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Doctoral dissertation project of Merle Ingenfeld

“The Cure”: A Transnational History of (Homo-)Sexual Conversion Therapy (1933–1973) (working title)

At the center of my research are practices today commonly referred to as “conversion therapy”. Deeply intertwined with Western notions about gender and sexuality as they were developed since the late 19th century, there have existed a variety of approaches that can be subsumed under this name. “Conversion Therapy”, thus serves in my research as an umbrella term for a variety of professionalized attempts to change sexual orientation and is almost as old as the relatively modern concepts of hetero- and homosexuality. Underlying all of these earlier practices was a certain pathological view, the notion that homosexuality is less desirable than heterosexuality, and that sexual orientation is a mutable variable that can be changed, which persists in some milieus until today. This attitude, however, is historically grown. As medical knowledge and technologies developed and changed over time, so did the corresponding practices deemed appropriate to “correct”, suppress, or accept same-sex desire. First, sporadic experiments in the former direction can be traced back to late 19th century medical doctors operating mainly from German-speaking Central Europe (e.g. Steinach, Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld, Freud), which is why this project places special emphasis on a transnational discourse emanating from the German-speaking world. By placing transatlantic exchange of experts and expertise on this issue at the center of my inquiry, this project builds on most currently existing research on the topic, which has tended to focus on Anglo-American contexts exclusively, while also diverging and adding to it from a new perspective. At the heart of this approach is really the question after the origin and early genesis of “conversion therapy”. More explicitly, this thesis attempts to shed greater light on theories and practices, which were deemed “scientifically sound” before the early 1970s, i.e. before gay liberation and before these practices became increasing tied to religious fundamentalist groups, drawing from medical publications, conference programs, and doctors’ correspondences.

The other main line of my inquiry revolves around the mutual impact of “conversion therapy” and the pathology discourse on the first and second wave of homosexual activism on both sides of the Atlantic. In both, English- and German-language publications of historical homosexual subcultures, the issue of the nature of sexual orientation comes up constantly. The medical discourse was in this context a unifying element in the sense that it provided early activists with words to describe their situation and feelings, justification of their existence outside of the criminal system, as well as a backdrop against which one could position oneself. Additionally, the progressive belief that acceptance by mainstream society could only be reached through a better “scientific” understanding of human sexuality and according education of the public, was held by many homosexual activist leaders until the mid-1960s. Consequently, a large variety of texts on the origin and treatment of homosexuality circulated over the 20th century between different activist communities on both continents. Here the project takes into consideration emancipatory manifests, periodicals, as well as ego-documents Besides the exchange of expert literature, personal contact, formal and informal networks and activist’s exchange on the issue of “conversion therapy” are of interest to me, since the dissociation from the dependency on medical experts marked a distinct step towards late 1960s “radical, gay” activism and active lobbying of government entities and medical associations for a depathologization of homosexuality.

In summary, this project explores the history of practices aimed at changing sexual orientation in the 20th century from a transnational perspective. The geographical focus of this project lays on the exchange between German States (late Weimar Republic, Third Reich, GDR and FDR) and the US as the two regions associated with world-leading research into sexuality, as well as places of emergent homosexual rights movements in the early and mid-20th century (1910s/1920s and the 1950s/1960s, respectively). Diverging from prior studies that investigated “conversion therapy” within the boundaries of one nation state and within one political regime, this doctoral thesis attempts to get a bigger picture, and shed more light on the manifold transnational connections and continuities immanent in contemporary sources, drawing from both, medical professional and activist archives on two continents.


Short biography

Merle Sophia Ingenfeld studied history and media studies at the Universities of Bonn and St Andrews and graduated with a B.A. in 2013. Between 2013 and 2016, she pursued an M.A. in North American Studies, which was collaboratively taught at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne. The corresponding M.A. thesis dealt with representations of misogyny and homophobia in publications of the U.S. American Homophile Movement. During her undergraduate studies Merle was a student assistant to the Chair for Constitutional, Social and Economic History at the University of Bonn (2010–2013). From 2013 to 2018 she gained professional experience in event organizing, project and social media management while working as an assistant at the Max Weber Stiftung.

Since April 2018, Merle is an EUmanities fellow at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne. At the University of Cologne, her doctoral dissertation thesis is supervised by Prof. Anke Ortlepp and Prof. em. Norbert Finzsch (North American History). Her supervisor in Canada is Prof. Jennifer Evans (German and European History); a Cotutelle with Carleton University in Ottawa is in progress.

Contact: m.ingenfeld(at)uni-koeln.de / merle.ingenfeld(at)carleton.ca


(Selected) Publications

“Conference Report: Entangling the Pacific and Atlantic Worlds: Past and Present. A Symposium Commemorating Helmut Schmidt, 25.03.2019 – 27.03.2019 Berkeley”, H-Soz-Kult, 1 October, 2019, www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-8464; also forthcoming in GHI Bulletin 65 (Fall 2019).

