An American Obsession

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society is a startling book. In it, Jennifer Terry traces in detail how the medical profession and the scientific world have addressed the question of homosexuality for the last two centuries. What emerges from Terry’s study is a depiction of an American medical and scientific community that frequently approached the subject with such a heavy burden of biases that they often demonized homosexuality rather than reaching accurate, enlightened views about it.

Well into the twentieth century, scientists and physicians generally considered homosexuality an aberration, a mental illness physicians should seek to cure. Americans, Terry contends, have long been obsessed with homosexuality. As shocking as the biases of the scientific and medical communities are, the policies of government in the United States that sought to ban homosexuals from government service because political leaders feared they might fall victim to blackmail are more astounding. Blackmail would not have been possible had the government adopted a more enlightened attitude toward homosexual employees. The problems homosexuals face in government is a problem of the government’s making.

Terry demonstrates how the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the American Male (1948) and his subsequent collaborative study, Sexual Behavior in the American Female (1953) evoked considerable comment about a subject that had previously been discussed in hushed tones. These books marked a turning point in American attitudes toward homosexuality and sex in general, opening the door for increasingly judicious research and thinking about the topic.