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In the 1960s, homosexuality was a crime - and a mental illness. Gays desperate for a cure tried, or were forced into, aversion therapy. Some believe the after-effects ruined their lives; one did not survive

Beverley d'Silva
Saturday 03 August 1996 23:02 BST

Peter Price is one of the entertainment world's more flamboyant characters. He's a radio DJ and stand-up comic, who has worked nightclubs from Birmingham to Benidorm, wearing gold leather hotpants, high heels and a cape covered in Snow White and the seven dwarfs. Camp as a row of tents, darling. Gay as gay can be. A brilliant fellow is Peter, and everyone who knows him knows that he's game for a laugh. But until now no one, save for a few of his most trusted friends, has known about the dark secret that he kept buried for more than three decades.

In 1964, aged 18, Price was admitted to the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Chester. The treatment he was to undergo was intended to "cure" him of his homosexuality. Within a day of his arrival, Price was confined to one room, pumped full of nausea-inducing drugs, kept in a bed smeared with his own vomit and faeces. His fear tipped into paranoia. "It was like being in a horror movie," he says now. "I don't think any description can match what they did to me." The therapy lasted only three days, but those three days, he says, have destroyed 30 years of his life.

Peter believed, until recently, that he was a solitary guinea-pig in this grim landscape of psychological tricks; that he was unique in receiving aversion therapy to correct homosexuality. But at around the same time, 19-year-old Colin Fox was beginning his "cure" in a Manchester hospital. He had been working in the rag trade, trying without success to live up to his family's expectations of him as a "nice Jewish boy". Unfortunately, Colin had sexual feelings about other men. He tried to date girls, even had plastic surgery to improve his looks. But the feelings about men would not go away. "I was convinced that there was something wrong with me, and that deep down my homosexuality could be cured," he says. Which is how he came to be sitting staring at erotic pictures, wired up to a 12- volt car battery and tensed against the electric shock about to jolt painfully through his body.

Like Peter, Colin submitted to this treatment voluntarily. But the choices available to homosexual men 30 years ago were rather less free than they are today. Homosexuality was a criminal offence until 1967. It had been classified as a mental illness since the Twenties, and was treated as such by the medical establishment until the early Seventies. The general social climate, meanwhile, was almost unimaginably homophobic: there were no openly gay role-models, no gay support groups. To be discovered to be homosexual was, at best, to be urged by one's family to seek medical help; at worst, to be shopped to the police.

Colin Fox recalls his sense of intense isolation and fear as a teenager. "I had no way of knowing whether there were other gay men. I do remember reading about Oscar Wilde going to gaol. I lived in fear of going to gaol. I thought I was a bad person." Peter, too, felt "totally and utterly bad" about his homosexuality. Both men wanted to be straight and when their doctors - to whom they had eventually turned with their problem - suggested a treatment that could cure them, they were eager to try it.

Gerald William Clegg-Hill - Billy to his friends - did not volunteer. When Clegg-Hill, an army captain, was arrested in 1962 on suspicion of homosexual practices, he was tried at Somerset assizes, in Wells, found guilty, and sent to a military psychiatric hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment. His half-sister, Alison Garthwaite, recalls the scandal, the newspaper reports of how her brother's promising army career had been trashed. "I was completely shocked when it happened," she says. "I could not equate my beloved brother with the seedy dirty jokes that were told about queers in those days. I pushed it out of my mind and only thought about it some six or seven years later when attitudes to homosexuality became more liberal.

"But ours was not a liberal family. My father was a brigadier in the Royal Artillery and did not discuss the issue with me at all. Mother was just glad that Billy was getting treatment because being gay was seen as such a shameful thing."

Tragically, Billy did not survive the treatment. The full details of his death did not emerge until much later. There was no inquest and the family did not discuss what happened. "Back then, it was seen as shocking and disgusting to be gay, and I told nobody the truth," says Alison. For many years, their mother explained Billy's death to Alison as being the result of an allergic reaction to treatment for a nervous breakdown. The truth was that he died in hospital during apomorphine aversion therapy.

AVERSION therapy, in the Fifties, was psychiatry's new toy. It was intended to eliminate unwanted or dangerous behaviour, from thumb-sucking to paedophilia. Inspired by the celebrated experiments of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, it had gathered support in the first half of the 20th century as psychologists realised the potential of the conditioned reflex as a treatment. It worked, said the textbooks, by altering behaviour by the application of an unpleasant or noxious stimulus. That is, if the patient came to associate a nasty sensation - from verbal rebuke and unpleasant tastes to corporal punishment and electric shocks - with his "bad" behaviour (eg, in homosexuals, fantasies about men), the painful experience would put him off it for ever. The administration of a vomit-inducing drug, such as apomorphine, was one of the noxious stimuli frequently employed. Another aversive stimulus was the use of electric shocks.

