(De)Pathologizing Homosexuality: The Political Fractures of Psychiatry, Anti-Psychiatry, and Homosexual Movements

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History, OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians, and Histories and the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; LGBTQ History and Queer Studies; Medical History


The decades after WWII in the United States are marked by seismic shifts in cultural, scientific, and medical understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality. Clinical professionals coined terms like “normal homosexual,” established identity categories such as the transsexual, and wrote differential diagnoses based on emerging ideas about the relationship between race, gender, sex, and personhood. The parsing apart of identity categories and types was also centrally important to political affinities and movements for change such as the homophile, gay liberation, feminist, and black power movements of the 1960s. Thus, in addition to seismic shifts in scientific and medical understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality, the mid-to-late-twentieth century is also widely regarded as a critical moment in minority identity formation.

In turn, these processes culminated in the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostical and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders in 1973. Understood as a watershed moment in gay and lesbian history, this panel interrogates the (de)pathologization process and the political alliances and strategies that surround this moment in history. The panelists explore questions of normalcy, madness, and deviance as they relate to gay political organizing, insane liberation, and transsexual therapeutics.

In “From Perverts to Politicians: Community Mental Health, Anti-Poverty Funding, and Homosexual Respectability in Los Angeles, 1965-1986” Nic John Ramos takes up Evelyn Hooker’s concept of the “normal” homosexual—a category centrally important to depathologization—in order to access how the “normal” homosexual was taken up by gay rights activists, culminating in a moderate political force in gay rights organizing. This moderate political force inspired new formations of urban planning and design.

Abram J. Lewis’s paper “The Lunar Effect: Self-Loss and Cosmic Consciousness in the Mad-Queer 1970s” examines the convergences and divergences between the gay liberation movement and the insane liberation movement. While many depathologization activists were invested in disidentifying from madness, Lewis’s paper returns to the affinities between madness and sexual deviance to imagine this moment otherwise.

In Emmett Harsin Drager’s paper “A Very Strange Case of Female Transsexualism: The University-Based Gender Clinics and the Crafting of a Diagnosis, 1957-1980” they follow the case history of one court-mandated psychiatric patient, who was seen for over a decade at a university gender clinic. The research from these clinics would culminate in the addition of a new category to the DSM in 1980: gender identity disorder. This paper explores how the depatholigization of homosexuality would set the stage for the pathologization of the transsexual.

Ultimately, this panel demonstrates that the (de)pathologization campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s were not unilaterally heralded as a victory within the homosexual community. Tracing the fractures of the movement illuminates the multiple histories, meanings, and impacts of the campaign to depathologize homosexuality.

Papers Presented

The Lunar Effect: Self-Loss and Cosmic Consciousness in the Mad-Queer 1970s

For postwar historians, the 1960s–1970s period has long been regarded as a time when minority identity was in formation. This narrative holds especially true in LGBT history: in particular, the 1973 DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) revision campaign has long been hailed as a watershed victory, wherein activists cast off their pathologization as “disordered” and affirmed homosexuality as a minority subject position. Although reformers sought to legitimize homosexuality by disaggregating it from madness, many radicals embraced the affinities of madness and sexual deviance as forces that could erode normative social and psychic organization. This talk draws from the print culture of progressive gay and insane liberation movements, emphasizing their many cross-pollinations. For queer and mad radicals alike, what made madness and deviant desire valuable were their anti-identitarian, deterritorializing properties: their ability to dissolve the integrity of the self and to make the subject vulnerable to the transformative forces of the world of objects. In this milieu, “lunacy” became an exalted political state—it denoted a condition of insanity associated not just with sexual excess but also with agential capacities secured through the self’s subordination to influence: the powers of the moon. Beyond illuminating new genealogies of queer and disability coalition, this paper argues that the 1970s mad-queer milieu also challenges the primacy of subject-based frames for understanding postwar radicalism. I look especially to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia as counterpoint to another major text of this time, one more frequently used as a road map by LGBT historians today: Michel Foucault’s The Will to Knowledge.