“Review of ‘The Straight Line. How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality’ by Tom Waidzunas (Minneapolis 2015)”, Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History Newsletter, Fall 2018, pp. 8–11.

“Neither Really Global nor Imperial? – How to Conceptualise Connectivity over Countries, Empires, Continents and Oceans” (together with Tom Menger), GRAINES: Graduate Interdisciplinary Network for European Studies, 13 June 2018, https://grainesnetwork.com/2018/06/13/farewell-reims-2018/.

„Butler, transregional? – Anmerkungen zu Judith Butlers Vorträgen an der Uni Köln“, Trafo – Blog for Transregional Research, 27 January 2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4724.

„‘Kulturelle Pluralität des Rechts?‘ – Eine Podiumsdiskussion, Trafo – Blog for Transregional Research, 28 November 2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4497.

„Diversity History Months – Monate des Gedächtnisses“, Wissen in Verbindung – Weber 2.0 | Wissenschaftliche Blogs der Max Weber Stiftung, 3 March 2016, https://mws.hypotheses.org/32245.

„Hip-Hop am Mittag. Rezension der Ausstellung ‚The Early Days – HipHop in der DDR‘ (Deutsches Historisches Institut Washington, DC)“, Wissen in Verbindung – Weber 2.0 | Wissenschaftliche Blogs der Max Weber Stiftung, 7 September 2014, https://mws.hypotheses.org/21026.


Talks and Presentations

“’Die Kirche und Wir’ - Church, Religion, and German-Speaking Queer Communities after World War II”, 43rd Annual Conference of the German Studies Association, 5 October 2019, Portland, OR (USA).

“Accessing LGBTQ Sources and Materials at the Library of Congress. Librarian and Researcher in Conversation”, together with Megan Metcalf (LGBT+ and Women’s Studies Reference Librarian), 10 May 2019, Library of Congress (USA).

“The Cure: A Transnational History of Conversion Therapy”, 19 September 2018, “Annual Retreat of the German Historical Institute Washington”, Washington DC (USA).

“Global Europe and Trans-Atlantic Knowledge Exchange on Homosexuality”, 6 June 2018, 6th GRAINES Summer School “Global Europe. Connecting European History, 17th to 21th Century”, Science Po Reims (France).

“Sexuelle (Re-)Orientierung in historischer Perspektive – Ein Annäherungsversuch an eine schwer (be)greifbare Neigungskategorie”, 14 October 2017, 5th Workshop der Studierenden und Young Professionals in der AG Angewandte Geschichte/Public History im VHD „Historische Dimensionen von Geschlecht“, University of Hamburg (Germany).

Moderation of the Roundtable “Queer History,” 4 November 2016. 2nd Histocamp, Mainz (Germany).

“‘Nichts als Muttersöhnchen?’ – Wissenschaftsgläubigkeit und ihr Einfluss auf Amerikanische Schwule Identitäten vor Stonewall (1955-1965)”, 20 September 2016, 51. Deutscher Historikertag, Hamburg University (Germany).

“‘Don’t Tell Mom!’ Homosexuals and Their Mothers Before Gay Liberation (1955–1969)”, 30 October 2015. “Master Projects”, Student Symposium of the North American Studies Program, University of Bonn (Germany).

“Medien, Macht und Medienmacht im 17. Jahrhundert”, 3 November 2012. „Macht und Herrschaft“, 1. Interdisziplinäres studentisches Symposium der Fachschaft Geschichte der Universität Bonn, University of Bonn (Germany).


Awards, Honors, and Fellowships

10/2019: Travel Grant from the German Academic Exchange Service to attend the Annual Conference of the German Studies Association (DAAD Kongressreisenstipendium)

2018–2021: a.r.te.s EUmanities Fellowship (a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne; MSCA-co-funded under Horizon 2020, European Union)

2018–2019: Long-Term Visiting Doctoral Fellowship (German Historical Institute Washington, DC)

06/2018: Prize for Best Collaborative Piece of Writing together with Tom Menger (PhD Sprint-Pair-Writing Session, GRAINES Summer School, Reims)

2017/2018: Scholarship for the Preparation of a Doctoral Dissertation Project (a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne)

2017: Nominated for the Gender Studies Prize for the Academic Years 2015-17 (University-Wide Graduate Level Prize for the Best Thesis with a Topic Related to Gender as a Research Category, University of Bonn)

2017: Nominated for the US Ambassador’s Award (Graduate Level Prize for the Best Thesis in American Studies at a German University, Embassy of the United States in Germany)

2014: Scholarship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD Short-Term Grant for Completing Internships Abroad)

2012: Erasmus Scholarship for an Academic Exchange Semester (Horizon 2020, European Union)


Cover photo: “Today Homosexuals, tomorrow the world!” Satirical artwork by John “Buckshot” Klamik problematizing conversion therapy (1972). Courtesy of the Stonewall National Museum and Archive, Wilton Manors, Florida (USA). // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities
CORDIS: http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/203182_de.html