The unwanted behaviours originally targeted ranged from over-eating to obsessive hand-washing, but homosexuality soon joined the list along with other types of sexual "deviance" such as exhibitionism and transvestism. There are no statistics recording exactly how widespread its use was, though studies suggest that it was administered to many hundreds of homosexual men in Britain, the US and many other countries throughout the Fifties and Sixties. And it continued to be used, in combination with desensitisation, hypnosis and psycho-surgery, right up until the early Eighties - though to a lesser and lesser extent as a corrective in sexual behaviour.

According to a paper looking at the efficacy of aversion therapy given to the American Medical Association in 1987, the first reported study of its use in the treatment of homosexuality is from 1935. The patient was asked to fantasise about men and received electric shocks as he did so. After four months, the doctor judged the treatment 95 per cent successful. Later, nausea-inducing drugs were added as another negative stimulus. In a study reported in 1960 an emetic mixture of caffeine and apomorphine was given to patients who were then shown slides of dressed and undressed men. In the second phase of treatment, patients were shown films of naked and semi-naked women after being given testosterone to stimulate a sexual response.

The results of this experiment, which involved 67 subjects, revealed "poor efficacy" for those referred by the court and "lacklustre" results for voluntary patients (only six of 47 reported reduction in homosexual behaviour afterwards). In 1963, doctors reported a "successful adaptation from homosexuality to bisexuality" in the case of a patient who was made to stand in a 9ft square room with an electrical grid on the floor; he was shown slides of a naked man while current was passed through the floor to his bare feet. Attempts to replicate the procedure failed when a second patient discontinued treatment after two days.

Leaving aside the question of why conversion to bisexuality should be considered a success, there is a problem with evaluating such therapies because of the questionable reliability of patients' testimonies. When society dictated that the choice for those with homosexual inclinations was be cured or be imprisoned, there was an obvious incentive to pretend that therapy had been more successful than it actually was. A 1972 study found imperfect agreement between self-reports of sexual arousal and penile circumference measurements. That is, the patient may claim he's not being turned on, but his body would beg to differ.

The medical profession is still split on whether aversion therapy could work in altering something as fundamental as a person's sexual orientation. The AMA paper found that no definitive conclusions could be drawn about its efficacy. While positive results had been achieved (for all conditions, from people wanting to give up smoking to sexual disorders), similar results were achieved using non-aversive techniques and placebos.

There is no suggestion that the practitioners who administered aversion therapy did not act in good faith, in what they believed was their patients' best interests. They thought the treatment worked. Valerie Mellor, the psychologist who treated Colin Fox, told Gay Times in its report on the issue: "I've never done anything to any patient I wouldn't have done to myself and to my children." Now a consultant child psychologist in psychosexual problems at Booth Hall Hospital, and director of the Jubilee Centre for the Diagnosis of Child Abuse, she defends the treatment to this day. In her present field she believes it could work where patients undergo it willingly: to raise the age range or change the gender of the children who arouse a sex-offender, for example.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says it is impossible to know how many men underwent aversion therapy for gender reorientation in the UK, because records have been destroyed or lost during computerisation, and hospitals have been closed down. Nor can we know how many men were "cured", or how many continue to suffer in silence from the after-effects. The former presumably don't wish to come forward and shatter the heterosexual life they've worked so hard to build.

The Department of Health says that aversion therapy has not been banned because it may be effective in the treatment of alcohol misuse. There is, however, little demand in Britain for treatment for homosexuality. "Homosexuality is not regarded as an illness or disorder and does not need correcting," said a spokesman. "It is not inconceivable that in rare cases, for example where a persistent child sex offender insisted that they receive therapy to curb their behaviour, that a clinician might, following careful consideration and discussion, be prepared to administer some form of aversion therapy."

NOW 50, Peter Price pours all the anxiety and anger he attributes to the treatment into his work. He broadcasts his own show five nights a week on Radio City 1548am, in Liverpool; a faithful following tune in to be regaled by helium-high bursts of camp humour, his trademark. Most weekends he works the cabaret circuit, doing stand-up in northern clubs or out on the Spanish costas. That non-stop cheerfulness is, of course, a front. He's been a master of facade since realising that he was gay at 12. At 14, he summoned every ounce of courage to tell his GP. The doctor laughed in his face and then offered him Valium. "As if that would make it all better," Peter says bitterly. By the time he was 18, his liaisons with men had been confined to "just messing around, not proper sex", but had left him with insufferable guilt - and terror of being found out. His adoptive mother persuaded him to go back to the GP for treatment. He adored her and did it to please her, even though he was doubtful that it would work. This time he was referred to a psychiatric hospital in Chester.

