December 7, 1999

Panel Discussion: On Being Gay and Becoming a Psychoanalyst: Across Three Generations
panelists: Ralph E. Roughton, M.D.
Jack Drescher, M.D.
Ubaldo Leli, M.D.
moderator: John Munder Ross, Ph.D.
Bulletin commentator: Roger A. MacKinnon, M.D.

Being Gay and Becoming a Psychoanalyst

by Ralph E. Roughton, M.D.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Dr. Roughton’s presentation on December 7, 1999. It is followed by the personal reflection of a non-gay analyst, Dr. Roger A. MacKinnon.


In my case, the title doesn’t work. Instead of “Being Gay and Becoming a Psychoanalyst,” for me it needs to be “Being a Psychoanalyst and Then Becoming Gay.” But first I want to say that actually what I feel uncomfortable talking about here is not being gay but being old. I’m rather appalled at being cast—however accurately—as the senior member of this trio. It never occurred to me that one day I would enter the category of “senior analyst.” When I first started attending psychoanalytic meetings, I was only 44, and it seemed that everyone else was at least 20 years older, with gray hair. Now I’m 20 years older, with gray hair. As my seven-year-old granddaughter would say, with an impish shrug, “Well, that’s just the way it is, Granddaddy.”

So here I am, as Granddaddy, prepared to tell you about “the good old days” of closets and queers, of theories and “cures,” and a time of fear and silent shame. That’s how it was to go through psychoanalytic training when psychoanalysts, almost without exception, believed that homosexuality represented abnormal development, psychopathology and unworthiness. But there was also hope (false hope, as it turned out). When I came along, we were just on the cusp of deciding that, instead of sociopathy or an untreatable perversion, maybe homosexuality was a neurosis—a phobic avoidance of the opposite sex—and therefore could be treated and changed. Columbia’s own Sandor Rado and Lionel Ovesey were among the earliest proponents of this idea.

Nevertheless, this was also a time when some Columbia analysts were also among those who had very derogatory things to say about homosexual people. One of the Founding Fathers, for example, remarked on the similarity of the Nazi’s hatred for Jews and the homosexual’s notorious contempt for females. He linked homosexuality with schizophrenia and juvenile delinquency as alarming responses to social breakdown (Kardiner, A., Sex and Morality, 1954). But let me remind you that you have among your Society members one who continues what I would characterize as viciously stigmatizing theories and political acts against gay men and lesbians. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

My Life in the Closet

Ever since I was a young boy, I had felt an unsettling attraction to other males. I had no conception that this said something about who I was, but only that it was forbidden, shameful, not to be talked about, and maybe I would grow out of it. At 22 I married, thinking naively that a regular heterosexual life would make those other feelings go away. It didn’t. Then, at age 31, and now a psychiatry resident and the father of two children, I saw hope for changing these feelings through psychoanalysis. So I began analysis in 1964 with a Columbia-trained analyst who was a firm believer in the Rado-Ovesey enthusiasm for treating homosexuality as a phobic avoidance of the opposite sex. Never mind the fact that I was at the time having an active sex life with my wife, who was a member of the opposite sex. The fact that it was not altogether fulfilling, and not all that I found myself wanting, proved that I was defended against fully enjoying my heterosexuality. What was totally unthinkable at the time, of course, was that one might enjoy one’s homosexuality. Neurotic or perverse gratification, yes. But adaptive pleasure? Not a chance.

It’s easy to ridicule the thinking of that time, but not only was I a willing participant, it was what I had asked for—to be cured. We uncovered stereotypical family patterns: I was closer to my mother, I had few interests in common with my father (an athlete and a hunter), and I disliked rough play. While in analysis, I tried very hard to control my behavior, giving both me and my analyst the illusion that we were making progress. I don’t recall any time being spent on wondering why I was so intent on getting rid of my feelings. That seemed self-evident.

I decided in 1967 to apply for analytic training. By then, I would likely be cured, and I knew I had no chance of being accepted with a “homosexual problem.” Another resident had gone to see Dr. Lee Hall, then Director of the program at Emory, hoping for some indication of his chances of being accepted. He asked if Dr. Hall thought he should apply. Dr. Hall, known for his acerbity and for responding quite literally to foolish questions of this sort, replied, “The only reason I know of that you shouldn’t apply is if you are a practicing homosexual.” This funny story spread quickly. The resident was baffled, because homosexuality was the last thing he would have been suspected of. But I knew what Dr. Hall meant. Anybody could apply, and Dr. Hall wouldn’t be tricked into hinting about your chances. But he did advise “practicing homosexuals” not to apply, because they obviously would not be accepted and would have then needlessly exposed themselves to the faculty. He might just as well have said, “… if you’re a practicing pedophile or have a criminal record.”

You have to understand the context of the times to fully appreciate this fear of exposure. The country was still reeling in fear from the McCarthy witch-hunts of the previous decade. You didn’t have to be a communist sympathizer to feel afraid—only to have a secret that would bring down your career if exposed. Many have forgotten that more homosexuals than communists were hounded from their jobs in the State Department by McCarthy’s crusade. And as late as 1967, investigations by columnist Drew Pearson ended the careers of a number of senior government officials, including New York’s Health Commissioner Howard Brown. That was the year I began analytic training. Stonewall was still two years in the future, and the APA’s change of DSM occurred the year after I graduated.

