Home > Freud > Debunking Freud Part II- The Origins of Male Homosexuality

Debunking Freud Part II- The Origins of Male Homosexuality

This article is one of the many articles that will focus on exposing some of the fallacies in Freud’s theoretical make-up. Other posts in this series can be found through the following links:

1. Debunking Freud Part I- Unconscious Homosexuality


Freud and da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Bettmann/Corbis

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Freud’s personal views on homosexuality, if compared to what his contemporaries believed, were liberal. According to a response letter he send to a mother who was worried about her son’s homosexual behavior,  he thought that homosexuality was neither a vice nor a degradation, but something most normal people experience:

Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too.

(I am not a graphologist, but after comparing this letter to a page of a letter sent to Fliess on September 21, 1897, which I found in Peter Gay’s biography about Freud, the handwriting seems authentic. )

Although Freud was a maverick in theorizing, how did he come to accept homosexuality as a natural part of our sexual development? From what I gather, everything started with the man who made this painting:

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

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In 1910, after about a year from his trip to the US, Freud decided to write something on Leonardo da Vinci. The outcome of that decision was a novelette whose purpose was to expose a psychoanalytic study on Leonardo. Freud acknowledged that this endeavor was very tentative and his findings were based on a scarcity of biographical materials. Nevertheless, he established the framework of his book on a rumination about childhood that Leonardo left in one of his notebooks.  Freud took that childhood contemplation and elaborated an artistic interpretation from it. First, here is Leo’s legacy to Freud:

It seems…that I was destined to occupy myself so thoroughly with a vulture, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory that, as I was in my cradle, a vulture came down to me, opened my mouth with its tails, and stuck me many times with its tail against my lips.

Freud, who was an erudite  in religion and history, knew that the symbol for vulture was a hieroglyph for mother in ancient Egypt. Since Leonardo was an illegitimate child, Freud called him, romantically, the “vulture child.” Later on, Freud speculated that Leonardo had a very affectionate mother, and that passionate maternal love, coupled with the experience of not having a father, had an important influence on is early development. However, because of the over-protective and excessive love from her mother, Leonardo was subjected to too much femininity, which set the stage for his homosexuality. But that explained only the inception process of homosexuality. Full blown homosexual behavior comes later on in life, after the child finally becomes an adult and tends to repress his love for his mother and inadvertently identifies with her. Additionally, another important factor that plays a role in becoming a homosexual is anal eroticism. Anal eroticism comes from a fixation during the anal stage of psychosexual development.

This theory about the origins of homosexuality seems far-fetched. It was based on a vague account that Leonardo left behind, to which Freud found mainly an artistic interpretation. The book is replete with lyricism, so its appeal is understandable. Nevertheless, the conjectures Freud made are not entirely scientific.

The Evidence

In order to give some validity to Freud’s claims, we need to find if there is any evidence that support the fact that males from the homosexual community had  (1)  careless or missing fathers, (2) overly affective mothers,  (3)  strong maternal identification, and (4) some characteristics that relate to anal fixation.

1&2. Is there a presence of an intimate relationship with the mother and lack of intimacy with a father in a male homosexual?

A summary of the studies pertaining to this question has been included in a book by Fisher and Greenberg. Most of the studies tried to find a correlation between homosexuality and early childhood experiences by using questionnaires.  Braaten and Darling (1965) did a study on thirty four homosexual and control samples of college students by using questionnaires and MMPI. Their conclusions support Freud’s assertions: the mothers of homosexuals had an intimate relationship with their sons, while fathers were mainly detached and showed little attention to them.

Nevertheless, some studies (Terman & Miles, 1936; Jonas, 1944; O’Connor, 1964) found that the relationship between the fathers of homosexuals and their sons often contained a great deal of hostility, even brutality, which could at least hint us that there might be another explanation why homosexual men have such strenuous relationships with their fathers (Will you love the hand that hits you?). Additionally, most of the studies described by Fisher and Greenberg have used convenience samples from psychiatric yards, or samples that had an interest in establishing Freud’s validity (in Bieber et al. (1962) surveys were delivered to psychoanalysts who were asked questions about a large sample of homosexual men that they have treated), which significantly diminishes their external validity. Also, none of the studies examined the cultural component of homosexuality. Maybe fathers detested or ignored their homosexual sons because society does not approve homosexual tendencies and expects them to react coldly or brutally to it? This would mean that parents’ behavior could be the result of their child’s homosexuality and not, as Freud suspected, the other way around. Still, considering that these are correlational studies, no type of causal link can be inferred about the relationship between homosexuals and their parents.

3. Does the male homosexual child identify with the mother?

Objective evidence in these respects is almost nonexistent. I found only one study by Chang and Block (1960) that shows identification with the mother among male homosexuals. In the study, Chang and Block gave to twenty male homosexuals and twenty controls a list of adjectives and asked them to describe which of them could be attached to the following concepts: ideal self, mother, father, and self. They found that homosexuals gave themselves similar adjectives they gave to mothers.  A series of summaries of other studies in Fisher and Greenberg, while focusing on the identification question, looked at the masculinity-femininity dimension. (That is why Braaten and Darling (1965) have employed MMPI, because it looks on the aspect of femininity-masculinity.)  They found that homosexual men are more feminine than heterosexual men. Even so, there is not enough evidence to substantiate that the score on masculinity-dimension is also a measure of identification.

4. Are homosexual men anally fixated?

There is no evidence of anal fixation or anal eroticism.


So, most male homosexuals do have hostile relationships with their fathers and intimate relationships with their mothers. But this correlation tells us nothing about the origins of homosexuality. The hostile or indifferent attitude from fathers could well be the result of the child’s homosexuality. Evidence showing identification with the mother and anal fixation is scarce and rarely corroborates Freud’s theory.

Can you guess who is the man with the cigar?


Braaten, L. J., & Darling, C. D. (1965). “Overt and covert homosexual problems among male college students.” Genetic Psychology Monographs, 269-330.

Chang, J. & Block, J. (1960). “A study of identification in male homosexuals.” Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24.  doi: 10.1037/h0046046
Freud (1964). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. New York: Norton.

Jonas, C. H., (1944). “An objective approach to the personality and environment in homosexuality.” Psychiatric Quarterly, 18.

O’Connor, P. J., (1967). “Aetiological factors in homosexuality as seen in Royal Air Force psychiatric practice.” British Journal of Psychiatry, 16 .

Terman, L. M., & Miles, C. (1962). Sex and personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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  1. September 5, 2010 at 8:46 pm
  2. September 8, 2015 at 7:10 pm

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