Today In History: Another Conference For Creating Change
February 1st, 2009
Today, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is wrapping up it’s annual Creating Change conference in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. But I did spend some time at our local library, paging through some old LGBT magazines from fifty years ago. That’s where I learned that, by coincidence, another important national conference hosted by leading LGB (not T) leaders was also taking place exactly fifty years ago today.
The following report appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Ladder, which was the official publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first organization for Lesbians. The report was of the ONE, Inc. Midwinter Institute held in Los Angeles on January 31 and February 1.
ONE, Inc, you may remember, published ONE magazine, which was the first national magazine for gays and lesbians. ONE had just come off of a stunning Supreme Court victory one year earlier in which the Court ruled that just because ONE dealt with homosexuality, it was not automatically pornographic because of the unpopular subject matter.
Unlike today’s LGBT conferences which are organized with the goal of changing laws and societal attitudes, this conference was focused on much more pressing needs for the individuals who attended: Are gays mentally ill? (The audience broke into sustained applause on the suggestion that it isn’t) Is it natural? Why is there so much hostility from religion? How do we improve the lives, mental well-being, and relationships of gay men and women? There was even a revealing roundtable discussion on social separatism between lesbians and gay men, a discussion which would foreshadow subsequent debates on political separatism between lesbians and gay men with the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960′s.
One thing that I found interesting is that the esteem held for psychology was never higher than it was then. Psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts were regarded with the same awe and deference as rocket scientists and astrophysicists. Since this conference was focused on homosexuality and mental health, they naturally took center stage, where their opinions were avidly sought but rarely questioned — except occasionally by each other. A particularly interesting discussion broke out among professional leaders and Dr. Evelyn Hooker, who was in the audience. Dr. Hooker had by then published three groundbreaking studies which suggested that homosexuality was not a mental illness (although because her studies were ongoing, she was coy about making a declarative statement to that effect at the conference). It would be another fifteen years before her work would become the basis for the APA’s removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
This unabridged report from The Ladder provides a fascinating look at the state of the gay community fifty years ago, and it gives us a great perspective on how far we’ve come since then. The author of The Ladder’s report was listed as Sten Russell, which, in fact, was a pseudonym for Stella Rush; “Helen Sanders” was actually Helen Sandoz. Homosexuality was listed as a mental illness and gay bars were banned or shut down under state liquor laws. Much has changed, but there’s still much more to do. People do still get fired from their jobs and shunned by their families.
They say we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’re coming from. We’re still on a long journey, but we have traveled many miles in the past fifty years. This is a good opportunity to pause and reflect on that journey.