The Daily Agenda for Thursday, August 30
August 30th, 2012
TODAY IN HISTORY:
The Adjustment of Male Overt Homosexuals: 1956. As the annual American Psychological Association Convention got underway in Chicago, the body heard UCLA’s Dr. Evelyn Hooker read a paper which, over time, would shake the foundation of the mental health insistence that homosexuality was a mental disorder. Psychiatry’s opinion of homosexuality was both clear and curt: the first edition of the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), which defined mental illnesses for the American Psychiatric Association, defined “Sexual Deviation” as a Sociopathic Personality Disturbance, which included “pathologic behavior, such as homosexuality, transvestism, pedophilia, fetishism and sexual sadism (including rape, sexual assault, mutilation).” The APA’s dim view of homosexuality was, at that time, backed up with more than a half-century’s worth of serious study of the subject. Unfortunately, each and every paper on homosexuality that had been published concerned itself with people exhibiting homosexual behavior in prisons and reform schools, or among psychiatric patients, many of whom also suffered other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Until 1956, not one paper or research project looked systematically at gay men and women who were living contented and productive lives. As far as the mental health professions were concerned, they didn’t exist, their nonexistence was for the simple reason that they hadn’t been documented.
But Dr. Hooker had an altogether different view of gay people. As a research assistant at UCLA’s psychology department, she became acquainted with Los Angeles’s gay community through one of her students. As Hooker’s social circle widened within the gay community, that student challenged her: “We have let you see us as we are, and now, it is your scientific duty to make a study of people like us.” This was at the peak of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red and lavender scare, and when Hooker applied for a grant with the National Institute of Mental Health, her chances of getting funding was considered a long shot. An NIMH representative personally flew to L.A. to make sure she was legitimate (and not a lesbian). She won the grant and began assembling a group of thirty gay men who had never been in therapy or in trouble with the law through contacts with the Mattachine Society and the staff of ONE Magazine. Finding thirty gay men willing to participate during the McCarthy era was hard enough; she also had trouble finding thirty straight men with whom she could painstakingly match to the gay men according to age, education, and IQ.
Once she assembled her study sample, she administered three psychological tests: The Thematic Apperciption Test (TAT), which was used to provide information about a subject’s views of the self, the world, and interpersonal relationships; the Make-A-Picture-Story (MAPS), in which subjects were asked to describe a story based on cut-out figures they selected and placed in a setting; and the Rorschach test, in which subjects are asked to identify what they see in a series of abstract inkblots. All three tests were popular in the 1950s as methods for assessing personality and mental disorders — and they were used particularly for diagnosing homosexuality. But rather than assessing the test results herself — after all, she knew who was gay and who wasn’t — she turned them over to a panel of three judges, each of them known experts in each of the tests. (One of the examiners was Edwin Shneidman, who was the creator of the MAPS test.) To everyone’s surprise, none of them could find any differences between the members of the study. As Hooker wrote in her groundbreaking paper:
As a judge compared the matched protocols, he would frequently comment, “There are no clues;” or, “These are so similar that you are out to skin us alive;” or, “It is a forced choice;” or, “I just have to guess.” The difficulty of the task was reflected not only in the comments of the judges but also in the results. Judge “A” correctly identified 17 of the 30 pairs, and Judge “B” 18 of the 30. Thus neither judge was able to do better than chance. In seven pairs both judges were incorrect, that is, identifying the homosexual as the heterosexual, and vice versa; in twelve pairs, correct; and in the remaining eleven they disagreed.
The degree to which the judges disagreed or got their diagnoses wrong was very entertaining. Man #16, depending on the judge and the test he was evaluating, was identified as a “strong, superior and wise” straight man, and by another as “the most heterosexual-looking homosexual I have ever seen.” A judge said of Man #50, “Except for a little too much emphasis on conquest in heterosexual relations, he is well adjusted and smooth.” Both men were gay.
When she presented the results of the study to the APA in Chicago, the findings came under withering criticism. Some criticized her for studying members of homophile groups who were probably were better adjusted than those who weren’t. Others criticized her for relying on such a small sample. But to Hooker, such criticisms actually supported her point:
But would we not, in this case, be dealing with a different question, namely, “How many homosexuals, as compared with heterosexuals, are average or better in adjustment, and how many were worse than average?” It seems to me that for the present investigation the question is whether homosexuality is necessarily a symptom of pathology. All we need is a single case in which the answer is negative.
Her paper, Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual, was published the following March in the Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment, and she would follow that with a number of other follow-up papers reinforcing these findings. In 1967, she chaired the NIMH Task Force on Homosexuality, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality and its removal from the APA’s list of mental disorders. The APA would not act on that recommendation until 1973, and it would take thirty-five years before the U.S. Supreme Court would finally release gay men and women from the threat of imprisonment.
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