Sigmund Freud Writes to Concerned Mother: “Homosexuality is Nothing to Be Ashamed Of” (1935)

Freud Letter

Hank Green, host­ing his Crash Course on Psy­chol­o­gy, put it best: when we think of the study of the mind, we think of an old, bespec­ta­cled beard­ed man puff­ing on a pipe. We think, in oth­er words, of Sig­mund Freud, whether we know any­thing about him or not. Despite pub­lish­ing such very real and still rea­son­ably well-known works as The Inter­pre­ta­tion of DreamsBeyond the Plea­sure Prin­ci­ple, and Civ­i­liza­tion and its Dis­con­tents, the man has some­how passed par­tial­ly into the realm of pop­u­lar myth: we think of him at once as an influ­en­tial pio­neer in a lit­tle-explored intel­lec­tu­al field, and as some­thing of an idée fixe-hob­bled char­la­tan as well. Per­haps, like many uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized 20th-cen­tu­ry fig­ures, he com­bined right­ness and wrong­ness in some kind of irre­sistible pro­por­tion. But the let­ter above, fea­tured at Let­ters of Note, demon­strates that, at least on the issue of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, he had indeed drawn a cor­rect con­clu­sion well before most any­one else.

In 1935, says that post, Freud “was con­tact­ed by a wor­ried moth­er who was seek­ing treat­ment for her son’s appar­ent homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. Freud, who believed that all humans are attract­ed to both sex­es in some capac­i­ty, respond­ed with the fol­low­ing let­ter of advice.”

Dear Mrs [Erased],

I gath­er from your let­ter that your son is a homo­sex­u­al. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not men­tion this term your­self in your infor­ma­tion about him. May I ques­tion you why you avoid it? Homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is assured­ly no advan­tage, but it is noth­ing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degra­da­tion; it can­not be clas­si­fied as an ill­ness; we con­sid­er it to be a vari­a­tion of the sex­u­al func­tion, pro­duced by a cer­tain arrest of sex­u­al devel­op­ment. Many high­ly respectable indi­vid­u­als of ancient and mod­ern times have been homo­sex­u­als, sev­er­al of the great­est men among them. (Pla­to, Michelan­ge­lo, Leonar­do da Vin­ci, etc). It is a great injus­tice to per­se­cute homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as a crime – and a cru­el­ty, too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Have­lock Ellis.

By ask­ing me if I can help, you mean, I sup­pose, if I can abol­ish homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and make nor­mal het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty take its place. The answer is, in a gen­er­al way we can­not promise to achieve it. In a cer­tain num­ber of cas­es we suc­ceed in devel­op­ing the blight­ed germs of het­ero­sex­u­al ten­den­cies, which are present in every homo­sex­u­al in the major­i­ty of cas­es it is no more pos­si­ble. It is a ques­tion of the qual­i­ty and the age of the indi­vid­ual. The result of treat­ment can­not be pre­dict­ed.

What analy­sis can do for your son runs on a dif­fer­ent line. If he is unhap­py, neu­rot­ic, torn by con­flicts, inhib­it­ed in his social life, analy­sis may bring him har­mo­ny, peace of mind, full effi­cien­cy, whether he remains a homo­sex­u­al or gets changed. If you make up your mind he should have analy­sis with me — I don’t expect you will — he has to come over to Vien­na. I have no inten­tion of leav­ing here. How­ev­er, don’t neglect to give me your answer.

Sin­cere­ly yours with best wish­es,


While main­stream west­ern thought no longer expects that homo­sex­u­als might, under any cir­cum­stances, “get changed,” it has aligned to Freud’s view in the sense of regard­ing their ori­en­ta­tion as “noth­ing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degra­da­tion.” And from what I can see, human­i­ty now enjoys the pres­ence of more such “high­ly respectable indi­vid­u­als” who pub­licly acknowl­edge their own non-het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty than ever before. Freud’s let­ter to this con­cerned Amer­i­can moth­er of the 1930s, in any case, brings nuance to the car­toon image we all have of him — the obses­sion with dreams, the insis­tence on diag­nos­ing repres­sion, the whole deal with cig­ar sym­bol­ism — just as his view of homo­sex­u­als would have brought nuance to the car­toon image this and oth­er con­cerned Amer­i­can moth­ers of the 1930s might have had of them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Famous Let­ter Where Freud Breaks His Rela­tion­ship with Jung (1913)

How a Young Sig­mund Freud Researched & Got Addict­ed to Cocaine, the New “Mir­a­cle Drug,” in 1894

Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

Sig­mund Freud Speaks: The Only Known Record­ing of His Voice, 1938

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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