Journal retracts 70-year-old article on homosexuality for “long discredited beliefs, prejudices, and practices”

We wrote in September in WIRED about a trend among journals of purging racist and sexist work from their archives. To that trend we can now add papers that are homophobic and racist.

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease has retracted a 1951 article by one Benjamin H. Glover, at the time a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The article, “Observations on Homosexuality Among University Students,” claimed that:

These people represent a parody and a paradox in emotions; in a sense they burlesque love as a heterosexual knows it and yet they are a continual tragedy of failure to find either sex gratification or a person through whom they may enjoy continuously that measure of sex gratification they attain. They are devoted to their loves with an expressed passion; yet they have little if any feeling for their parents and doubt that they would be upset beyond a small measure of inconvenience if death or severe illness were to involve them. 

It goes on in that vein, and much, much worse. Glover apparently thought it was a problem that gay men did not endorse eugenics, and said that it was “interesting” that the gay students’ favorite musicians, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, “are Negroes.” One “attempted to room with a Negro,” Glover wrote, “but owing to private and public reaction was prevented from doing so.”

Benjamin H. Glover

Right, so.

The paper caught the eye of Simon LeVay, best known for his studies of brain structures and homosexuality. LeVay recently wrote to the journal to request that it retract the paper — and now it has.

Editor John Talbott — who has shown spine in at least one other casewrites:

The 1951 Glover article supports long discredited beliefs, prejudices, and practices (conversion therapy) and will be retracted as requested. It will, however, be kept in the journal’s archives for its historical value.

As an editor of scientific journals for more than 50 years, I have witnessed the changes brought about by scientific discovery (that peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria, not worries) as well as societal advances (same sex marriage). But journals like this one, published papers in the past reflecting many other beliefs we find abhorrent today, such as those on eugenics, the disabled, women, Blacks, sexual problems, and yes, sexuality.

The editor would like to express his gratitude for Dr LeVay’s perception, precision, and service to science. The 1951 Glover article is but one that deserve a relook, reappraisal, and perhaps retraction. I invite your responses.

In an accompanying editorial, LeVay anticipates the arguments from certain quarters that are likely to follow the retraction of this article, namely that we can’t judge articles of decades past by today’s standards. We’ll let him respond to that bit of misdirection:

So why drag up a 70-year-old piece of antigay invective that would strike present-day UWM students as repulsive, perhaps scarcely believable? Was not Glover’s article, like Glover himself, nothing more than a typical product of his time?

Not entirely. For sure, there were other psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who expressed strongly negative opinions about gay people in the 1950s. A well-known example was analyst Edmund Bergler, who in his 1956 book Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? described homosexuals as “essentially disagreeable people” characterized by “superciliousness, fake aggression, and whimpering” (Bergler, 1956). However, there were others who took a quite different line. In 1958, for example, psychiatrist Mathew Ross and medical student Fred Mendelsohn published a study of 133 homosexual students who underwent psychotherapy at the student health service of the University of California, Los Angeles, along with a comparison group of heterosexual students (Ross and Mendelsohn, 1958). Unlike Glover, these authors expressed no negative opinions about their homosexual students, made little effort to change their sexual orientation, and found their homosexual and heterosexual students to be similar in most respects and equally responsive to psychotherapy. (Frederick Mendelsohn became a well-regarded New York–based psychiatrist who died in 2020 at the age of 87.) During this same period, psychologist Evelyn Hooker studied gay men who had not sought psychiatric care: she found them to be as well adjusted as their heterosexual peers (Hooker, 1956).

By their extraordinarily negative assessments of homosexuals, Glover and Bergler helped stoke the antihomosexual fervor of the post–World War II years. In asserting that homosexual men had “no nationalistic or patriotic feeling,” for example, Glover offered a medical rationale for President Eisenhower’s 1953 declaration that homosexuals represented a threat to national security and were therefore to be removed or banned from federal employment.

LeVay concludes, with a nod to why the cries of “censorship!” that may follow are also inaccurate:

Scientific journals have a responsibility to examine their past and acknowledge their mistakes. Glover was responsible for the content of his article, but the journal’s then Editor, psychiatrist Nolan Lewis, must have reviewed it and selected it for publication. Therefore, in my view, the article should be marked as retracted by the Journal (although not removed from the record), just as has happened with some articles that espoused racist beliefs, including some by deceased authors (Elsevier, 2020; Marcus and Oransky, 2020). By retracting Glover’s article, the Journal would make clear its repudiation both of antigay rhetoric and of the Journal’s own complicity in its dissemination.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: This isn’t a record.

