Could someone be sent to a mental asylum for being gay in Victorian era England? And what treatment would they be subjected to?
Short answer: yes! Bad things!
cw involutary hospitalization
[IMAGE: big, scary asylum – the High Royds Old Asylum in West Yorkshire]
You can see lists going around about the various things that can get you committed, and some of them look pretty funny: novel reading, masturbation, politics, etc. According to snopes.com, though, these lists can be misleading:
Although this list was sourced from a contemporaneous hospital log, its entries should not be considered as denoting things that were all considered symptoms of mental instability. Rather, among patients who were treated … for various illnesses such as chronic dementia, acute mania, and melancholia, these entries recorded the reasons or causes why those patients were said to have developed their underlying maladies. That is, people didn’t think that novel reading, asthma, the marriage of one’s child, politics, or falling from a horse were symptoms of mental illness, but rather factors that might have produced or exacerbated such an illness.
However, perversion, or inversion (as Freud called it, among others), could be seen as illness at the time, and was thought to be harmful if not outright dangerous.
[IMAGE: Patients in ice baths. Note that they are strapped in.]
Asylum patients in general were treated to a variety of things in the name of treatment: solitude, filthy conditions, forced nudity, sexual assault by staff or other patients, ice baths, enemas, restricted diets, and just general neglect. Some asylums just sort of dumped everyone into a room together and forgot them. The goal wasn’t to heal, but to get them out of the way so “normal” people didn’t have to deal with them.
[IMAGE: patient undergoing electrocovulsive “therapy”]
Special cases in some asylums and mental hospitals got more specific attention: aversion therapy where the patient is shocked or otherwise punished for exhibiting signs of the behavior being extinguished, or to sort of mute them for a time while they recover from induced seizures. It all gets a bit Clockwork Orange sometimes.
As early as the 16th century, agents to induce seizures were used to treat psychiatric conditions. In 1785, the therapeutic use of seizure induction was documented in the London Medical Journal. As to its earliest antecedents one doctor claims 1744 as the dawn of electricity’s therapeutic use, as documented in the first issue of Electricity and Medicine. Treatment and cure of hysterical blindness was documented eleven years later. Benjamin Franklin wrote that an electrostatic machine cured “a woman of hysterical fits.” In 1801, Giovanni Aldini used galvanism to treat patients suffering from various mental disorders. G.B.C. Duchenne, the mid-19th century “Father of Electrotherapy,” said its use was integral to a neurological practice.
There was also experimentation. Viennese doctor Eugen Steinach transplanted straight men’s testicles into gay men to “cure” them. Of course, it did not work.
A note: most literature is focused on men, for the usual reasons. Women were often treated for being stubborn, unseemly or generally unwilling to perform their expected role in society.
Conversion “therapy” still exists, by the way, using the same techniques, and as always all it converts is the patient’s desire to pretend in order to get out of the torture. It’s becoming illegal in places, but it is not unheard of for parents to ship their gay kids off to somewhere it’s still allowed.
It’s later than Victorian era, but in the early 20th century, doctors like Walter Freeman developed and popularized the lobotomy. First, it was brain surgery, but Freeman’s technique was to use an implement like an icepick to drive it through the thin bone behind the eye into the brain to scramble the part that made the patient difficult. This was a kind of psychosurgery, and was considered a miracle of medicine, as the patient could often be sent home out of the asylum, albeit usually unable to care for themselves.
[IMAGE: Dr. Freeman don’t need no stinkin’ sleeves. Just a silver pick and a small hammer]
On topic, one famous case was the sister of playwright Tennessee Williams, who was rumored to be a lesbian. When Tennessee was traveling in the merchant marines, his parents had his sister lobotomized. She was never the same, and the pain of that moment colored everything he wrote thereafter.
One of the Kennedy clan got the pick much later, and it went badly, and the lobotomy started to fall out of popularity. Then came lithium, and psychopharmacology replaced psychosurgery almost entirely.
You’re writing fiction of course, so you can pick and choose the parts you want your characters to have to endure, and the longterm effects (which ScriptTorture may have some insight on. Check masterposts that might already cover parts of this).