Peter will never forget his first interview with the psychiatrist. "He asked me if I realised how revolting homosexuality was, how vile and revolting anal and oral sex were. He used the grossest terms. He wanted to make me feel disgusted." Peter claims that nothing was explained about the treatment he was to undergo (contrary to recommended practice). "If I'd known what they were going to do to me, I would never have gone in."

He was shut up in a room containing a bed but no windows or furniture. He was given a crate of Guinness, his favourite drink, and a pile of erotic photographs of men. "I can't imagine how I was supposed to be turned on by those - they were just pictures of men in rather baggy bathing costumes." Not such awful treatment, he thought - until, that is, the "real horror" started. Price was injected with a drug (probably Antabuse, although he doesn't know for sure), and felt violently sick. He asked for a bucket but was told to be sick in the bed. An hour later, he was given another injection, which made him vomit again. An hour later, another injection. And another and another. This continued for 72 hours. There was no lavatory in Peter's room. He was told to defecate in the bed.

"I felt dirty, grotty, filthy," he says, his sentences becoming staccato as he revisits the painful memory. "I was petrified. This was the lunatic asylum, the loony bin. There was screaming through the night, other patients would come in and whisper in my ear or piss on my bed. I couldn't concentrate on pictures of men's bodies. I could only think of getting out."

When the doctors told him about the next phase of his treatment - a further two days of therapy, this time electric shocks - Peter hastily discharged himself. The experience was so disorienting, his fear so intense, that, because no one apart from his mother knew he was there, he had started to imagine that he would not get out alive. He rang a friend, who came to collect him. "I went home with him, and had a long bath and about nine showers to rid myself of the unclean feeling. And then we had sex. It was almost as if I thought: this is it, I'm going to start living my life."

He believes some wounds left by the treatment will never heal. "I feel that something was messed around in my head. Sometimes I find myself preaching to gay people, asking: do you realise what you're doing is wrong? But what have I been doing? Having sex with men. It's bizarre, like a poison in my mind."

Forming long-term relationships has been another problem. "I've had only two relationships, of just three years each. It makes me very sad. I'm a caring, loyal person. I'd love to have someone in my life. When I'm with someone, I make their favourite meal at night, plan treats. But I have a self-destruct button. A trigger goes off in me and I push people away."

One bizarre side-effect which Peter attributes to the treatment is that he appears to have developed a condition aversion therapy has also been used to treat. Although he has always been hygiene-conscious, his need to clean things has become fanatical. "I'm ultra-clean to the point of stupidity," he confesses. "I had a shower before this interview and I'll have one afterwards. I've got a bit more of a grip on it but, if someone stays the night, which isn't often these days, in the morning I must go to the bathroom and see that the face flannel has been folded, corner to corner. I believe my obsession with cleaniness is because I had to sit for three days in my own vomit and excrement."

COLIN FOX's treatment was quite different from Peter's, although painful in other ways. For one thing he embarked on it with a strong desire for it to work. "My life was hell for years. I just hoped and prayed my homosexuality could be cured."

Colin, now 51, is a man of gentle and sensitive manners who has built a successful career as a bridge teacher, working in upmarket locations such as Champney's health club. At 19, he attended the psychiatric department of Crumpsall Hospital, in north Manchester, as an outpatient. He was treated by psychologist Valerie Mellor and given counselling and aversion therapy.

During aversion sessions, an electrode was attached to his foot or ankle, and a slight shock (strong enough to be unpleasant, but not intended to be so painful as to deter the patient from continuing treatment) was administered as he responded to pictures of men. The power was set with the patients' co-operation and varied according to their tolerance on the day. The effect is described by Mellor as "a mere tingle", but Colin remembers it as "sometimes excruciating. The pain terrified me. It was much worse than touching a live electric cable. I knew it was coming, and would tense up in anticipation. When I was feeling a bit depressed or vulnerable, I couldn't cope." But he rarely complained: "I was doing something wrong by having homosexual feelings. The punishment was part of the cure." He had to select a picture of a woman at the end of the session, when no shock was given. This was to associate the female with relief from anxiety.

But the treatment did not have the effect Colin had hoped for. "I sometimes pretended I wasn't homosexual, that really I was attracted to women, but I was conning myself." Tortured by bouts of the blackest depression and anxiety, he tried to commit suicide two years later, when he was 21. A period of celibacy followed. By his mid-twenties, Colin felt compelled to marry, partly because of the expectations of his family but also to prove - to himself as much as to anybody else - that he wasn't homo- sexual. He also genuinely wanted a wife, children and family life. He met Diane when he was 26. Soon after they got engaged, he told her he had homosexual tendencies. "She was upset. But she was in love with me and she knew that I had not acted on the feelings, and that I hoped I never would. She trusted that I would be faithful to her. And I was."

