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Posts for February, 2009

Today In History: Another Conference For Creating Change

Jim Burroway

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.

Original report of the ONE Institute on Mental Health and Homosexuality is after the jump

Happy Birthday, Evelyn Hooker

Gregory Herek

September 2nd, 2008

Today is the 101st anniversary of Dr. Evelyn Hooker’s birth.

Dr. Hooker, the psychologist widely credited with helping to establish that homosexuality is not inherently linked to mental illness, was born September 2, 1907, in North Platte, Nebraska. She was the sixth of nine children.

In the course of her remarkable life, Dr. Hooker surmounted many of the barriers faced by women who sought an academic career in the 20th century. She is best known for her psychological studies of gay men in the 1950s and 1960s.

By demonstrating that well-adjusted homosexuals not only existed but in fact were numerous, Dr. Hooker’s research demonstrated that the illness model had no scientific basis. She helped to lay the foundation for the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and for the American Psychological Association’s subsequent commitment to removing the stigma that has historically been attached to homosexuality.

In my latest post at Beyond Homophobia, I summarize Dr. Hooker’s most famous study and offer some reflections on the lasting impact of her work.

Today In History: The APA Says No

Jim Burroway

July 17th, 2008

One of the top goals of the early gay rights movement was to get the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. As long as homosexuality remained listed, governmental agencies and private companies had all the excuse they needed to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

In 1957, Psychologist Evelyn Hooker began publishing the results of a series of tests which demonstrated that gays and lesbians who weren’t patients of mental health professionals were indistinguishable from heterosexuals. Before then, the mental health community thought that gays were mentally deficient because all of the prior research had only studied people who were confined to mental hospitals or were seen in clinical settings.

Despite the strength of this new evidence, it would still take many years for it to sink in. In fact, it was forty-five years ago today that the American Psychological Association declined to discuss the matter in a letter to leading gay rights activist Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society, saying  “it is not in the best interests of the APA to meet with you, nor to publicize your meetings.”

Another ten years would pass before Kameny appeared on a panel of the APA’s symposium on homosexuality with Dr. John E. Fryer as “Dr. H. Anonymous.” That was  a key moment leading to the APA’s elimination of homosexuality as a mental illness. That was quite a turnaround from a mere ten years earlier when the APA refused to meet with them.

Frank Kameny’s papers are now a part of the Smithsonian Institution, and at 83, he’s still kicking butt and naming names from his home in Washington, D.C.

“Refried Freud” — Psychoanalysis and Ex-Gay Therapy

Jim Burroway

March 30th, 2008

Christine BakkeBeyond Ex-Gay co-founder Christine Bakke is truly a delightful woman. I got to spend a little bit of time with her again last February in Memphis during the Beyond Ex-gay Mid-South Regional Gathering. Not nearly enough time though — she was exceptionally busy putting together the art show for the weekend.

Last Friday, Christine posted a very thoughtful essay inspired by Peterson Toscano’s comments that ex-gay ministries are still depend on the developmental theories of Sigmund Freud — “Refried Freud” he called it. Which, when you think of it, means that the ex-gay movement is stuck in a very peculiar time warp. Most of their operating theories are founded on some rather ancient Freudian theories that the rest of psychology has largely abandoned.

Sigmund FreudSome of us are old enough to remember when Freudian psychoanalysis was all the rage back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Everyone who was anyone, it seemed, was seeing an analyst. And everyone who was anyone was just as messed up after seeing their analyst as they were before. It’s no wonder that Freudian psychoanalysis has largely fallen by the wayside. As a discipline, they remained too wedded to a narrow set of untested and untestable theories, while the rest of psychology and psychiatry honed their methods and understanding over generations of research and observation, throwing out old theories when they were disproved and adopting new ones as they came along.

Meanwhile, Freudian analysts and their ex-gay therapy counterparts, undeterred by the march of time, continued to press forward with their oft-parodied opening gambit: “So now, tell me about your mother.”

Christine Bakke knows where that leads all too well:

The fishing expeditions (a friend started to believe he didn’t feel his father’s love after being badgered with, “did your father say he loved you? It doesn’t matter if you knew; did he say it? He didn’t say it? Then you didn’t really know it, did you? Of course you didn’t know it; didn’t feel it. How can a child know it if they’re not explicitly told it?” and so on) and leading questions and suggestions (one pastor’s wife suggested I make up abusive things that might have happened to me, so that I could break the curse of satan, just in case I didn’t remember specific things that might have happened to me in my life. I forcefully refused.) I was even told that sometimes women can be gay because they have not been able to grow out of the stage of penis envy.

I knew one women whose therapist gave her assignments to flirt with men. An ex-gay guy who went on several dates to try to learn how to be with a woman (without disclosing that he identified as ex-gay), on the recommendation of his therapist. A woman who was counseled by the leader of the ex-gay group that women should wear makeup (“need to put some paint on the side of the barn”). A man who changed his last name because his ex-gay therapy led him to believe that his parents were to blame for him being gay. A woman who insinuated that she had been abused because she felt like her story didn’t “fit” the ex-gay model without some kind of a root cause. A young man who said that after he got out of the ex-gay movement and was finished with reparative therapy, that’s when the real repairing began. He had to repair the relationships with his family after buying into the belief that they were distant from him and made him gay.

The American Psychological Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973. In doing so, they relied on non-psychoanalyitic studies like those of Evelyn Hooker. But the American Psychoanalytical Association dismissed non-psychoanalyic studies as “superficial.” This created a strange closed-off echo chamber where evidence that ran counter to a theory was thrown out because it didn’t fit the theory. In fact, the APsyA remained hostile to homosexuality until 1991, when openly gay candidates were for the first time allowed to apply for acceptance by the APsyA.

Since then, the APsyA has begun to consider the implications of research in a whole host of mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which today are regarded as being at least partly physiological disorders. This would have been anathema to psychoanalysts a mere generation ago. Last year, the APsyA issued a statement supporting same-sex marriage. That’s quite an improvement since 1991.

But ex-gay therapies continue to rely on the same outdated theories that once threatened to make psychoanalysis a historical footnote. While the APsyA are allowing nonpsychoanalytic research to inform their work, ex-gay ministries remain stuck firmly in the past. But the problem with relying on untested and untestable theories is that they are no more scientific than any other folk remedies or superstitions. And some of these remedies may be damaging. Christine Bakke contrasts her experience with therapists and misguided religious-based lay leaders, and concludes:

Of course, like in my case, even licensed therapists who have an ex-gay mindset and agenda can be just as damaging as the lay leaders. Sometimes I can’t decide which is worse. Counseling by a therapist we think should know the best because we think they’re the experts and we trust them more, or lay leaders who we think love us more because we are not paying them. No matter what, ex-gay counseling done by therapists or lay leaders, many poorly equipped through books, Exodus conferences, Living Waters training programs (one week long), Love Won Out day-long conferences, on-the-job training, or for some, nothing more than being ex-gay themselves, mixed with refried Freud, is a recipe for disaster.

I highly recommend you read her entire essay.