During my first analysis, there was further uncovering of early experiences and insight into my supposed homosexual dynamics. I also had certain character-trait problems that actually did benefit somewhat. But looking back from my current perspective, I would honestly have to say that the analysis did nothing to change my sexual feelings. Any acting on them, of course, was interpreted as “acting out.” What I learned to do was suppress, sublimate and control my behavior.

In the fourth year of analysis, I made a conscious decision that if I could go a year without acting out, then I could terminate the analysis. And that is what happened. I was by then rather disillusioned with the process; for somewhere in the healthier part of myself, I knew this hadn’t worked. In fact, this “pseudo-cure” lasted exactly one month after termination. Not only had my sexual feelings not really changed, but so much else had been left undone. When the focus of analysis is on uncovering the supposed etiology of homosexuality, with the expectation that good analysis will result in heterosexuality, then it becomes a very limited and potentially destructive process. It reinforced the ingrained character pathology that had programmed me to do what was expected, to be compliant and to be the “best little boy in the world.” These traits were exploited in a compliant transference that was not analyzed, and nothing really changed. I ended that analysis, knowing that I would try again later with another analyst. And I did.

The Second Analysis

By 1973 I had safely graduated and became a respected member of the Institute’s faculty. I decided to give analysis another try. Although, at this time, the theoretical perspective had shifted somewhat—from fear of the opposite sex to using homosexual fantasy and action to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to relieve anxiety about nonsexual conflicts—the underlying message was the same. I was defective. But did I fail my analysis, or did analysis—or my analyst—fail me?

Beginning anew with another analyst, my conscious goal was still to get rid of homosexual feelings. Again, this was not accomplished, but I reached a somewhat different perspective. I more or less came to accept that this was a part of me and that I was bisexual—and maybe, just maybe, this was okay. I concluded that these feelings would always be a part of me and that it was up to me to find a solution that allowed me to continue my marriage and my career. Five years later, in 1978, that meant staying in the closet. I ended my second analysis with the conclusion that the closet was the place for me, in the interest of my marriage and my career.

My Psychoanalytic Career as a “Trojan Horse”

Through the years, by keeping quiet about my real self and relying on a public quasi-false self, my career as a psychoanalyst advanced. I eventually became a training analyst and moved up the ladder at Emory as Assistant Director, Education Director, and then Director of the Emory Institute for a five-year term. Of course, having that leadership position in the development of a new institute also put me under greater pressure. The last thing our sometimes beleaguered, neophyte institute needed was for the Director to create a scandal involving homosexuality.

About the time my term as Director ended, in 1991, things were really beginning to change in the American Psychoanalytic Association. Dick Isay had been pushing for years, and largely through his initiative, and with some help from Ray Raskin as Chair of the Social Issues Committee, the American finally adopted a nondiscrimination policy statement with regard to homosexuality. I was then asked to form a Committee on Issues of Homosexuality to help identify areas of bias and to facilitate making changes in our institutes and in the American that would fully accept and integrate gay men and lesbians in our organizations. This was 1992, and the only openly identified gay analyst in the American was Dick Isay, and, as he acknowledged in a conversation with me, he knew that his political position at that time meant that he could not be part of the committee. Still, it was an ironic twist for the chair to be not an openly gay analyst, nor a straight analyst, but a closeted gay analyst. Those who appointed me knew my wife and assumed I was straight. My wife and I had discussed the possibility that, as I got more involved in these issues, it might result in my being outed or in choosing to do so myself. She was supportive but frightened.

Parallel to these changes in my work with the Committee, a great upheaval was going on inside of me. My experience with knowing other openly gay professional people had convinced me that it was possible to be out and to continue a useful professional life as an analyst. So then I had only to consider my personal life, my wife and my family. Things were not going well in the marriage, not primarily related to my sexuality. Eventually we separated and ultimately divorced—and those of you who know Jane will be glad to hear that we remain friends and that she has made a good new life for herself.

Three and a half years ago, it was time for my five-year reappointment as a training analyst. Realizing that I was moving toward coming out, I wanted my reappointment to be made with the faculty’s knowledge of my homosexuality. So I wrote a “coming out” letter to the entire psychoanalytic faculty at Emory, to people that I knew in the American and to many of you here at Columbia. The outpouring of warm and accepting letters and phone calls was overwhelming. I will mention one that I think tells the tale. I was concerned that Marvin Margolis, who was then President and had been Chair of the Board when my appointment was made, might feel betrayed that I had accepted the committee position without telling them. Marvin called and said, “Ralph, this isn’t going to change how people feel about you; it’s going to change the way they think about homosexuality.”

As we are giving section titles to this narrative, I will call this one my “Trojan Horse Strategy.”After all, I made my way into a position of some leadership and respect in the American disguised as a straight man, and then I came out. But that would imply far too much calm, strategic planning. On the contrary, I was rather desperately trying to sort out my life, and the decisions were determined primarily by what was going on inside. But I do think it was an important piece of our history that someone in the position I was in at that particular time took the step of coming out in a public way and then used this to catalyze the changes that people were ready for.

And that is the important message that I want to leave with you. We psychoanalysts painted ourselves into a blind corner and got stuck there because of adherence to outmoded theory, because of prejudice and heterosexism, and because of ignorance and isolation. The solution comes on many fronts, but there are two that I think are essential. First, as an organization, you must admit that you were wrong in the past. Second, stereotypes must be replaced by knowing individual people. Then prejudices will begin to diminish, and attitudes and policies and theories will begin to change.