Colin talks of his wedding day, through which he stumbled numbed by Valium, with deep sadness and regret. Their honeymoon in Italy he describes unequivocally as horrific. He felt "hopeless, awful, and trapped", feelings worsened by his new bride's bitter disappointment. The couple, both virgins, did not consummate the marriage for seven years, and then only with the help of sex and relationship counselling. "Sex is a minute but vitally important part of a relationship," says Colin. "Lots of things were so right in my marriage." But not the sex. When it broke up, three years later, Colin told his sister and Diane's siblings that he was gay, but he never had an open conversation about it with his parents (both now dead). Today he wonders how he could ever have imagined he could make his marriage work.

Soon after the divorce, he joined an encounter group - "the first time I'd been open about my sexuality in public" - and soon began an 18-month relationship with a man. After several short affairs, he finally met Mark, 33. They've been together for four years. "Thank God I'm in a good relationship. Before I came out I was so out of touch with myself, and everyone else. If I'd had a choice, I wouldn't have chosen to be gay. There is still a part of me that sees it as an emotional disturbance."

He believes that the aversion therapy certainly added to his anguish. "The shock treatment contributed to screwing me up, and it's there in my subconscious. It will haunt me to my dying day," he says. "I know I've been harmed. I've had endless problems with my neck and shoulder, places the tension goes to. I feel as if I've been robbed of the best years of my life. But my arm wasn't twisted. I agreed to it and I take responsibility for having done so. The worst fight was the one I fought with myself against my homosexuality."

Unlike Peter, Colin feels no anger towards the medical establishment, just sadness. Indeed, he still praises Valerie Mellor's caring attitude to him. "She once said she wished she could tell me to go out and give it a try, have sex with a man. She couldn't, of course. Those were the times we were living in."

COLIN's and Peter's experiences - and those of who knows how many other victims of aversion therapy - were dark secrets, and seemed set to remain so. In 1993, however, Peter Price read a newspaper report of a court case involving four armed forces personnel sacked for being homosexual. One of the four, a naval officer called John Beckett, had been sent to a Navy psychiatrist, where, he claims, he was offered electric shock therapy. "I couldn't believe it was still going on," says Peter. He contacted The Independent which reported on his experience; a television documentary, Dark Secret: Sexual Aversion, has also been made and will be broadcast this week.

Beckett is taking his case to the court of human rights in Strasbourg, and in the meantime is refraining from public statements. A Defence Ministry spokesman commented: "Aversion therapy arose in the conversation ... but Commander Churcher-Brown, the Navy psychiatrist, told Beckett it was a completely discredited therapy he would never prescribe himself." The official MoD line is that "aversion therapy certainly is not offered to service personnel. Homosexuality is not an illness."

It is, however, still a dischargeable offence in the armed forces, just as it was in 1962 when Gerald William Clegg-Hill was serving in the Royal Tank Regiment. Alison Garthwaite remembers her brother as being "liked by children and animals, an easygoing sort of man. He genuinely didn't wish to be gay. He knew he was but ... he tried to go out with the nice girls and did his best to live a heterosexual life."

Billy's snaps from a scuba diving holiday in Tripoli, however, show him not with girls but with lots of handsome young men. He was eventually picked up by the police. After being found guilty of homosexuality, Billy was sentenced to three years on probation, on condition that he attend a military psychiatric institution. Three days after checking in he was dead. He was 29.

There was no inquest: "Mother was glad. She wanted it all wrapped up and neatly put away." With the help of Hilary Clarke, producer of the forthcoming documentary, and a former nurse, Alison contacted Dr Richard Goodbody, the pathologist who examined Billy's body. After studying the death certificate, Goodbody remembered Billy as "a young, healthy man ... with a normal heart"; he noted that the certificate listed small haemorrhages in the stomach, and the causes of death as being due to cerebral anoxia (failure of blood flow to the brain), coma, convulsions, and apomorphine. "Natural causes" had been filled in later by the coroner. Goodbody said: "It isn't natural causes in my opinion." Alison has subsequently discussed the details of her brother's case with doctors. "I've been told that it's bizarre there was no inquest. I've heard that facts might have come out of an inquest that the MoD would have found embarrassing.

"I felt angry that Billy died in this way. To cut someone down in their prime just because they are gay is completely wrong. The documentary is a sort of memorial for Billy, to acknowledge him as a good person, and a good gay person. It's enough that people are told that this went on. Recording it will, hopefully, make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again."

! 'Dark Secret: Sexual Aversion' will be broadcast on BBC2 on Thursday 8 August at 9.30pm

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