How Did Homosexuality Come to be Labeled as a Mental Illness?
On a lovely October evening, I spent three delightful hours talking with Dr. Kenneth Lewes, a pioneer who challenged the American Psychoanalytic Association’s (APsaA) stances on homosexuality in the late 1980s.
Dr. Lewes had already graciously given me over two hours of his time on a phone call several months before and had fact-checked a chapter of my book for historical accuracy. I looked forward to meeting him face-to-face to thank him and give him a copy of my book.
As we sipped wine and chatted at the New York City’s Bryant Park Cafe, I absorbed every word of the stories he told. While researching the origins of the designation of mental illness upon homosexuality, Dr. Lewes had already become my hero.
[UPDATE from September 2017: Along with my daughter, Sam, I once again visited with Ken Lewes, and this time met his husband, Gary. We enjoyed a wonderful French dinner and a long night of very lively conversation in their home in Brooklyn. He is such an interesting man!]
Most modern accounts of the intersection of homosexuality and faith, and certainly those retold in non-inclusive conservative Christian churches, begin with an assumption of homosexuality as a condition of mental illness “because it has always been that way.”
The lifting of the designation of mental illness from homosexuality, as the story often goes, resulted from the “onslaught” of gay invaders forcing their way into the American Psychological Association (APA) conferences from 1970 to 1973. The flawed narrative continues by asserting that, without the aid of any research or science over the next few years, the APA membership was forcefully pressured to reclassify homosexuality from a pathology and mental illness to a normal variation of human sexuality.
I’ve rarely been satisfied with answers that include “because it has always been that way” statements. Curiosity snags me; I want to know the whys.
So, why and how was homosexuality first classified as a mental illness?
Enter the brilliant Dr. Lewes and his work.
Dr. Lewes was a professor of Renaissance literature at Rutgers University until 1979. Interestingly, we were both at the New Brunswick, NJ campus during the same years, but we never crossed paths. I was an engineering student, as far removed from Renaissance literature as possible. While in a gathering of professors, Dr. Lewes overheard a colleague speak dismissively about a fellow educator who was a “known homosexual.” Unwilling to be silent, Lewes outed himself and was rewarded with a denial of tenure.
Lewes had been increasingly drawn to the field of psychology, and, at the age of 45 and recently divorced from his wife, decided to change careers and become an analyst. His doctorate work in the field led him to asking, and, more importantly, answering a simple question, “How did homosexuality come to be labelled a mental illness?”
In the process of researching for his book, no one from within the therapist community at the APsaA would consent to a personal interview. After all, they had a dirty little secret and were unwilling to speak out publicly against the half-century long reprehensible anti-gay history of the organization. Though the American Psychiatric Association had removed the mental illness stigma from homosexuality a decade before, gay and lesbian therapists were still barred from membership in the APsaA.
Dr. Lewes authored a 300-page book, Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality (1988), a history of how the single most influential professional group of therapists abused their power to stigmatize the gay community. The account is nothing short of a travesty. In fact, when the book was published, Dr. Lewes told me, he invited 24 of his fellow analysts to the launch party, and not one of them showed up. They wanted to distance themselves from their own shameful professional past.
If you have the patience and brain bandwidth to tackle the original research by Dr. Lewes, I strongly encourage reading his rich and dense book. If you want the shorter version, it is covered and expanded upon with cultural information in the first three chapters of my book Walking the Bridgeless Canyon– Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community (2014).
In my book, I summarized the theories and actions of the main players in the APsaA. It’s a compelling and often frustrating historical account of non-scientific and deeply flawed “expert” speculations that ruled the discourse on homosexuality for almost a half century through the 1970s.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), considered to be the father of psychoanalysis, associated a variety of mental illnesses to missed or distorted childhood psychosexual stages. For Freud, everything related to sex! Most mental illnesses, he speculated, began with sexual abuse, fear of sex, or guilt about sex. Freud thought the “mental illness” condition of both gays and lesbians was due to disrupted childhood psychosexual stages.
