Gender Gulag is a story about how the best years of my life were stolen from me by reparative psychoanalysis. I have just completed the first draft of my book, Gender Gulag. It is the story of how a vulnerable 13-year-old dyslexic tomboy ended up at Quakerbridge School and Camp during the mid-1950s in Croton, New York under the guardianship of Dr. Samuel Kahn.
Just this morning on the heels of Gay Pride’s celebration of Stonewall 50, NBC news had an article by Gwen Aviles discussing Amazon’s removal of English language books by a man generally regarded as the “father of conversion therapy,” Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi was the founder of the defunct Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic as well as the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) But before Nicolosi was Samuel Kahn with his book Mentality and Homosexuality (1937). Five hundred men and women (New York Correctional institution inmates, of whom “seventy-five were investigated carefully” were the main subjects of Kahn’s study. The main object was to diagnose active homosexuality. Kahn referred to his subjects as “mental cases.”
I was diagnosed by him at the age of 13 as one of those mental cases. This is what he told my vulnerable parents, particularly my susceptible mother, when they came seeking help for my disruptive social behavior. Kahn regarded homosexuals as “degenerates.” This is a perception that wasn’t refuted by the American Psychology Association under pressure from gay professionals to declare “conversion therapy” a pseudoscience and discredit it. Today the majority of professional organizations are against it and refuse to engage in such bogus and harmful diagnosis and practices.
At the time I was placed under Dr. Kahn’s care, no such safeguards were in place. So why would I want to revisit my experiences in the penal colony of Quakerbridge where I was diagnosed and treated as a “moral defective and constitutional psychopath?” Who would want to read such a book? Parents, teachers, young adults, mental health professionals, and anyone interested in authenticity. My journey as a vulnerable girl of 13 lasted three-plus years under the rule of a man unfit to define “normality.”
The methods Kahn applied to me and others for a variety of reasons were popular during the cold war period when psychoanalysis became the rage in America. Kahn’s attempts at teaching homosexual children ethics and ethical qualities were often turned over to his physician assistants. This was certainly part of my experience after my first few months at Quakerbridge.
My story is important because it demonstrates that conversion therapies began much earlier than Nicolosi’s religious branding of these practices and damaged countless nongender conforming children and individuals seeking to change their “moral defects” according to the normative standards of the day. What I went through in terms of “treatments” was enough to drive any average, healthy teenager to suicide–and it did that to me. How I developed the resiliency skills and survived serves as a blueprint not only for survival but for finding your authentic self and transforming your life.
According to the Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 2 in 3 youths reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, and kids who have undergone conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not. This is why my book is so timely and needed. It is a girl’s own story of erasure at a time when there was no internet to turn to, no groups to belong to, no gay and lesbian centers for refuge.