How ‘gay conversion’ treatment ruined this man’s life

Colin Fenton was gay, and struggled with guilt – then a psychiatrist gave him drugs that wrecked his life. Steve Kilgallon tells his story.



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He was a brilliant mathematician and celebrated code-breaker, capable of tangling with both the impending birth of artificial intelligence and the Germans’ World War II Enigma spy system. But Alan Turing – deified on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game – was also gay and when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘‘gross indecency’’, had to accept a sentence of chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Within two years, Turing was dead; he had eaten a cyanidelaced apple. Sixty years later, Colin Fenton saw an article in The Listener which mentioned the case. It was a lightbulb moment: ‘‘You could say I am a mirror image.’’ He says he had undergone the same misguided ‘‘gay conversion’’ treatment, suffered horrendous side-effects from those drugs, and been driven to suicide – only luck had saved his life. Now, aged 88, he’s ready to tell the story he’s kept hidden all those years. Fenton had a tough childhood in 1940s Auckland. His alcoholic father abused his mother; his brother was bipolar and violent. But his mother worked hard and provided him a Catholic education, although that laid the foundation for lifelong guilt that he was gay. As a young man, Fenton formed a relationship with David Halls, whom, he says, was very good to him; ‘‘but all that guilt made the relationship extremely difficult’’. When Fenton fell into depression, stopped work and stopped eating – leading to rapid weight loss – it was Halls who convinced him to seek psychiatric help. So in 1959 or 1960, Fenton went to a psychiatrist called Leon Shenken, who started him on a course of electroshock therapy, or ECT, a common treatment for mental health issues at the time. It worked, briefly. Then he went to another psychiatrist, Laurie Kalman Gluckman. He thinks Gluckman also administered ECT, but also gave him a series of injections. And then, when Fenton planned to travel to England to stay with Halls’ parents, he says Gluckman gave him pills. Fenton says Gluckman never explained what they were. ‘‘I can’t remember him giving any counselling ... he just implied it would lift the depression.’’ Fenton says his memory is very clear: the bottle was labelled stilboestrol. In a statement he wrote for the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care, Fenton reflects: ‘‘I was completely naive. I just wanted to feel better… I think they were trying to blow the gay out of my brain.’’ On the voyage to England, he was propositioned by another man. It led to three realisations: he had lost his libido, he was developing breasts (a condition called gynecomastia) and one of his testicles had atrophied. He remembers running out of pills in England and being unable to cash a repeat prescription. On his return, he didn’t visit Gluckman again: he’d begun to suspect the treatment had done him no good. ‘‘Gluckman said it would make me feel better,’’ wrote Fenton. ‘‘But it didn’t.’’ Instead, he had no sexual drive, felt isolated, lonely and embarrassed, and all but quit a promising musical career as a bass-baritone (he’d sung with several touring groups and with Kiri Te Kanawa). It also cost him his relationship with Halls. They split and Halls met Peter Hudson, forming a lifelong partnership as comedy chefs Hudson and Halls. The drug Fenton says Gluckman gave him was the same one prescribed to Alan Turing: variously known as stilboestrol, diethylstilboestrol or DES, it was a synthesised hormone given from 1940 onwards chiefly to pregnant women in the belief that it would reduce the risk of complications and miscarriage. That same year, American doctor Charles Dunn wrote a paper explaining how he’d used stilboestrol to ‘‘induce’’ male gynecomastia. It’s since been linked to a range of other serious health conditions, including heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer. In 1985, the American Federal Drug Agency labelled it a carcinogen. ‘‘He would have known about the Turing case,’’ says Fenton. ‘‘He knew.’’ Gluckman would later be somewhat discredited: in 1994, Judge Peter Trapski delivered a report which said ACC had used Gluckman as a consultant ‘‘hitman’’ to deliberately decline claims after the Medical Council had found him guilty on four counts of professional misconduct. Laurie Gluckman died in 1999. His son, Sir Peter Gluckman, the former government chief science advisor, was 10 at the time of Fenton’s treatment and, understandably, didn’t know his father had prescribed stilboestrol. He knew his father used ECT during the 1950s and into the mid1960s, ‘‘as was standard for depression, but I know nothing more than that ... I have never heard he was involved in such work: it surprises me’’. Fenton says one reason for speaking up now is his feeling that Gluckman got away with it. ‘‘It plays heavily on my mind that he’s never been made culpable.’’ In the late 19th century, French physician CharlesEdouard Brown-Sequard began extracting a fluid from the crushed testicles of bulls and guinea pigs and injecting it into himself in the belief it rejuvenated him – an early Viagra. 1940s experiments on roosters had established that the effects of castration could be reversed with testicular extracts or transplants, but this was the start of using hormones to regulate sexuality. The idea of using hormones to ‘‘cure’’ gay men was at its most fashionable in the 1920s, says Dr Chiara Beccalossi of England’s Lincoln University. From 1915, there were experiments in Germany and the US with transplanting the testicles of straight men into gay men; injecting animal hormones, as Brown-Sequard had done, was also attempted. In the 1920s, Russian-born French doctor Serge Voronoff said he’d used this therapy on 1000 patients, while a Brazilian doctor in the 1930s said he’d treated about 100 gay men and women in the same fashion, often accompanying it with ECT. By the 1930s, the chemical structures of testosterone and oestrogen had been identified and synthetic hormones, such as stilboestrol, were in production. But by the 1950s, says Beccalossi, most doctors realised this was ineffective and were instead using aversion therapy – making Turing’s case something of an exception. Was Fenton’s treatment likewise an outlier in New Zealand? He says he knew of one other