By the end of his life, Freud himself had softened his views and wrote that homosexuality “cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the human function.” Disturbingly, in the continuing discourse on homosexuality after Freud and within the APsaA, no analytic or influential voices arose to confront the formulation of theories about homosexuality until several decades later.
Psychoanalysts’ theories and the medical treatment of gays had been initially based on Freud’s postulations. Instead of conducting thorough, ethical, and scientific studies to examine the questions that Freud had simply raised, subsequent psychoanalysts manufactured flawed theories and made gross assumptions. They never conducted research to support their work. All their opinions and treatment models were created from interaction with a limited number of patients in therapy while completely ignoring gays not in therapy.
Edmund Bergler (1899-1962), a leading “expert,” only studied the case histories of eleven gay patients, seven of whom were schizophrenic. Based on such a limited pool of patients, Bergler was widely published on the topic of homosexuality throughout his thirty-year career.
Sandor Rado (1890-1972) asserted that homosexuality was a pathological illness caused by a childs’ phobic avoidance of the opposite-sex parent. As was the case with Bergler, Rado didn’t base his assumptions on science. He, too, formulated theories based on his limited work with an extremely small client base. It was Rado who, without any proof of “success,” introduced the concept of the possibility of change from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
Continuing in the tradition of creating treatment schemes based on work with very few clients in therapy only, Irving Bieber (1909-1991) compiled information from 106 patients. Again, he studied only gay men already in therapy. Bieber authored a non-scientific study in 1962 in which he boasted a 27% success conversion rate to heterosexuality.
Though Bieber’s study has been long disproven and refuted by every professional mental health organization, this 1962 non-scientific study is still cited by anti-gay, conservative Christian groups and change therapy ministries as “proof” of change from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
Charles Socarides (1922-2005) is perhaps the best known of the influential group of therapists who focused on the pathology of homosexuality. He was the go-to man for the media from the 1960s to the 1980s. Socarides placed the blame of “creating” homosexual children squarely on the backs of “dysfunctional parenting,” specifically distant fathers and overbearing mothers.
As Socarides’ reputation soared and his finances prospered on the backs of paranoid and guilty parents, he had his own secret. He was the father of a gay son. Son Richard Socarides went on to become a highly influential lawyer and special assistant and advisor to President Clinton on gay and lesbian issues.
Outside the flawed and isolated theories of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s ivory tower, a growing body of findings from other professionals working in mental health care and sex studies was completely contrary to the guidance of the “experts” in the ApsaA.
Dr. Evelyn Hooker (1907-1996), a psychologist, did something utterly radical for her time. She conducted psychological studies of 30 gay men and 30 straight men. Gay men, she found, were no different pathologically from straight men. Hooker then challenged fellow therapists who were experts in their field to sort the gay men out from the group of 60 participants based purely on the test results. The experts couldn’t do it.
Dr. Hooker first presented her findings to a hushed general assembly of the American Psychological Association in 1956.
You might expect that there was an immediate change in the medical discourse on homosexuality. You would be quite wrong. Strong cultural resistance to the “normalcy” of gay people had already been entrenched outside the medical arena. (Chapters 3 and 4 of Walking the Bridgeless Canyon)
In fact, Hooker’s test results were suppressed and ignored by not only her own organization, but more importantly, by the more powerful “experts” within the APsaA for another 15 years.
Eventually, Hooker’s study was formalized in a government task force report in 1969. The Nixon Administration, finding the report “too liberal and tolerant” in a time of heightened unrest from feminists, civil rights, and anti-war activists, intentionally withheld the findings. In 1970, early gay activists discovered the existence of the report.
A combination of closeted gay therapists from within the APA and gay activists outside in the public demanded to be “talked to” and not “talked about.” Finally, the long-held assumptions of the APsaA and the APA were forcefully challenged. In 1973, the general membership of the APA voted, by a vote of 58%, to lift the designation of mental illness from homosexuality.
And what was the response of the staunchly anti-gay APsaA? Did they follow suit and rethink their assumptions, theories, and treatments? No. They dug in their heels more firmly.
