I recently got back from vacationing with my wife. Among our many adventures in Nova Scotia, we stayed at the inn where she proposed to me, as is usual with our trips out east. The little inn shall remain unnamed, but they offer a small glass-door cupboard of books for guests to borrow, with a request to return for others to enjoy.
There were three or four shelves in a cupboard about two feet wide, so there weren’t a whole lot of books. It’s quite an eclectic mix, I must say. There were a few titles by L. Ron Hubbard, and several books in other languages. There was a 2006 – 2007 copy of Sunday Missal: Living with Christ and a small Lizzie McGuire chapter book.
But this immediately caught my eye: The New Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia For Home Use.
This beauty had four volumes, and looked old. I thought for sure it would be an entertaining read.
I brought it back to our room and delved in. It was published in 1959, back when having a medical encyclopedia for home use was a good idea and wouldn’t lead to chronic hypochondria.
The index was quite entertaining by itself.
Some of the information I encountered was progressive, and some of it was dated in that it was sexist, offensive, or incorrect. Or all of the above.
It used the terms harelip and Mongolism. Idiot, imbecile and moron are also used.
The entry about diabetes was of course very interesting to me, as I am type one diabetic. The entry didn’t differentiate between types one and two, as it appears the mechanisms of disease were not yet known. It was simply referred to as mild or serious.
As I worked my way through the volumes, wondering at how far we have come both in terms of feminism and medical science, it dawned on me that perhaps sexual orientation and associated information was contained within. It was.
Although it seemed to be accepting of the idea of not desiring sex (the blame on “emotional disturbance” is troubling, though), it also has an entry about “frigidity” as the official lack of sexual desire.
The section on female anatomy was discouraging, if only for its emphasis on how gross period sex is.
And then we reach the entry on homosexuality. Part of me knew it was coming – it was 1959 when it was published, after all. But part of me was still upset; offended, even, that this existed as a medical fact, in print, in this world.
It’s sad that these attitudes still exist in people today. The idea that having a queer identity is a neurosis or the product of shitty relationships with your family is still perpetuated. The idea that it is something that not only can be cured, but should be is dangerous.
Reading this made me really thankful for the work of all the activists through the ages that got us to the point where most people – especially the medical community – no longer accept this garbage as fact. I can’t even imagine the courage it would take to face down these attitudes just from within, let alone other people.
Even in Canada, we can still do better than we are right now. But sometimes, it’s worth looking back to see just how far we’ve come.