Presented By
Abram J. Lewis, Grinnell College

From Perverts to Politicians: Community Mental Health, Anti-Poverty Funding, and Homosexual Respectability in Los Angeles, 1965–1986

It is well known that Dr. Evelyn Hooker, a mental health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, famously presented evidence of the existence of “normal” homosexual in 1957 that homophile and homosexual activists working inside and outside of psychiatry used to eventually declassify homosexuality in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. Less known, however, is how gay pride activists also used her ideas about “normal” homosexuality to intervene regarding the direction of gay rights organizing in the late 1960s, particularly militant brands of gay liberation activists and how their use of “normal” homosexuality inspired new formations of urban planning and design. Examining documents related to the research and influence of Evelyn Hooker on the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, this paper demonstrates that gay rights activism borrowed heavily from the rhetoric and strategies of the black pride, community mental health, and antipoverty movements of the 1960s. Rather than see depathologization of homosexuality as an end goal, activists saw depathologization of homosexuality in 1973 as a first step to a much larger plan to access the largesse of antipoverty and community mental health funds available to communities of color. This paper demonstrates that self-avowed “moderate” forms of gay rights activism culminated, by 1984, in a city ordinance–enforced “homeless district” to police black and brown trans and queer subjects separately from gay city neighborhoods and gay elite-supported initiatives to close bathhouses in light of the AIDS crisis.

Presented By
Nic John Fajardo Ramos, Drexel University

A Very Strange Case of Female Transsexualism: The University-Based Gender Clinics and the Crafting of a Diagnosis, 1957–1980

Dr. Robert J. Stoller, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, was one of many doctors affiliated with university-based gender clinics in the 1960s and 1970s. The clinics were concerned with attending to what was deemed to be, at the time, the problem of gender deviance. They saw patients, offered therapy, and sometimes even operated on individuals deemed to be true transsexuals. Their research culminated in the addition of “gender identity disorder” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, along with the publication of the treatment protocols known as the Standards of Care. In 1957 Stoller walked into a Los Angeles County hospital to film interviews with psychiatric patients to use for medical students’ clinical evaluations. One of the patients he interviewed was a twenty-something-year-old woman with an already-thick medical and legal case file including check fraud, attempted suicide, homicidal thoughts, and paranoid schizophrenia. The relationship between Stoller and this woman, Mrs. G, would continue for the next fourteen years with Mrs. G’s clinical history providing the “evidence” for many of Stoller’s theories on female masculinity, female transsexualism, and gender identity. This paper explores the strange story of Mrs. G and her role in the development and trajectory of transgender therapeutics. Examining the places she appears in the Stoller Papers collection—bank ledgers, correspondence, publication drafts—I evaluate the role of an exemplary case in both clinical research and historical memory.

Presented By
Emmett Harsin Drager, University of Southern California

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Regina G. Kunzel, Princeton University
Regina Kunzel holds the Doris Stevens Chair and is Professor of History and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Yale University and her B.A. from Stanford University. Kunzel’s research focuses on histories of gender and sexuality, carcerality, and on the twined histories of sexual deviance and normalcy. She is the author of Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890 to 1945 (Yale University Press, 1993), and articles on queer history, transgender studies, disability studies, the history of prison sexual culture, single pregnancy, and gender and professionalization. Her current project explores the encounter of LGBT/queer people with psychiatry in the twentieth-century United States.

Presenter: Emmett Harsin Drager, University of Southern California
Emmett Harsin Drager is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Emmett’s dissertation, tentatively titled “To Be Seen: Transsexuals and the Gender Clinics,” focuses on the university-based gender clinics of the 1960s and 1970s and the development of the diagnosis "gender identity disorder."

Presenter: Abram J. Lewis, Grinnell College
Abram J. Lewis is a postdoctoral fellow in Gender, Women's and Sexuality studies at Grinnell College. His book project, "The Falling Dream: Unreason and Enchantment in the Mad-Queer 1970s" examines activist uses of madness and magic at the end of the social movement era. His writing has appeared in Radical History Review, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. AJ is also a founder of the NYC Trans Oral History Project, a community archive developed in collaboration with the New York Public Library.

Presenter: Nic John Fajardo Ramos, Drexel University
Nic John Ramos is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Race in Science and Medicine at Brown University. His book manuscript, “Policing Health: Making Poverty, Race, and Sexuality in Global Los Angeles, 1965-1986” explores the interlocking relationships between new 1960s public health institutions to enlarged police and prison outfits, new forms of spatial segregation, and renewed forms of medical discrimination. His work can be found in the Journal of Medicine and Allied Sciences, GLQ, American Quarterly, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies.