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  • Fintan Steele

The ‘Sick’ History of Queerness and Psychiatric Science

Guest post from Fintan Steele (he), ex-science researcher, ex-priest and monk, and current science writer and editor in Boulder County.

Fifty years ago this past December, LGBTQ+ folks welcomed a milestone news headline in our ongoing fight for equality. Frank Kameny, the activist and astronomer, summed up that Dec. 15, 1973, story in his own inimitably biting way as the day "we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.” The “cure” being, of course, the delisting of homosexuality as a mental disease in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Thanks to the work of Kameny and many, many others, the preponderance of scientific evidence supporting our “normalness” finally grew so large by 1973 that the professional society of psychiatrists and psychologists could no longer pretend otherwise.

Although Kameny et al. get much credit, the real scientific work that broke open the DSM change was initiated by the psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker nearly 30 years earlier. In the mid-1940s, a student of hers at UCLA (where she worked at the time) told her he was gay. He also challenged her to look more closely as a scientist at a larger number of homosexuals “like me” before just accepting the prevalent belief that homosexuality was a form of mental illness (and treated as such). Hooker, who was keenly sensitive to discrimination through her experience as a woman in a male-dominated field, took up the challenge. Over the next few years she undertook a rigorous study that included 30 homosexual and 30 heterosexual men, with each participant undergoing a battery of psychological tests that were used to diagnose mental illness. Amazingly, this work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health: “Amazing” because homosexuality was under relentless political, religious and legal denunciation at the time.

Being a good scientist, Hooker did not analyze the results herself for fear of introducing any kind of bias in their interpretation. She engaged three experts who supported the mental illness theories of the time and gave them the raw results of the tests of all 60 men. None of the experts could reliably distinguish the homosexual men from the heterosexual men. This study, and subsequent supporting studies championed by Kameny and other activists, led to the removal of sexual orientation (and, ultimately, barbaric practices like “conversion therapy”) from the DSM and most clinical practice.

Yet here we are 50 years later, continuing to fight basically the same battle against marginalization based on spurious definitions of “abnormality.” It is true the most vocal objections — and actions — against us continue to come from the overtly religious realms. And it is increasingly worrisome that some of those people, both the true believers and the cynics who exploit them to gain and hold power, have managed to infiltrate so many of our societal structures.

But I find myself even more frustrated and disappointed by people who should know better who claim that LGBTQ+ deviancy can be proven using only rational scientific thought, with no recourse to theology required. Such claims often take the form of a “natural law” argument, which holds that sexuality exists primarily — if not entirely — for the sake of procreation and the survival of the species. The parts just seem to work together that way! It is so obvious that anything else is unnatural and icky!!

No, it’s not. Think about it like a scientist. If one accepts the supremacy of procreation as a fundamental biology-based truth, then of course any sexual act that has no chance of producing babies goes against the natural order, i.e., it is abnormal, unbiological, and even immoral. I am sure you don’t need my help to think of many examples of these “dead-end” actions, i.e., actions that don’t result in pregnancy. It is clear with even minimal questioning that this narrow view of sexuality is, in fact, untrue. And maybe even “immoral” itself.

Sexuality is so much more than what goes where and who does what and who has what and what happens afterwards. Serious and brave scientists like Hooker have shown this in the past and continue to demonstrate it in today’s post-human genome scientific world. We are lucky to have thoughtful scientific allies — and objective science — in our corner: It is up to us to make the effort to truly understand their work and to employ it as a cornerstone of our ongoing battle with those who deny our normalcy, and thus our humanity.


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