Dr. Evelyn Hooker, Conducting Scientific Research

Posted by James Waller on June 12, 2019

This June, we are proud to continue our focus on Upstanders with a special series on California LGBTQ Upstanders, co-hosted by ONE Archives Foundation and in collaboration with the podcast, Making Gay History. Each week, we explore the content, themes, and questions raised in one past episode of the podcast. 

 

As I continue my dive into the history of of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in Los Angeles, it is becoming clear that it is a history of a diverse group of self-determined people and their allies fighting to ensure that society fully understands and accepts LGBTQ individuals.

You may remember this quote from Edythe Eyde, who we met last week:

“With the advancement of psychiatry and related subjects, the world is becoming more and more aware that there are those in our midst who feel no attraction for the opposite sex.” (Edythe Eyde, Making Gay History)

Eyde highlights the importance of the psychiatric and medical communities in forming current/popular social beliefs. Incredibly, universal sodomy laws were prevalent in the United States until 1963, which tells us that homosexuality was widely viewed as morally and socially abhorrent. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1952, confirming these general societal beliefs. (More information can be found here.) Psychiatric research studies on human sexuality conducted in the 1940s and 1950s initiated the gradual change of regarding homosexuality as a natural expression of human sexuality rather than a pathological disorder.

Today for LGBTQ Pride Month we learn about the ground-breaking work of Dr. Evelyn Hooker.

Research by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock ImagesDr. Hooker is not as well known as the more famous Dr. Alfred Kinsey, now the subject of both a movie and a television series. While Kinsey and other psychiatric researchers at the time, in a sense, normalized conversations about sexuality that included homosexuality, Dr. Hooker’s work,“The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” “began to dismantle the myth that homosexual men and women are inherently unhealthy.” This was a first in the psychiatric world. Today, one can find a page on the APA website dedicated to LBGT Pride. It opens with this statement:

“Sixty-one years ago, at APA's 1956 Annual Convention in Chicago, Evelyn Hooker, PhD, presented her ground-breaking research on "normal homosexuals," debunking the popular myth that homosexual people are inherently less mentally healthy than heterosexual people. Hooker's work led to significant changes in how psychology views and treats people who are gay.”

Dr. Hooker’s study was an important, even pivotal, step in the process of eventually removing homosexuality from the APA’s official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.

Eric Marcus, host of the Making Gay History podcast had an opportunity to interview Dr. Hooker in 1989. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the ground-breaking research pioneer and ally to the LGBTQ civil rights movement in her own words. Her words are, indeed, moving.  The quote below describing what meant the most to her about her research sums it up;

“I know that . . . well . . . I know that wherever I go, whether I know it or not, that there are both men and women for whom my little bit of work, and my caring enough to do it, has made an enormous difference in their lives.  So I feel that that’s my monument.” (Dr. Evelyn Hooker 1989)

 

S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling

While listening to the podcast consider what Dr. Hooker’s words and actions say about the theme of allies by applying Facing History’s SIT strategy: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling.  Identify the following in writing after listening to the podcast:

  1. One Surprising fact or idea
  2. One Interesting fact or idea
  3. One Troubling fact or idea

I share my thoughts below and invite you to share your thoughts by posting a comment.

My Thoughts:

Surprising 

Dr. Hooker:  The purpose of doing a study was to show the world what we’re really like.

I could understand there was excitement about doing something that you felt was going to be groundbreaking, whatever happened.  Because it would have been the first time anybody ever looked at this behavior and said, “Now, we’ll use scientific tests to determine is this pathological or not?

Eric:  All this time everyone had said it was pathological without any studies.

Dr. Hooker:  Without any studies.

So many people believed that homosexuality was a disease without having any data to back up this believe/assumption. It worries me that society has not changed that much.  We are very quick to believe what we hear on the media with or without facts. Even when facts are available, many people do not know whether the source of the information is valid and reliable.  Keep teaching critical thinking skills!

 

Interesting 

Dr. Hooker was approached by a friend to work on the study.  It was her personal connections that led her to research a topic that had never been approached scientifically.  I am glad that she had gay friends.

 A few questions come to mind when I ponder this fact and the effect of one-on-one experiences between people of different groups.

  • If Dr. Hooker had not had the exposure to and experience of the lives of her gay friends, would she have embarked on this type of research? What if the experiences were negative, what effect would that have had?
  • How much do/can individual experiences and personal contact with a minority/outsider group change one’s views about said group?  
  • Is personal connection the catalyst of ally behavior?
  • What makes a person sympathetic to or against a cause/group?

 

Troubling 

Dr. Hooker:  Well, if you’re challenging a long and commonly held position and there are—and you know that there are thousands of lives at stake, I think everybody who, unless they were severely prejudiced, as lots of people are, you know, that in general it was a very exciting, very exciting  concept.

Dr. Hooker is referring to the fact that many homosexuals were subjected to harsh forms for conversion therapy (electroshock therapy, chemical castration, etc.) and incarceration due to the classification of homosexuality as a pathology in need of curing.  Holding on to old beliefs meant that many people would still be unjustly subjected to these treatments.

It is painful to think that seemingly smart people ignore scientific data because it does not suit their ideological or personal beliefs. That these same people are willing to harm or let others be harmed because of these beliefs, is infuriating.  It seems that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Questions related to this idea:

  • How significant is government funding for independent psychiatric research today?
  • How political are the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) grants?
  • What if the NIMH did not fund Dr. Hooker’s research?

 

Your Turn...

In the comments below, share your SIT: what stood out to you as surprising, interesting, and/or troubling?

 

Additional Resources to continue the exploration this month:

  • Join Facing History educators on Thursday, June 13, from 12-1pm PDT for a webinar featuring Nancy Kates, producer of Brother Outsider, a documentary about the phenomenal upstander Bayard Rustin. The film is now available streaming from facinghistory.org. The recording will be posted to the On-Demand Learning Center shortly after the webinar concludes for those unable to join us live.
  • Listen to an audio recording from ONE Archives’ Digital Library of Dr. Hooker's lecture on the task force on homosexuality in 1971.

 

Facing History spends a lot of time thinking about UpstandingAllyship is a particular kind of upstanding, and worth identifying in its own right. LGBTQ civil rights have been championed by a wide variety of allies who used not only their voices, but also their professional roles, like Dr. Hooker (research scientist), to advance the cause of social justice for LGBTQ individuals. Here are a few additional episodes featuring California Upstanders from Making Gay History:

  • Dear Abby, the advice columnist from 1947-2002, was one of only a few nationally recognized figures who used her position to ally with the LGBTQ community. 
  • Herb Selwyn, a participant in the Hooker study, used his position as a lawyer to assist in such historical events as incorporating the Mattachine Society in 1953, making it the first LGBTQ corporation in the US, and leading the fight to get the petition approved for LA’s first Pride Parade, the Christopher Street West Parade, in 1970. 

 

And for teachers, this lesson from ONE Archives may be helpful:

 

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