For a long time, gays were considered mentally ill. They underwent lobotomies and chemical castration. At the urging of one of her students, research psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker decided to test this theory, not only against the scientific establishment of the 1950s, but also against political and social ones.
He had the forces of religion, the forces of law, and the forces of mental health professionals saying that this was inevitably the case. They believed it and believed it so much that it was surprising that she dared to suggest otherwise, said psychologist Dr. Glenda Russell, of Louisville, Colorado, who she had the opportunity to meet with Hooker. Russell is also a keeper of local LGBTQ history.
Evelyn Hooker grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado and studied at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This was a woman who had grown up poor on the Colorado plains. This is a woman whose parents, neither of whom went beyond the fourth grade. This is a woman who attended one-room schools, who was almost six feet tall while she was still in school and who, we would now say, was bullied, Russell said.
After graduating from CU, where she honed her research skills, Hooker went on to graduate from Johns Hopkins and was hired by UCLA.
In addition to the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field, Russell says Hooker was also bipolar, a highly stigmatized condition. But she probably made her more empathetic.
She was actually teaching as an adjunct professor at UCLA at the time because being a woman in the 1950s was the only kind of position one could really expect to have. And one of her students was challenging her when she taught the abnormal psychology class on homosexuality, said retired psychologist Dr. Douglas Kimmel, co-author of What A Light It Shed, of Hooker’s pioneering career.
Kimmel says the student eventually convinced her to look into prevailing thinking about homosexuality. She not only initiated a research project, but she got federal funding for it.
The study was done in the 1950s, and so at that time there was a great feeling that homosexuality was a mental illness that had serious consequences, both for people (who) were frequently hospitalized and given extraordinary treatment who were trying to treat them, Kimmel said. They also had a number of theories that blamed the mother or the family constellation for causing it. And this created a lot of anguish among parents trying to raise their children the right way. Furthermore, there was a great fear that somehow homosexuals were particularly vulnerable to national security. And so there were purges in both the military during WWII and the moving establishment in the federal government, trying to eradicate homosexuals because they were somehow deemed a threat or immoral or somehow not worth watching for the country.
Glenda Russell says that Dr. Hooker, as an experimental psychologist, has done an excellent job in a way that other people may not have. Because what he said was, if you say this is an illness, if you say homosexuality is a mental illness, then if I put together a group of people who are homosexuals and compare them to a group of people who are heterosexuals, then each person in that same-sex group would have to be sick in a particular way, Russell said.
Dr. Hooker matched two groups of 30 men based on age, education and other factors. He specifically looked for people who weren’t in therapy, who weren’t in a psychiatric hospital, and who weren’t in prison, because those were the types of people who had previously been studied as homosexuals.
He brought together nationally known experts to read the test results and they were unable to distinguish between gay men and straight men, Russell said. One researcher was so upset that he wanted a makeover because he just couldn’t believe it, and a lot of people couldn’t believe it.
And the rest is history, Russell said.
Kimmel says Dr. Hooker’s work still resonates.
The psychological research that has been an outgrowth of Evelyn’s work has paid enormous dividends to the lesbian and gay community over the years. We used the techniques he learned at the University of Colorado doing psychology research to collect the data, present the findings, distribute them in peer reviewed journals, and then translate them into amicus briefs and legislative activities that changed court decisions in the first place. but in some cases also legislative, and it has had dramatic effects that have radiated throughout the world.
While his groundbreaking research came in the 1950s, and indeed has continued, it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a diagnosis from the all-important Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
In fact, Russell was able to meet Dr. Evelyn Hooker and above all he listened to her speak. She was a very intelligent woman. And she was interesting and funny. I mean, she had a great sense of humor. And so I had nothing to say. I was sitting at the feet of someone who had changed the universe in some ways that were important to LGBTQ people.
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