Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality and American Liberalism

Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality and American Liberalism

Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality and American Liberalism

Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality and American Liberalism

Synopsis

Private Practices examines the relationship between science, sexuality, gender, race, and culture in the making of modern America between 1920 and 1950, when contradictions among liberal intellectuals affected the rise of U.S. conservatism. Naoko Wake focuses on neo-Freudian, gay psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, founder of the interpersonal theory of mental illness. She explores medical and social scientists' conflicted approach to homosexuality, particularly the views of scientists who themselves lived closeted lives.

Wake discovers that there was a gap--often dramatic, frequently subtle--between these scientists' "public" understanding of homosexuality (as a "disease") and their personal, private perception (which questioned such a stigmatizing view). This breach revealed a modern culture in which self-awareness and open-mindedness became traits of "mature" gender and sexual identities. Scientists considered individuals of society lacking these traits to be "immature," creating an unequal relationship between practitioners and their subjects. In assessing how these dynamics--the disparity between public and private views of homosexuality and the uneven relationship between scientists and their subjects--worked to shape each other, Private Practices highlights the limits of the scientific approach to subjectivity and illuminates its strange career--sexual subjectivity in particular--in modern U.S. culture.

Excerpt

Homosexuality in the twenty-first-century United States is highly politicized. As the issue of same-sex marriage enters courtrooms or appears on ballots, often with a brusque no as an outcome, supporters of such unions express their dismay and anger at the denial of equal rights for sexual minorities. On another, related front, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has been one of the most contested issues in the United States today, stirring up the one-century-old discussion about the “damage” that sexual minorities might do to the army’s morale, as well as the question of what qualities Americans hope to see in men and women serving the nation. As much as in 1993, when the policy was implemented, these discussions remind us of angst and frustration that is still in need of relief and resolution. But these ongoing debates are also an indication of the long distance toward equality that sexual minorities have traveled. Notwithstanding the steep road that lies before sexual minorities and their allies, the fact that their concerns have made their way to the states’ highest courts, popular elections, the U.S. Congress, and the armed forces indicates significant progress toward a fuller recognition of people with “different” sexuality. The issue of homosexuality, as well as that of sexual minorities more generally, is “in play” in American public life. No matter what stance we take, the issue is something that must be openly confronted and that must be checked against our belief in justice, fairness, and equality.

Homosexual men and women had to come a considerable historical distance before their lives assumed this public dimension. Far from being plain and straight, their road to equality was circuitous and full of detours leading only to dead ends. Despite the flourishing of urban gay culture and the rise of progressive views about homosexuality among liberal intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s, the following decades witnessed extreme . . .

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