Update, 2230 UTC, 12/2/20: We asked LeVay to comment on his experience pursuing the retraction of this paper:

I’ve been aware of this paper for many years, but I only thought of requesting a retraction when I read about the retraction of some other long-ago papers by deceased authors, including several by psychologist Hans Eysenck. I initially contacted the editor of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, John Talbott, M.D., on September 7. I was pleasantly surprised that Dr. Talbott wrote back immediately, telling me that he was in full agreement about the need to retract the paper and inviting me to write a Commentary about it, which I submitted on September 16.

Of course, the fact that the paper was 70 years old simplified the matter: Dr. Talbott bears no personal responsibility for the original publication, and the paper’s author and the journal’s then editor are both long deceased. Furthermore, the paper is obviously unacceptable by present-day standards. I am guessing that Dr. Talbott was not even aware of the paper’s existence before I brought to to his attention and was as shocked as I was when he read it. All these factors made the retraction a much speedier and smoother process than the drawn-out disputes that I often read about on Retraction Watch.

I should emphasize that my intention was not to see Glover’s paper disappear from the record, but rather the reverse: to publicize it, and thus remind the current generation of psychiatrists and others of this history of the profession and how far it has come in the treatment of gay people. It may be that there are other sexual or gender minorities for whom this process of enlightenment still has a long way to go.

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19 thoughts on “Journal retracts 70-year-old article on homosexuality for “long discredited beliefs, prejudices, and practices””

  1. I am confused re the JNMD homosexuality retraction. Is it still findable in and retrievable from the Journal’s digital archive? If so, what is the point of retraction? It is surely immediately obvious that the article is so full of spleen and bias that it does not need flagging up. On the other hand, it is a very valuable historical document. Soon we will be destroying old articles with irreplaceable data because we nowadays do not like the authors.

    1. The point of retracting this article is three things:
      1) Making oneself feel as if “I am one of the good people” by siding with a marginalized group
      2) Protecting oneself preemptively from the online hate mob
      3) Virtue signalling

      But hey, you retracted a decades-old article that has probably never been cited or read by more than a handful of people. Congrats.

    2. Obvious to who? Homophobia will post it in parler etc to shore up their faux science news. So retractions are required. Do you not see how fake facts can distort people’s thinking when they only hear what they want to hear?

  2. It’s a start.

    Next we have to retract Mein Kampf and the Bible. Newton’s Principia contains lots of false assertions, so let’s retract that too.

    Our goal must be to purge the literature of everything that is incorrect (factually or politically) by the standards of today. Because, as we all know, today’s views are the correct ones.

    Sign up to be a fireman today and receive your 451 badge by mail.

  3. This is not a subtle issue concerning shifting standards of judgment, in the mold of “what is ok today will be not ok tomorrow”. I have a strong suspicion that flagrant prejudice against and maligning of minorities was as not ok among many back then as it is today. So it’s the right move to send a signal: “This journal made a mistake by accepting and publishing this paper.” Note that LeVay and the folks at JNMD made sure that the paper remains accessible while it is flagged as retracted. That’s a good compromise.

  4. This is not necessary for retraction: no falsification, no hidden sources of funding, no p-hacking, no misconduct….only wrong-think.

    Perhaps the retraction necessary because the paper was inconsistent with the literature of the time?
    Nope, seems consistent with the literature. Glover was part of a psychiatric science that normative deviation in behavior/cognition/attitude was ‘abnormal’, as such homosexuality is deviant. This requires treatment: so this paper adds to the literature by describing the homosexual sample (which LeVay finds disagreeable), the diagnosis, and the treatment provided.

    Perhaps he was a bad scientist or a malevolent practitioner deserving erasure?
    It doesn’t seem so. Reading (why am I doing this?) his paper about treating sexual deviancy in Wisconsin prisons reveals he took his job very seriously and felt that his psychiatric work was made difficult through grouping all deviancy as ‘psychopathy’. For instance, he used the Kinsey report as a basis for needing to break-up all sexual deviants, such as criminal rapists and child molesters from ‘pattern homosexuals’ and peeping toms. Also, his treatment of homosexuality acknowledges their relative ‘fixed nature’ and he argues against ‘paternalistic’ treatments and towards what might be thought of as harm reduction through “encouraging discretion, nonviolent behavior, and the cessation of proselyting children.” [“Control of the Sex Deviate”, Hardly unscientific or uncaring!

    The retraction doesn’t right any wrongs, may unduly disparage Glover (I’m not sure, but these papers don’t raise any flags) and confuses retraction from editorial.
    If LeVay is worried about “Complicity in dissemination” of discredited theory – just write a commentary.
    LeVay and the editor, untainted by wrong-think, will never need retraction.

    1. Do you genuinely believe that Glover established scientifically that gay men have “little if any feeling for their parents”? Do you think the editor was able to confirm that little detail, or do you simply find Glover trustworthy because he shares your views about race mixing?

