Mental health nurses 'subverted' therapies aimed at 'curing' homosexuals

Author of Curing Queers says his book emphasises the need to constantly reflect on practice 

The ways that mental health nurses used to administer ‘cures’ for homosexuality were outlined at an RCN lecture yesterday.

Tales of the struggles nurses faced between following their conscience and following orders were revealed in a talk by author Tommy Dickinson at the college's library in London.

He said some carried out the doctors’ orders unquestioningly, others reassured themselves that fellow nurses were doing the same thing, while some believed the treatments were beneficial to patients.

In a talk based on his book Curing Queers, Dr Dickinson explained how he interviewed 17 nurses (eight men and nine women) who worked on psychiatric wards from the 1930s to the 1970s and were now aged between 63 and 98 years old. 

He said they recalled a time when homosexuals – predominately men – volunteered to undergo electrical or chemical aversion therapies because they ‘desperately wanted to be cured of their "condition"'.

Describing the procedures as ‘invasive and brutal’, Dr Dickinson added: ‘It is easy for me to ask, "How could nurses do that?" But what I discovered is that they found a variety of ways to cope.’

Those who carried out the orders of doctors are classed as 'subordinates' by Dr Dickinson.

However, he also identified a second group: 'subversives'. He explained: ‘These people did not want to be part of such treatments, but they feared losing their job if they refused, so they subverted the treatments.’

As an example, he recounted the story of nurse Elizabeth Granger who told him she had ‘no faith in the aversion treatment or the science it was based on'.

In the 1960s, she was required to go on pretend dates with homosexual patients who had been ‘cured’ to help prepare them to return to society. However, even though she knew they had not changed, she told doctors they had in order to spare them further treatments.

Dr Dickinson said he hoped his book would act as ‘a reminder for nurses of the need to ensure their interventions have a sound evidence base and that they constantly reflect on their morals and values.

‘The book also highlights the influence that science, and societal norms and contexts, can have on changing views of what is considered ‘acceptable practice’. 

‘We can learn much from studying aspects of our profession's past in which our actions, even if countenanced by the context in which they were situated, did not serve patients and society well.’

Dr Dickinson’s book is based on the PhD thesis he wrote at the University of Manchester in 2012, where he now lectures in nursing.

Curing Queers is available from the university’s publishing company here

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