One of the consistent facets of eugenics over time and place has been an interest in regulating sexual behavior, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Indeed, this is one area in which the insidious quest of normalization associated with eugenics movement is very evident.
A quick review of the earliest cases of institutional sterilization in Indiana, which passed the world’s first sterilization law in 1907, confirms this. Sodomy, which most likely encompassed a wide variety of male same-sex interactions, was the infraction listed for approximately 1/3 of male inmates identified by Dr. Harry Sharp at the Jeffersonville Reformatory for vasectomy in the early 1900s.
More generally, a concern with sexual deviance permeated eugenics movements across the globe, even as some variants embraced a more progressive “free love” approach to female sexuality and reproduction.
In some cases, this focus translated into attempts to control female sexuality to meet the demands of hetero-normative procreation and family formation. For example, many women who were institutionalized or sterilized under eugenic commitment laws were classified as loose, promiscuous, or some how sexually delinquent. There was a pronounced class dimension to these dynamics as working class women were more likely to be deemed delinquent, while middle-class women embraced their roles as breeders and scientific mothers in order to leverage political power and claim the moral higher ground. Sometimes the tables could be turned in shifting political and national contexts. For example, In China and Romania, feminists who initially saw in eugenics a possible avenue for greater reproductive autonomy quickly had their hopes dashed by a male medical and scientific establishment that placed better breeding for national progress far above female reproductive autonomy.
In other cases, it meant both venerating idealized masculinity and tightly policing expressions of non-normative masculinity, especially with regard to homosexuality or homoeroticism. For example, the worship of the strapping and soldierly male form practically achieved cult status in early 20th century Germany, Mexico, Italy, and Cuba. Fidel Castro’s brawny and bearded revolucionario was heralded not just as a political hero but also as the carrier of superior heredity. In 1980, Castro described the Mariel boatlift, in which thousands of Cubans—including many previously imprisoned gay men—were allowed to leave Cuba for the United States as the purging of those without “revolutionary genes” and “revolutionary blood” from the island.
However, male eugenicists regularly sought to ensure that their deep reverence for either Adonis or Apollo did not lapse into overt expressions of homoeroticism and same-sex love. This tension played out brutally in Nazi Germany, where SA chief Ernst Röhm (1887–1934) was lauded for his masculinity, same-sex solidarities, and devotion to the Fuehrer. Yet once the contradictions between his homosexuality and fascist family values became too conspicuous, he paid the ultimate price and was murdered by his Nazi brethren.
Finally, eugenics and sexology were also strange bedfellows throughout the 20th century, influencing one another in complicated ways. In recent years, debates about genetics and sexuality have often revolved around the search for a “gay gene” (primary for gay men), a scientific endeavor that activists and scientists have alternately viewed as liberating and potentially stigmatizing. Noticeable eugenic assumptions about the worth and fitness of parents and families have permeated opposition to gay marriage and adoption, demonstrating the long intertwined relationship of eugenics and sexuality into the 21st century.
-Alexandra Minna Stern
Kluchin, Rebecca M, Fit to be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
Stern, Alexandra Minna, “Eugenics, Gender, and Sexuality: A Global Tour and Compass,” in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 173-191.
Kline, Wendy, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).