Freud on homosexuality: Letter to a mother

Commenters on recent posts have mentioned Freud’s views of homosexuality. I am looking for an easy link to the section in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality where he discussed homosexuality. In the mean time, I thought I would post his letter to a woman who wrote him about her homosexual son.

Dear Mrs. X (April 9, 1935)

I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why do you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of the treatment cannot be predicted.

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed. If you make up your mind that he should have analysis with me (I don’t expect you will!!) he has to come over to Vienna. I have no intention of leaving here. However, don’t neglect to give me your answer.

Sincerely yours with kind wishes,


P.S. I did not find it difficult to read your handwriting. Hope you will not find my writing and my English a harder task.


Freud, Sigmund, “Letter to an American mother”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 107 (1951): p. 787.

Pictures of the original letter are here and here.

7 thoughts on “Freud on homosexuality: Letter to a mother”

  1. Thank you for making this historic “letter” easily accessible. As a practicing psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, I have a sense (shared with many of my coleagues) that S. Freud’s construction of what he referred to as infantile sexuality has been largely misunderstood, from its initial declaration through the present day. Many people misinterpret S. Freud’s thoughts on this matter in such a way that they think he was implying that infants and young children experience sexual excitement and gratification as adults do. He meant nothing of the sort. Instead, he described various phases of psychosexual development, from the oral, anal, phallic-narcissistic (Oedipal), latent, and genital (adolescent and adult). He did not mean that libidinal gratification during the oral, anal, and even the initial part of the phallic phases were at all similar to what most adults, during the genital phase, were equivalent to genital (adult) orgasm, but otherwise meant that while the child traverses through these various stages, they enjoy what might be termed a “soothing and anxiety-relieving” quality. As for S. Freud’s thoughts about homosexuality–the “Letter” was a deeply-empathic reply, formally to the individual’s mother, but perhaps to the individual himself.

    I should not get off the hook completely with all of this: S. Freud felt very strongly, for example, that paranoid schizophrenia involved defensive mechanisms (identification and projection in primitive forms) and wove a complex tapestry concerning paranoia, homosexuality, and jealousy around the theme of male homosexuality. Shifting the topic a bit for illustrative purposes, S. Freud held that manic episodes in what we now call Bipolar Disorder, were “defensive against depression” (paraphrased).

    S. Freud, and his daughter Anna, were obviously of tremendous influence in psychoanalytic theory and practice. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously (only time will tell), this type of practice has been greatly restricted by health insurance companies. Gone (at least for now and in the foreseeable future) are the halcyon days of adequate psychiatric treatment. Medicare and Medicaid have imposed so many restrictions on the practice of psychology and psychiatry, that it is ridiculous.

  2. Ditto! (Sorry, I just saw “Ghost” this weekend.)

    The phrase I’ve been lingering over is “developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies”. Wouldn’t it be fun to see an ex-gay group with that tagline on their stationery?

    Hope Donnie Davies doesn’t use it for C.H.O.P.s. (BTW: You notice they don’t use the “S” for anything?)

  3. Thanks for posting this. I remember seeing it in the American J. Psychiatry. I didn’t realize the image was now available on the Library of Congress website.

  4. Looks like nothing much has really changed except that the neoFreudians at NARTH are unreliably sure of themselves.

  5. Despite his sexism (not evident in this letter), substance use, and general demeanor (he was known for being fairly intolerant of dissent), I have always found freud to genuinely be attempting to find truth despite the social climate and its likely reception – there is something admirable in that.

    His notions of homosexuality have always been fascinating…

    “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness…”

    “It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too.”

    While I do not agree it is an arrested stage of development in any particular stage (as, we note, his stages have not held up to any type of scrutiny)…he does bring forth an understanding and humanness often forgotten.

    Thus, one of the earliest founders of the “talking cure,” who saw a possibility of not placing everyone in an asylum – also saw same-sex attraction as no particular reason to persecute…it is “nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degredation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”

    While he may be ridiculed and criticized for his notions on childhood sexuality, he also has provided our culture with quite a bit of insight and “food for thought” with notions of the unconscious, defense mechanisms (some which have held up to testing), and psychoanalytic understandings of “transference” (which every therapist likely understands to be true), “resistance,” countertransference and the fun little notions like parapraxes.

    Despite the criticisms, he’s not always been wrong…and I think he offers a bit of insight into a concept society continues to struggle with.

    An interesting post.

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