversion attempts have continued despite the removal of homosexuality from the DSM and the decriminalisation of gay sex across Europe and North America. A landmark review of research by the American Psychological Association in 2009 concluded that such attempts are unlikely to work and have possible harmful effects, including increased anxiety, depression and risk of suicide.

In March 2018, the European Parliament condemned conversion therapy and urged member countries to ban the practice. The UK government subsequently announced plans to outlaw it. In the meantime, conversion attempts remain legal within private practice and under the guise of religious “ex gay” counselling, which according to a recent survey can have devastating psychological effects.

But the dark history of psychedelic conversion therapy may yet have lessons for psychiatrists treating gay men and women for issues related to their sexuality, because while there is little evidence the drugs worked as billed they nonetheless appear to have benefited many patients. For example, the psychiatrists at Hollywood Hospital reported in 1965: “Few homosexuals in our group have attained a satisfactory heterosexual adjustment, yet many have derived marked benefit in terms of insight, acceptance of role, reduction of guilt and associated psychosexual liabilities.” In fact, the majority of patients given psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy at the hospital reported subsequent improvements in their interpersonal relationships and greater self-acceptance.

“As standard practice in every psychedelic-assisted therapy trial we should measure how it is affecting people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation.” Alex Belser, New York University

In its 2009 report, the APA recommended that when psychologists treat people who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality they should focus on fostering self-acceptance and integration. Belser, who co-authored a study showing that psilocybin can alleviate the distress associated with life-threatening illness, believes psychedelic-assisted therapy may have a role in helping LGBT people experiencing feelings of alienation and isolation.

“We have tonnes of evidence suggesting that gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans folk are under greater stress from all the messages that they are inferior, their experiences of bullying and discrimination, the extra stress of concealing their identities from their families, schools and communities,” he said. “This leads disproportionately to higher rates of depression and anxiety and problematic substance use because they’re subjected to more cumulative stress than their straight counterparts across the lifespan.”

No clinical trial to date has investigated the use of psychedelics to increase self-acceptance among LGBT people, he said, though a trial of psilocybin for treating demoralisation in long-term AIDS survivors is under way. An observational study by the clinical psychologist Clancy Cavnar in 2014 did suggest that drinking the psychedelic tea ayahuasca can affirm sexual orientation and lessen feelings of guilt and internalised homophobia in gay people. “As standard practice in every psychedelic-assisted therapy trial we should measure how it is affecting people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation,” said Belser.

Rather than changing anyone’s sexuality, he added, psychedelics may magnify previously hidden tendencies. “There is anecdotal evidence that seemingly 100% heterosexual people who take psychedelics realise that maybe they’re not 100% heterosexual after all and that they’ve been harbouring internalised homophobia. Even if they are straight they oftentimes have a different appreciation of gender broadly and their own gender, and a different appreciation of sexual identity and attraction that’s not so stereotypically black and white. I think these medicines do potentially change all sorts of areas of people’s understanding of themselves and stories they tell about themselves, including their sexual identity.”

Belser and Cavnar will discuss the past and future of psychedelics from an LGBT perspective at the first Queering Psychedelics conference in San Francisco this weekend (1-2 June). Clearly we have come a long way since the 1950s and 60s when Sigmund Freud’s assertion that homosexuality was caused by childhood trauma, resulting in arrested sexual development, held sway among psychiatrists: being gay was considered to be an acquired, psychological condition amenable to “treatment”. With the passing decades, that viewpoint has become increasingly hard to justify.

Even Timothy Leary – having championed LSD as a “specific cure” – appeared to change his mind. In 1978, he told the US-based gay newspaper The Advocate: “Since homosexuality has always been a part of every society, you have to assume that there is something necessary, correct and valid – genetically natural – about it.”

This post was amended on 30 May 2019. The original stated that the Fruit Machine was operational, whereas in fact it never got beyond the development stage due to technical difficulties measuring changes in pupil size, and problems controlling for the effect of differences in the brightness of the displayed images. Unsurprisingly, the researchers also had trouble recruiting sufficient numbers of volunteers to test their equipment.

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