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
In that sense, Gay and Lesbian History Month is similar to Womens
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
ones 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.
Owensbys 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
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
professions 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
groupgay and straightas 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
couldnt do it.
Hooker presented her findings at a meeting of the American Psychological
Association in 1956. Her conclusionthat gay people as a group were
just as psychologically healthy as straight people as a groupdid
not immediately convince her colleagues to change their official stance
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,
Hookers 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.