Five years ago today, the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage to become the law of the land when it struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. It was a victory built on generations of tireless advocacy, election day disappointments, and spurts of progress across the country.
One of the key elements to winning this battle was research, notably that of UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker. In the 1940s and 50s, when gay men could be arrested just for being gay, Hooker bucked the norms of her era and studied them like any other subject. Her groundbreaking work showed that being gay was not a mental illness.
It started with a friendship. After having lost her tenure-track job at Whittier College due to suspicions that she held subversive political views, Hooker was hired on at UCLA, where she became friends with Sam From, a gay student in one of her psychology classes.
As they became friends, he introduced her to the people in his life, a wide circle of gay artists, engineers, philosophers, and other productive, seemingly well-adjusted people. This was significant because, at the time, homosexuality was viewed as “a pervasive emotional disorder,” Hooker recalled in the documentary, “Changing Our Minds.”
Most studies of gay men up to that point were either of men in prison or of those receiving often cruel treatments for mental illness. Sigmund Freud, one of psychology’s founding figures, had written in 1935 that homosexuality was not an illness. But gay-positive or even gay-neutral theorists had seen their views fall out of favor. And with so many aspects of gay life criminalized, most LGBTQ people could not safely speak out about their lives. Sadly, many gay men and women thought homosexuality was an illness, too, and tried vigorously to cure it.
Debunking an illness
From asked Hooker to study his circle, saying that it was “her scientific duty to study people like us.” So she did. With From’s help, she assembled 30 exclusively homosexual men and 30 exclusively heterosexual men and administered a series of tests, including the famous Rorschach inkblot test, to determine if there were any psychological differences between gay and straight men. There were none.
Hooker’s peers couldn’t believe it. One colleague, Dr. Mortimer Mayer, was so confident he could tell the two groups apart that he triple-checked her work. But the data showed that it was impossible to tell heterosexual and homosexual men apart. Contrary to popular belief, homosexuality was not an illness.
Hooker’s research was published in 1957. Sadly, her friend From never got to see her work take off — he died the year before in a car accident. Nor did her research change attitudes — at least not for years to come.
“It wasn’t really the case, in a storybook way, where the data came out, oh we were wrong and then they changed the policy,” said Gregory Herek, a UC Davis psychologist who was a colleague of Hooker’s in her later years (and an influential researcher into sexual prejudice in his own right). “Instead it took some agitation. It took some activism.”
Changing medical — and legal — minds
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook, continued to classify homosexuality as a mental illness 11 years after Hooker’s work was published. In 1974, after years of protests by gay rights activists at APA meetings, the DSM was finally changed, and homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness. And it wasn’t until 1987 that the DSM acknowledged that no therapy could, or should, cure homosexuality.
Putting LGBTQ people on the map, and understanding their needs
The Williams Institute also has a judicial training program, led by Todd Brower, that keeps judges up to date on the latest research into the well-being of LGBTQ people. Providing state-level research, like the kind Herman conducted into Massachusetts’ public accommodation laws, can be particularly impactful on judges when cases come before them.
“It’s like the building blocks of research Hooker was tapping into; that gay people exist; that they exist everywhere; and that they have unique experiences and characteristics — it’s putting LGBTQ people on the map,” Herman says.
That map has expanded from the 30 gay men Hooker studied to the detailed and nationally representative picture of transgender adults in the United States, the Transgender Population Health Survey (TransPop), on which Herman served as a co-investigator. Herman also helped conduct the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of transgender adults in the United States to date. She and other Williams colleagues have also advocated for transgender people to be included in the federal census.
“The research needs are vast,” she says.
One of her primary concerns is the high prevalence of suicide attempts among trans people; across three different surveys, they have found that more than 40 percent of trans people have attempted suicide.
“This has a lot of intersections with mental and physical health, with minority stress, discrimination, family issues. Focusing intervention is an area where we need a substantial amount of research to find out what is the best and most promising way of reducing suicidality.”
Discrimination does cause harm, the evidence says: The Williams Institute has found in the past that anti-LGBTQ laws hurt the community’s well-being and that pro-LGBTQ rulings help reduce the gap in reported happiness between gay and straight people.
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