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A Student Challenges His Teacher: Sam From, Evelyn Hooker, and Changing Psychology

In a recent blog for Out Boulder County, I suggested that the traditional structures that kept bias and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in place included the legal system, myths about mental health, and religious dogma. Over time and in countless ways, queer and trans people and their allies have chipped away at all three of these legs on the stool of oppression.  


The focus of today's blog is one of the people whose work as a psychologist has had a profound impact on the middle of these three legs—the false claim that LGBTQ+ people's identities are inevitably rooted in psychopathology. And that person's story runs right through the state of Colorado. 


We've all heard the stereotypes about queer and trans people's mental health. Perhaps we've believed some of those myths ourselves. They've certainly been part of the cultural atmosphere. Taking them in has been as easy as inhaling the air around us. Mental health professionals have been breathing the same cultural air as everyone else, so it's no surprise that they took it for granted that the stereotypes were true.  The stereotypes were so widespread and deeply rooted that few recognized a need for systematic research about the issue. What little research did take place typically relied on studying LGBTQ+ people who were in prisons or psychiatric hospitals. 


One of the most important first steps in dismantling the falsehoods about pathology and LGBTQ+ people began with Evelyn Hooker.  Although she was born in North Platte, Nebraska, Hooker grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado as one of nine children. Evelyn was poor and was very tall—standing a tad under six feet as an adult. She was routinely teased—what we would now call bullied--in school. She referred to her growing up as "a painful process."


Hooker started her undergraduate years at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1924. Her advisor was Karl Muenzinger—yes, the man for whom the building that houses the psychology department is named. She left CU with bachelor and Masters degrees and headed to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to pursue her doctorate in experimental psychology. She eventually ended up in Los Angeles. From LA, Hooker accepted a fellowship year at the Berlin Institute of Psychotherapy, and she was in Germany when Kristallnacht occurred. Before returning to the US, she also visited Russia, where she saw another totalitarian government in action. Upon her return, Hooker was rejected for a tenure-track position at UCLA. The department chair explicitly told her he couldn't hire another female professor. 


Hooker accepted a position teaching in the UCLA Extension division. She taught the usual stereotypes about sexual minorities.  One of the students exposed to those lies was Sam From. From and Hooker became friends after he finished her course. He eventually came out to Hooker. It was following an evening in which Hooker and her husband and From and his partner visited Finocchio's, a drag club in San Francisco, that From issued a challenge to his former teacher. 


From challenged Hooker to study normal gay men. He was quite clear: "It is your scientific duty to study people like us." Hooker's immediate response was that she couldn't do that; he was her friend, and she couldn't be objective. From told Hooker he could connect Hooker with other gay men, which he eventually did. Hooker started to design a study to explore the question:   If pathology were intrinsic to a same-sex orientation, she reasoned, then the pathology should show up on psychological tests. Further, experts using the best psychological measures available should be able to distinguish between the test responses given by gay men and the test responses given by straight men. The experts "failed" both parts of the study. 


In 1956, Hooker presented the results of her study at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.  If, as the profession had insisted, homosexuality represented a form of pathology, then the results of Hooker's study were wildly unlikely. After all, the experts were unable to distinguish between heterosexual and gay men in terms of psychopathology, thus indicating it made no sense to label one group "sick" and the other group "well." Her study was the start of a series of related research projects that eventually sealed the deal: There was no evidence for the gays-are-sick myth. 

It took this quiet intersection of these two rather improbable people—a heterosexual teacher in a continuing education class and one of her students, a young, gay man who challenged his teacher to look more critically at what she was teaching—to free an entire group of individuals from the official label of "sick."


Hooker's research shocked the world. It was the beginning of a sea change. Lots of studies followed and supported Hooker's findings. In 1973 and 1974, in votes by the governing body and the broader membership, respectively, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of pathologies.  Proving once again that humor was a prominent characteristic of LGBTQ+ culture, one gay newspaper presented the news with this front-page headline, "20 Million Gay People Cured!"


That was a critical turning point in how the mental health professions saw homosexuality. As social psychologist, Gregory Herek observed some years later, Hooker's study was the first to demonstrate that the professions' early assumptions and stereotypes about gay men "came more from the culture than from science."


Challenging the sickness myth was important not only for psychology but also for the larger movement for LGBTQ+ rights.  Hooker's work was an essential step in the movement for the liberation of LGBTQ+ people.

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