Homosexual Dachau? This name doesn't have anything to do with World War II. More than any other mental institution in the United States, Atascadero State Hospital (photograph) was a chamber of horrors for homosexuals. The tag "Homosexual Dachau" was well-earned for its forced lobotomies, castrations and brutal treatments practiced at that facility. Hundreds of gays and lesbians were forcibly sent by their families to be cured of homosexuality which, as recently as the early 1970s, was considered a sexual and psychological disorder.
The 1950's were an especially dark time for homosexuals. Because of the witch hunts by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Americans started passing horrible and oppressive laws against homosexuality. Same-sex behavior was linked to treason and Communism in that period. Ironically, Senator McCarthy had many homosexual aides at the time led by lawyer Roy Cohen. As the witch hunt spread across America, homosexuals with no politics were sent to the worst institutions imaginable.
Even up until 1971, simply being a homosexual could result in a life sentence. Twenty states had laws stating that the mere fact you were a homosexual was reason for imprisonment. In California (of all places) and Pennsylvania, we could be put away for life in a mental hospital. In seven states castration was permitted as a way to stop homosexual 'deviants.'
At Atascadero State Hospital, doctors (I use that term loosely) were permitted under an obscure California law to commit those who practiced sodomy into the hospital. Once admitted, normal men and women were rendered mentally disabled through the torture of castration, lobotomies, forced chemical treatments and experimental treatments. The horrors experienced by hundreds are almost too hard to comprehend in America.
The most notorious was a Dr. Walter J. Freeman who perfected the ice pick lobotomy. He jammed an ice pick through a homosexual's eyes into the brain and performed a primitive lobotomy. According to records, he treated over 4,000 patients this way around America and it is estimated that nearly 30% to 40% were homosexuals. He believed deeply this was the only way to cure homosexuality.
A caller into an NPR Radio talk show about lobotomies recalled a cousin who was a homosexual. She said,
"PAT (Caller): Yes, I'm Pat from Naples, Florida. I just wanted to tell you about a cousin of mine who, in her late 30s or early 40s, was forced into a lobotomy by an uncle of hers who had some control over her finances. And she was forced into a lobotomy because they said she was a homosexual. And she lived after that in somewhat sheltered situations, like a boarding house, but she never could hold a job and she certainly is not as lucid as your guest. She was eccentric. She had no emotion, only showed emotion as she learned it. But it was only because she was a homosexual that they gave her a lobotomy. ........ And she herself told me how and why she had had the lobotomy. And at that point in her life, she was in her 70s and she said, `Oh, well, that was the right thing to do because they told me I was homosexual.' "
The difficulty in documenting so much of this history is that most of the records, history and data have been destroyed. Families were often adamant about not leaving any trace of the overwhelming shame of having a homosexual in the family and they often erased the gay relative's presence on earth. Many individuals who were terrorized died in the institutions or were made mentally disabled with an inability to recall. Or unable because of their torture to share their journal.
The work we do today for our freedom must honor them. They never got a chance. We have a chance. Let's not lose it