The Course Of Gay And Lesbian Lives: Social And Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Book Review)

Author:  Cohler, Bertram J. and R. M. Galatzer-Levy
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000
Reviewed By: Michael S. Keren, Fall 2002, pp. 33-34

Do We Really Need A Whole New Wheel

As the 60’s were becoming the 70’s and I was finishing grammar school I remember being pushed to memorize multiple formulas for converting measurements to the metric system. Yards to meters, inches to centimeters, miles to kilometers, even Fahrenheit to Celsius. The big change is coming, we were all warned, and we have to be ready. It would happen in the next decade, we were told. It was panic forming. How would we survive? These formulae were impossible. We sixth graders knew the world would end because our teachers couldn’t be wrong. I experienced a more mature sense of this anxiety as I was reading The Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives: Social and Psychoanalytic Perspectives by Bertram Cohler and Robert Galatzer-Levy.

The book is a reediting of a report that was submitted to the Executive Council of the American Psychoanalytic Association. The Council requested the report to “address the scientific status of same-gender sexual orientation understood as a way of life rather than as an expression of personal psychopathology”(p. xvii). Cohler and Galatzer-Levy then offer an extensive review of the literature, both scientific and psychoanalytic regarding homosexuality. They provide grounding for the reader in the constructivist idea of the “life-course perspective” and basically announce that essentialism is dead. One study after another seems to fall in its relevance as their essentialist’s roots are exposed. It becomes an exercise in “we never met a study we liked.” While the breadth of their review is commendable, I for one am not as anxious as the authors to give up these foundational studies that were so instrumental in changing our thinking about homosexuality. Our task should be not to rewrite history, but to re-understand it.

The book is divided into three sections. The first provides an historical overview of the treatment of gays and lesbians in the field and society in general. Additionally, it introduces the ideas of cohort effect and the aforementioned life-course perspective. The authors feel that any understanding of what it means to be gay or lesbian must include an understanding of the cohort of the individual. A man who came of age in the Pre-Stonewall era is going to have a different understanding of his life than a young man coming of age in the age of HIV. One can’t argue with this idea, although clinical experience suggests that the cohorts the authors identify are not as clear as they suggest. Perhaps, this gay man from the suburbs of New York City is meeting a different group of men from those the authors find in Chicago. Cohorts seem to influence each other and as such, while their histories may differ, their sense of themselves may not.

To the author’s credit, this book could stand alone as a bibliographic source for anyone seeking to begin to understand the lives of gay men and lesbians as it has been portrayed in the psychoanalytic and psychological literature. This reader found most every study he knew and many he didn’t referenced in the text. It will serve for a generation as a basic resource for graduate students undertaking a “gay” dissertation.

The second section of the book addresses the origins of homosexuality and the psychosocial development of gay and lesbian persons. They begin by assessing the literature asserting a biological basis to sexual orientation. Granted this literature is filled with flaws, and to date has proved nothing, but the authors dismiss the continued quest to find a connection. They rightly argue that such a quest has been used to try to justify homosexuality, and since homosexuality is a construction, it needs no justification. But, perhaps these studies will finally be able to answer that one question that plagues constructivists, “how does that which is constructed, come to be experienced so essentially?” Perhaps the answer lies in the laying down or altering of neural pathways connected to the expression of sexuality. The authors ignore current thinking on the interplay of neurological development with the developing psyche. In trying to discount that which has been done they may be forestalling that which can be done.

The second section also addresses questions of the development of a sexual identity over the life span. The authors review the studies from an earlier generation that attempted to define and validate a developmental trajectory for the “coming out” process. Since none of the multiple models of coming out has ever been fully validated, they dismiss the models as a construction of the essentialists. These models, however, have well served a generation of researchers and clinicians in their attempt to depathologize homosexuality. It was these very models that helped us to understand the way in which internalized homophobia and cultural pressures cause the individual to deny same sex attraction and, when the denial fails, to live in fear and occasionally self-loathing. These studies were essential for the removal of “ego-dystonic homosexuality” from the DSM, as therapists and analysts were sensitized to the process nature of becoming comfortable with a homosexual self. True enough, most of the models suffered from being stage models, with no flexibility to accommodate back and forth movements along their developmental continuums, but in the consulting room, these models with such theoretical adjustments helped to alleviate the anxiety of anxious patients and clinicians struggling to understand and accept the gay or lesbian selves emerging in their consulting rooms. While some of the youth today may seem to have an easier time with self-identification, and may even have a facile experience of the psycho-social elements of coming out, this reader is not ready to abandon ideas that have saved so many lives by helping gay men and lesbians contextualize their struggle and relieve the isolation and misery they were experiencing. We need an integration of our growing sense of constructionist processes with what we already know.

The final section focuses on issues in psychoanalytic intervention. The authors offer well-reasoned and argued sentiments against conversion therapies, a position that few would argue with. They raise issues and provide illustrations to help clinicians understand what they are seeing. However, they do not provide enough ideas on what to do. In an area where respected analysts have prescribed non-analytic interventions to cure homosexuality, it would be helpful to confused and neophyte clinicians to suggest ways that the analytic process can help to expose underlying internalized and societal homophobia that is undercutting self-esteem in emerging gay and lesbian identities. How, for instance, does one successfully navigate the cultural resistances to homosexuality, that create an environment where gay men and lesbians of color feel they must choose between there ethnic identification and their social one? How, as analysts, can we incorporate much needed psychoeducational interventions and still maintain an analytic frame, since the consulting room is an ideal environment for combating ignorance and stereotypes, as well as providing safer-sex education?

Cohler and Galatzer-Levy are to be commended for their effort in The Course Of Gay and Lesbian Lives: Social and Psychoanalytic Perspectives. The scope of the project is gargantuan. Yet for all they’ve included it is unbalanced and not as helpful as a tool for training as its objectives suggest. While the extensive review of the literature is well written and will serve as a resource for a generation, the authors are limited by their outright rejection of essentialism and support for constructivist positions. In this new world, we cannot help others by ignoring the past. Perhaps future authors can use this tome as a jumping off place for an integration of what has been with what we are becoming.

Reviewer Note

Michael S. Keren is a clinical psychologist at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. and is in private practice in Metuchen, New Jersey. He is a candidate at the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity in NYC.

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