man who received similar treatment from Gluckman. But his medical records from the 1950s are gone. Enquiries to the Ministry of Health met a dead-end. Dr James Bennett of Auckland University says conversion therapy is a new area of historical study and there’s ‘‘very sparse’’ historiography compared to England or Australia. Until now, the only other documented case is that of Ralph Knowles, a Dunedin man who died in 2018, who received aversion therapy. In 1964, as a 20-year-old, wrestling with the conflict between his sexuality and his aspirations to study theology, he came into the care of an English-born psychiatrist, Ralph James, later the national director of Mental Health. James gave Knowles a course of aversion therapy: a nauseainducing drug, apomorphine, with a tot of whisky, accopanied tape recordings of Knowles’ sexual fantasies. Knowles completed the treatment, but reported the only effect was a lifelong distaste of whisky. James published extensively about aversion therapy (a 1962 paper he wrote records a case where he claimed he’d ‘‘cured’’ a man using similar methods) and Bennett suspects he may have been the vector that brought it to New Zealand. But Bennett points out most gay men seeking some intervention would have visited a GP, not a psychiatrist, limiting the opportunity for such extreme interventions. And what’s clear from his research is that, while New Zealand was late to gay law reform (1986), a majority of its general practitioners had long shifted from seeing homosexuality as something to ‘‘cure’’. The 1970s, says Bennett, was a crossroads for the medical profession, a ‘‘very febrile decade in political and social terms’’. And so, within a generation, it’s almost unthinkable that Fenton and James would have had the same treatment. One night, Fenton found Bette Davis ‘‘wandering through the corridors, pissed’’. Billy Graham blessed him and tipped him $20. He helped smuggle the Rolling Stones past fans in a white Kombi van with bedsheets covering the windows. Life wasn’t always a deep sea of depression. When Fenton worked his way from waiter to maitre d’hotel of the Intercontinental (now the Pullman) in Auckland, he loved it so much he bought shares. Tasked with looking after celebrity guests, he mingled with Doris Day, Prince Bernhard of Belgium, Imelda Marcos, Joan Collins and his favourite, Vera Lynn. He also spent almost a decade working for Air New Zealand, restocking the aircraft galleys. He was there the night the Erebus flight failed to return. But stilboestrol’s shadow always loomed: embarrassed about his body and inhibited libido, he struggled to form relationships. And then that uncertain equilibrium was shaken. He injured his back falling downstairs at home in 1984 and aggravated the injury at work two years later. A specialist said he was capable of light duties, but Air New Zealand made him redundant. He fell into financial stress, and was about to lose his home. He sees now that he could have dug himself out of the hole but he couldn’t think straight. ‘‘Everything,’’ he would later write, ‘‘felt haywire’’. And so a minute after midnight on February 2, 1988, he drove to the peak of Auckland’s Harbour Bridge, parked, left a suicide note on the passenger seat, clambered the rail and leapt. ‘‘Halfway down I changed my mind. Being a Catholic, I said ‘Oh God, help me’.’’ He needed it; he couldn’t swim. God manifested himself in a group of Tongans in a tinny, fishing under the bridge, who hauled Fenton out. The police asked him why he did it. ‘‘I said, ‘I can’t stand this pain any longer’.’’ The Auckland Star reported the next day how ‘‘A boat fishing below picked up the man ... the man, in his fifties, was taken to Auckland hospital with severe chest injuries and hypothermia.’’ But, says Fenton, there was no water on his lungs, and how do you explain that? ‘‘I must have been brought back for a reason.’’ That reason was, he thinks, to care for his elderly mother, suffering advanced Alzheimer’s. It was what persuaded him to leave hospital after a month, still terrified of a return to society. ACC has accepted the falls led to a ‘‘mental injury’’ – depression – but not Gluckman’s actions, because Fenton was already depressed when he went to the psychiatrist. ACC declined an interview but provided written answers attributed to deputy chief executive Amanda Malu, who said that pre-existing depression meant ‘‘no clear and causal link that Colin’s treatment or physical injury was the cause of his mental injury’’. ACC does accept the stilboestrol caused Colin’s gynecomastia and testicular atrophy, and are investigating if it caused his osteoporosis. It has assessed his physical injury at 16% (a figure he’s also contesting). It says it has offered support since Fenton first sought treatment for his injury, in 2001, and ‘‘has sought to support Colin where possible within the bounds of the legislation’’. It says because it has accepted his back injuries caused mental injury, that he will get the same level of support anyway. Fenton is certain his woes can be traced back to Laurie Gluckman. ‘‘It exacerbated what depression I already had ... it has never gone away. It is constantly on my mind.’’ A May 2022 psychiatric assessment declared he suffered severe depression and anxiety. Psychiatric consultant Dr Shanmukh Lokesh concluded that ‘‘undoubtedly, the unorthodox therapy he sustained for his homosexuality was a major factor predisposing him to a recurrent depressive disorder’’. In Fenton’s corner is his former neighbour and retired lawyer, Paula Sheahan. She’s engaged in lengthy correspondence with ACC as his advocate, on the grounds that if she doesn’t fight on his behalf, no-one else will. He’s still sharp, reading the share prices daily, but is on morphine and in constant pain. ‘‘It’s 10 out of 10, 24 hours a day,’’ he says. But things are looking up: ACC has bowed to Sheahan’s request to extend the number of counselling sessions he’ll receive (she wants it to be lifelong) and Fenton has secured a move to a better rest home. A review on February 28 will test ACC’s assertion that Gluckman’s actions didn’t cause Fenton mental harm: ‘‘I just want it recognised, rather than covered up,’’ explains Sheahan. In 2009, the British government apologised for its treatment of Alan Turing, and in 2013, offered a Royal Pardon. Fenton isn’t expecting that, but wants his story known too. In his Royal Commission statement he wrote: ‘‘I want the world to know what happened to a gay man in the 1960s.’’