Kenneth Lewes, Who Challenged Views of Homosexuality, Dies at 76

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Kenneth Lewes grew up after World War II in a working-class neighborhood of the northeast Bronx, the son of an immigrant couple who never got beyond grade school. He guessed even before he entered junior high school that he was gay.

But it wasn’t until he was nearly 50 — and publishing what would become a critically acclaimed takedown of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality — that he confided his sexual orientation to his parents.

“I remember finding my way to the local public library and checking out books on psychology and human development,” he said in an interview in 2019 with the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, “in hopes of finding some reassurance that my interest in handsome boys was only a stage that I would soon pass through.”

Dr. Lewes (pronounced LOO-ess) was married at 23 and divorced by 32 — the age when he had his first homosexual experience.

“It seemed only natural for me to be out of the closet to my friends, colleagues and family,” he said, “with the important exception of my parents, who, it had become clear over the years, did not want to hear anything on that particular subject. I came out to them almost 15 years later.”

Dr. Lewes died of the new coronavirus on April 17 in a Manhattan hospital, his partner, Gary Jacobson, said. He was 76.

He is also survived by his sister, Noreen Vasady-Kovacs.


Dr. Lewes’s major work, “The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality” (1988), traced the evolution of the prevailing view that homosexuality was a curable illness and explored what he called the psychoanalytic establishment’s “century-long history of homophobia.” (The book’s title was changed to “Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality” in later editions.)

Drawing on some 500 primary sources, Dr. Lewes’s book, which expanded on his doctoral dissertation, found that most analysts had adhered to “popular prejudice” against gay people and clichés about them. “Many analysts,” he concluded, “have violated basic norms of decency in their treatment of homosexuals.”

He said he had been unable to find a single analysis of the subject written by a psychoanalyst who identified as gay.

In his review of the book in The New York Times Book Review, Richard Green, a professor of psychiatry and the law at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote:

“A major fault in the bedrock of analytic theory has been, according to Mr. Lewes, a monumental misunderstanding of the Oedipus complex, long considered the rite of passage to normal, healthy heterosexuality. This misunderstanding created a false dichotomy between heterosexual wellness and homosexual sickness.”

Dr. Lewes found that the complex could lead to 12 alternative resolutions, six of them heterosexual and six homosexual. “All results of the Oedipus complex are traumatic,” he wrote, “and, for similar reasons, all are ‘normal.’”

Dr. Green (who died last year), one of the earliest critics of psychiatry’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, praised Dr. Lewes for tracking “the politicized, moralistic and occasionally objective evolution of psychoanalytic theories of male homosexuality from the enlightened flexibility of Freud to the benighted dogmatism of his disciples,” adding that “the history of how the single most influential school of psychology and psychiatry abused its power and mishandled the most politically and morally controversial of behaviors” constituted Dr. Lewes’s “telling impact.”

Kenneth Allen Lewes was born on June 8, 1943, in Charleston, W.Va., to Joseph and Anne (Harvin) Lewes. His father was an English-born furniture maker and antique restorer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation; his mother, born in Czechoslovakia, was a homemaker.

The family moved to New York in 1947. There, intending to become a mathematician, Kenneth enrolled in the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1960. He then shifted gears, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Cornell University in 1964 and a doctorate in Renaissance English literature from Harvard.

At the age of 36, after seven years as a professor of Renaissance literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey — and without ever having taken a psychology course — he made another transition and enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a second doctorate, this time in clinical psychology, in 1982.

His study of English proved surprisingly serviceable, though.

“Literary criticism is generally better equipped to understand the depth and complexity of symbols,” Dr. Lewes explained in the 2019 journal interview. “I vividly remember the first time I conducted a therapy group in a closed ward of a state mental hospital. I felt instantly at home. Here were people trying to put into words their deepest intuitions about life, much as people in the 17th century were obsessed with theological debate. The people in my therapy group, however, had not been dead for 300 years.”

He welcomed the greater acceptance of gay men by the psychiatric profession and society in general in recent decades. But with that progress he also lamented something lost — what he called “the gay outlaw, the defier and challenger of traditional social values, the person who insisted that we find our own ways of being in society and not subscribe to the traditional values and limitations that stunted so many lives.”

“Instead of him,” he said, “we now have the friendly next-door neighbor, who may have adopted a child or two as well as an obligatory dog, and who would never think of challenging values that most Americans assume are timeless and part of nature.”

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