Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


November 6, 2000

LGB psychiatric (mis)treatment

Saralyn Chesnut is director of the Office of LGBT Life and adjunct
assistant professor in ILA

October was Gay and Lesbian History Month in the United States, a focus on lesbian and gay history that is meant to compensate for the fact that lesbians and gay men are absent from the pages of virtually every American history book.

In that sense, Gay and Lesbian History Month is similar to Women’s and Black history months. Historians of lesbian and gay America face a unique obstacle, however: It is often difficult to identify ordinary lesbians and gay men from earlier eras in America. Until relatively recently, living one’s life as an openly gay or lesbian person exacted such a high price that few people were willing or able to do so.

Well into the 1970s, for example, identifying as homosexual meant one was considered to have a mental disorder. Case studies of mid-20th century research into “cures.” For people at Emory, the work of Newdigate Owensby of Atlanta may be of particular interest.

Owensby began treating “male and female homosexuals” in 1937 “by convulsive shock induced by Metrazol, a chemical stimulant.” Owensby reported that his “treatments” had succeeded in many cases. For example, he notes of one male patient: “15 shocks were produced. All homosexual desires had disappeared after the ninth shock, but treatment was continued until all feminine mannerisms had been removed.”

Owensby’s work was later discredited, but many of his colleagues tried equally inhumane treatments, including electroshock therapy and aversion therapy using substances that induced vomiting.

Some psychiatrists went even further. In 1953, Karl Bowman and Bernice Engle published an article entitled “The Problem of Homosexuality” in The Journal of Social Hygiene, reporting on research into cures.

The article noted that, although electro- and pharmacological shock had so far proven ineffective, “therapeutic castration seems to be a valid subject for research.” It ends by mentioning that, -“a long-term study of the effects of lobotomy upon various sexual activities is in progress.”

Indeed, several case studies from the 1940s and ’50s detailed the effects of lobotomies on homosexuals. Given the prevalence of “cures” like this, it should have come as no surprise that, as Frank Caprio wrote in 1954, “Many [lesbians] become quite disturbed at the thought that psychiatrists regard them as ‘sick individuals’ in need of treatment.”

It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the official manual that lists mental and emotional disorders. Two years later, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution stating that “Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgement, stability, reliability or general social and vocational capabilities. Further, the American Psychological Association urges all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.”

Today, both associations, along with the National Association of Social Workers, are on record as supporting civil rights legislation to protect gays and lesbians against discrimination, and calling for repeal of sodomy laws.

In fact, over the course of the 20th century, the official psychological/psychiatric view of same-sex orientation changed to a degree that is quite remarkable. This change both reflects and helps account for the fact that gay and lesbian people are much more visible today than we were just 30 years ago. Many factors combined to produce this change in outlook, perhaps beginning with the publication of the Kinsey reports in 1948 and 1953, which showed that the number of Americans who had had homosexual experiences was far larger than anyone had thought.

However, the research that had the greatest impact on the mental health profession’s view of homosexuality was conducted by Evelyn Hooker, a professor of psychology at UCLA. Hooker, a heterosexual woman, undertook her research after a gay male friend pointed out that the only homosexuals studied previously were psychiatric patients, not average gays and lesbians.

In 1953, with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Hooker recruited 60 subjects, 30 of them gay and 30 heterosexual, matched up by IQ, age and educational background. She gave each subject several psychological tests, then submitted the results to a panel of three psychologists. The three were asked to rate the psychological adjustment of each subject based on the test results, without knowing whether a particular subject was gay or straight.

In the end, these psychologists rated two-thirds of the subjects in each group—gay and straight—as average or above in psychological adjustment. Overall there was no difference between the two groups. As Hooker later reported, “At that time, in the 1950s, every clinical psychologist worth his soul would tell you that if he gave those projective tests he could tell whether a person was gay or not. I showed that they couldn’t do it.”

Hooker presented her findings at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1956. Her conclusion—that gay people as a group were just as psychologically healthy as straight people as a group—did not immediately convince her colleagues to change their official stance regarding homosexuality.

However, Hooker was embraced by the fledgling homophile movement, a precursor to the gay rightsmovement of the 1970s.

Far from demanding “gay rights,” homophile organizations (the Daughters of Bilitis for women, Mattachine Society for men) concentrated on proving to their own members (as well as the general public) that gay and lesbian people were not that different from heterosexuals and did not deserve to be mistreated by police or psychiatrists. They often enlisted experts like Hooker to testify to their essential normality at local chapter meetings, national conventions or in an article in one of their publications.

Just as the homophile movement paved the way for the gay liberation movement, Hooker’s work paved the way for further research on the psychological well-being of gay men and lesbians.

By the 1970s, a vibrant and militant gay political movement, a more open political and sexual climatein the United States, and years of solid psychological research combined to form the conditions under which the mental health profession finally admitted it had been wrong: Homosexuality was recognized as a sexual orientation, not a psychological disorder.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


Back to Emory Report Nov. 6, 2000