When Dr. Lewes submitted his application for membership in the APsaA in the 1980s, he was denied admittance because of his sexual orientation. Though the APA had already demolished the medical anti-gay stigma, the APsaA maintained its isolation and disavowed the gay-as-a-normal-variation-of-human -sexuality findings.
Largely due to Dr. Lewes’ Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality, the APsaA finally admitted gay and lesbian therapists to the organization in 2001!
In speaking with Dr. Lewes, I felt as though I were in the presence of a mostly unnoticed hero in the gay rights movement. Through his extensive research, he had uncovered and documented the long pattern of myths and lies that had been used to imprison the American gay community for almost 50 years.
Stunningly, rather than being demolished, the bad ideology of homosexuality as a mental illness was soon refashioned to create a basis for an emerging Christian interpretation of six passages of Scripture about same-sex behavior and the faith-based reparative therapy movement.
Until the late 1970s, churches largely stayed out of the public dialogue on homosexuality. The first known anti-gay sermon to be preached from a major American church pulpit was in September 1980 by two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. A. Criswell. Surprising, isn’t it?
Conservative religious and political leaders began to use interpretations of Scripture to support the thoroughly non-scientific, culturally manufactured assumption of the “mental disorderedness” of homosexuality. The marriage of faith and politics garnered power for both parties of the unholy alliance of religion and politics.
Understanding the path we’ve come along to arrive at our assumptions is key to repairing the damage done.
Many times in the past several months, I’ve asked a quite simple and logical question in conversation with those who disagree with my theology and ideology: “Do you know how homosexuality came to be labeled a mental illness?” In fact, I raised this question at least a dozen times with pastors and leaders while attending the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Conference in October.
I’ve found that few people have ever taken just one simple step back and asked that simple question: “How did homosexuality come to be labelled a mental illness?”
Upon investigation, it’s clear that the negative stigmatization of homosexuality was never based in scientific research or empirical medical study. The assumption was created in an atmosphere of isolation, ignorance, and fear, first, within the culture and medical community, then, revived in conservative faith communities.
If a non-heterosexual orientation were a disorder, then a person reading six passages of Scripture dealing with same-sex behavior might be able to apply the inherent negativity in the verses to those with homosexual orientations.
But, homosexuality is not a disorder; it is a normal variation of human sexuality.
Science knows this. Every professional medical and psychological association knows this. Mistakes were made in the past by “experts” who persisted with bad theories.
The next logical steps for conservative Christians might be to then ask “If homosexuality is indeed a normal variation of human sexuality, what is the behavior written about in the Bible?” (This question will be addressed in blog post coming soon and in the VERSES tab. )
Non-scientific medical assumptions supported cultural discrimination from the 1930s to the 1980s, and vice versa. When the medical and cultural theories about the “root cause” of homosexuality began to be exposed for the folly they were, discrimination against the gay community should have been overtaken by understanding.
But, that didn’t happen.
In the late 1970s, the conservative church married itself to conservative politics, and together, they ushered in the wrong kind of revival — one of ignorance, fear and discrimination targeting the gay community.
The non-inclusive conservative church is acting much like the American Psychoanalytic Association did in the past. They interpret verses from inside an ivory tower of isolation, fear and long-disproven assumptions. They are ignoring the expert input on the subject of sexual orientation.
Eventually, recognition of that error will force them to re-evaluate their interpretations of Scripture. They will find that, while Scripture is holy and true, their interpretations are corrupt and deceptive.
At the end of my October evening with Dr. Lewes, he stated two things which deeply moved me. “Young lady,” he said, “No Christian has ever come to me to ask how homosexuality came to be designated as a mental illness. You are the first.”
He then added, “Just as I was almost 30 years ago in my professional organization, you are a whistleblower in the Christian church.”
It is past time for those who care about the integrity of Scripture and the value of truth to dismantle the ivory tower of Christian discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and to tell the truth about the beauty and richness of God’s diverse creation in humanity.
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