Commentary

How homosexuality stopped being a disease

A Century of Homosexual Pathology

In the past century, some members of the scientific community viewed people attracted to their own sex, those attracted to both males and females, and trans people as constituting distinct biological or “racial” types – those who could be distinguished from “normal” people through anatomical markers. In addition, rather than considering homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender non-conformity merely as emotional, gender, and sexual differences along a broad spectrum of human potential, some sectors of the medical and psychological communities force pathologizing language onto people with same-sex and both-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender identities and expression.

This has resulted in members of the medical professions committing lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, and those who transgress so-called “normative” gender identities and expressions (often against their will) to hospitals, mental institutions, jails and penitentiaries, force pre-frontal lobotomies, electroshock, castration, and sterilization. We have been made to endure “aversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” “Christian counseling,” and genetic counseling.

The first Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) (the APA-sponsored and endorsed handbook of mental disorders) published in 1952 listed homosexuality, for example, as a form of sociopathology. The “updated” 1968 DSM-II described homosexuality as an “Ego-Dystonic Disorder,” a mental illness in a similar category with schizophrenia and manic depressive disorder.

The physician Irving Bieber co-authored a study in 1962, “Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals” sponsored by the New York Society of Psychoanalysts, in which he concluded that homosexuality constituted a psychopathology that could be cured or prevented with psychoanalysis. Bieber later was quoted in 1973 saying: “A homosexual is a person whose heterosexual function is crippled, like the legs of a polio victim” (Bieber’s 1973 quote from New York Times, August 28, 1991).

In addition, the psychiatrist Charles Socarides, founder of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), argued that homosexuality is an illness, a neurosis, possibly caused by an over-attachment to the mother, which he too argued could be treated. Bieber and Socarides became the “authoritative” and often-referenced researchers in the area of causation and “treatment” of homosexuality.

The Tide Changes

The year following our storming of the Shoreham Hotel’s Regency Ballroom, APA held its next annual conference in Dallas, Texas. No activist propped open a side entrance, and no multi-group contingent burst into the assemblage, for something seemed to have changed within the organization over the intervening year. Barbara Gittings and Franklin Kameny again presented their views and facilitated a workshop discussion, this time joined by “Dr. H. Anonymous” (a.k.a. psychiatrist Dr. John E. Fryer) wearing a costume mask to hide his identity who discussed his experiences as a gay psychiatrist and member of the APA.

By 1973, the American Psychiatric Association had finally changed its designation of homosexuality, now asserting that it does not constitute a disorder: “[H]omosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities.” Two years later, in 1975, the American Psychological Association followed suit and urged mental health professionals “to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.”

The American Psychiatric Association recently announced that in its DSM-V, due to be published in May 2013, the diagnosis of “gender identity disorder,” which the manual has imposed upon transgender people since it published DSM-III in 1980, will undergo what the APA subcommittee deciding on the change considers as a more neutral designation, “gender dysphoria,” which they see as descriptive rather than diagnostic and pathologizing.

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