In a prior post, I sampled an essay from the eminent 20th century Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung that provides a good example of Jung’s thinking on homosexuality.
In this article, I am reflecting on ways that Jungian analysts wrote about specifically male homosexuality and how these writings inadvertently contributed damaging the psyches of generations of LGBTQ people.
The First Generation of Jungian Writers Often Described Homosexuality as A Case Of Arrested Development
Starting with Freud, psychology and psychoanalysis focused on why people were homosexual—what makes us this way? Jung and the analysts who followed him were no different.
Although Jung mentioned that homosexuality could be innate and biologically determined, his followers tended to focus more on the idea that homosexuality, specifically in males, was a case of arrested development and a failure to separate from identification with the mother and the feminine and towards healthy masculinity.
In Jung, Jungians, and Homosexuality, Richard Hopcke reviewed this emphasis with examples from several first generation Jungians.
For example, Marie-Louise von Franz linked male homosexuality to the concept of the puer aeternus, a perpetually immature adult male.
Von Franz linked the puer directly to homosexuality, calling it a “typical disturbance of a man who has an outstanding mother complex.”
She seemed alarmed that more and more people (ca. 1960’s) seemed to be gay and visible:
homosexuality . . . is increasing more and more; even teenagers are involved, and it seems to me that the actual problem of the puer aeternus is becoming increasingly actual. Undoubtedly, mothers have always tried to keep their sons in the nest, and some sons have always had difficulty getting free and have rather preferred to continue to enjoy the pleasures of the nest; still one does not quite see why this in itself, a natural problem, should now become such a serious . . . problem.
For von Franz the gay man is supposedly trapped in perpetual boyhood and tied to his mother’s apron strings well into adulthood.
Following the psychoanalytic thought of her time, an overbearing mother prevents her son from growing up and leaving her protection so that he can become a man, fend for himself, and take a woman.
Jolanda Jacobi was more explicit in linking homosexuality to an unindividuated feminine principle and a lack of maturation:
The influence of the intellectually independent and mature woman, who in this way became a dominating force and often pushed the father’s authority into the background, can have an exceedingly oppressive effect on her children, particularly on boys. One knows countless cases where this influence unconsciously and unwittingly prevented the development of the masculine ego to full responsibility, The man then remains fixated on the level of a pubescent, not infrequently has homosexual leanings, and remains a puer aeternus, an infantile adult, for the rest of his life,
The concept of arrested development as the thing that makes men gay continued to be prevalent in Jungian circles even into the 1990’s.
In a separate edited volume by Hopcke, Scott Wirth interviewed Joseph Henderson, cofounder of the C. G. Jung Foundation in San Francisco.
Henderson took for granted that homosexuality in men and women was a psychological problem and not an innate, or constitutional characteristic: “I’ve never seen a case that I thought was constitutional, and, anyway, I’ve not seen very many cases of early homosexuality.”
Wirth started out the 1991 interview with the comment,” I remember you saying that in your clinical observation, gay people often seem to have the opposites too close together.” (The opposites here seem to refer to the male animus and female anima principles.) Henderson replied:
This is a question I could speak to most comfortably, The fact that the opposites are so close together is certainly true—not just for homosexual people but for anyone who is suffering from arrested development in the early period of life around puberty or later when the initiation [into individuation] is activated very strongly. What that’s activated, the question is, “Is the initiation oriented toward the mother or the father or toward both?: If it is both, then there is a conflict. The opposites are too close together.
The assumption in all of these passages is that human sexuality has a natural course of development, and that success has a single end point, mature heterosexuality.
If homosexuality was seen as just an immature stage of development, then there is also an implicit belief that with proper analysis, the trajectory of sexual maturity can be restarted and the homosexual client can be cured.
The LGBTQ analysand is not supported in developing a healthy life as a queer person, a goal a therapist would know to pursue today.
Today, We No Longer Ask “Why,” But Jungian Psychology Still Lacks a Healthy LGBTQ Individuation Story
It should be noted that these examples are also a microcosm of the discussions going on in the larger world of psychology at the time. Jacobi’s mature, independent, and oppressive mother aligns well with the then popular Freudian concept of the over-domineering mother and absent father.
Thankfully, these theories about homosexuality are being definitively disproven.
In contrast to Henderson’s comments that he’s never seen a case of homosexuality in a young person, we live in a world where pre-teens are starting to come out to their parents.
Gay men have long described a general feeling of being different that started at a young age, and many parents of gay children tell me they suspected their children were gay from as young as age two.
Biological research is also teaching us that sexual orientation is biologically innate, constitutional, and fixed.
Psychological research demonstrates that attempts to change sexual orientation inevitably fail, and the attempts themselves are psychologically damaging to subjects of change efforts.
None of the people cited here were what we would call homophobic today. Relative to the standards of their time, each was in fact fairly progressive and accepting. (Many believe that von Franz may have been a lesbian or in a relationship with her long term friend and housemate.)
Still, Jungian psychology should be more explicit in addressing and correcting past mistakes. Post-Jungian analysts unwittingly played a role in promoting stereotypes and degrading the mental health and well being of LGBTQ people.
A reckoning is due, and there should be more scholarship like Hopcke’s that explore the past and attempt to create a healthy and affirmative attitude towards analysis with LGBTQ clients.
My research is continuing. I hope to have another post up sometime after an upcoming vacation. Stay tuned!
Hopcke, R. H. (2001). Jung, Jungians, and Homosexuality. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Hopcke, R. H., Lofthus, K., and Wirth, S. (1993). Same-Sex Love and the Path To Wholeness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.