      1. Hey, let’s try to keep good faith! I have little reason to find Glover untrustworthy.
        If you can find that Glover particularly misused a method or that the editor allowed fraud, that is fine and retraction is justified. I can’t.
        If you can’t, then we have to object to the method per se. Sadly, retraction may be necessary for the lion’s share of articles using psychoanalytic case study.
        JNMD retracts because his interpretation of observation is wrong, that editor wouldn’t have published it if the editor knew that these views are wrong, and, while completely unrelated, that these views were used to medically justify policy.
        Each of these reasons are historical commentary and not malpractice.

        And to how I view this, let’s give him some good faith:
        Do you not think that his homosexual student sample was having difficulties with their likely hostile parents? Do you think that biracial relationships at the time?
        Do you not like the way Glover can be so confident in his assessment? It makes me uncomfortable, but it also makes me realize that without evidence it might be easy to rely on eugenics and racial categorization as a heuristic.

        On a personal level, I defend argue for de-retraction because I like to take arguments faithfully first and then apply my own filter, which is mentally taxing. Retraction as a heuristic helps me use a less demanding filter to discount ideas because poor methodology or fraud was used. Incorrect retraction is asking me to not take this ideas seriously or faithfully, which creates dissonance when no fraud is found.

        1. Of COURSE gay people would have some degree of hostility towards homophobic parents, but I don’t think Glover is saying it’s the parents’ fault or even that it’s a result of homophobia. My interpretation was that Glover thinks gays are “”defective”” in sexuality and thus are “”defective”” in other ways. Same with regards to patriotism – I don’t think he was making a comment on gay people might not be patriotic to a country that treats them like dirt, I think he was claiming this is yet another defect of the homosexual brain.
          I can’t know for sure what Glover was thinking, but I’ve seen too much bigotry disguised as science to take his comments in good faith.

          1. All your statements are justified interpretations given method, just as his broad (and published) inference towards the homosexual brain given the state of 1950’s psychiatry. Should we retract faulty, even bigoted, distasteful inference given new data and norms?

            Glover commited no fraud but used his own misguided
            I think this article is interesting as a piece of history and a great view into a portion of the scientific community.

            Did he commit fraud? No.
            Was he incorrectly using methodology? No, he is reporting his case-study.
            Is it great science to base inferences? No.

            Should it be retracted?

        2. The retraction isn’t issued because Glover’s opinions are outdated or insensitive. The retraction is issued because his opinions are being stated as scientific facts, which is false and deserves retraction.

          You admit that Glover makes you uncomfortable. You should consider whether it’s his opinions that are making you uncomfortable, or the facts he is incorrectly asserting to be true. You should look at what he is presenting as scientific evidence. That is what’s at stake with retraction or non-retraction.

          1. Oh the unease is a combination of loose methodology and outdated verbiage.

            He might make grand assertions and seek to apply outdated conversion therapy, but psychoanalytic literature is full of grand theories and odd techniques. His opinions are based upon similar case-study methods in the same manner from Freud to Perls.

            Glover is retracted for bad “beliefs, prejudices, and practices (conversion therapy)”.
            Applying the standard for retraction is untenable across psychoanalysts.

            Here is an abstract:
            He observes that his sample of 20 odd gay men exhibited these tendencies and provides suggested treatment based upon his expertise and reports thereon.

            Is this therefore poor methodology?
            Are his opinions congruent with his training, experience and present observation? Seems like he shouldn’t be retracted, but please write a commentary.

      2. So where do you get the idea from his comment that Benjamin Ganschow has views about race mixing you find distasteful? Or do you think an ad hominem attack is reasonable?

  5. This retraction is a sad reminder of how long and difficult it was for LGBTQ+ (I don’t know what the new letters are), people in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, Glover (1951) did not represent a minority or aberrant viewpoint at the time as the post suggests, but the orthodox view of the psychiatric profession. After all, homosexuality was a diagnosable mental illness classified in the DSM until the 1970’s. From that point, a compromise position was taken with “ego-dystonic homosexuality” until 1987.

    In light of this, I also disagree that retraction was the right approach with this paper. I can’t imagine this coverage has done anything other than bring this ancient obsolete paper new eyeballs. It should have been left to quietly rot.

  6. This is outrageous. Redacting history just makes it worse as if we were never bigots and intolerant. Please leave those articles alone, so that generations can see the struggle, otherwise, history is false and inaccurate.

    1. You have misread this post. The article was not deleted. This is a statement of changing standards for scientific evidence among psychiatrists.

  7. It is a shame that journals start to retract old papers based on views expressed then and without attention to the political context. In the same time the same journals are hesitating for years to retract the totally wrong articles of today (examples are plenty).
    The reason? Editors are afraid the authors who are alive and can defend their selves.
    Courage against the dead

  8. Why would one think that our values are better–or worse–are more valid now than 70 years in the future? In 2090, they will inevitably think that our 2021 values are laughably out of date.

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