“Psychiatry is the Enemy Incarnate”: Lesbian and Gay Activism and the American Psychiatric Association
Professor Jack Gieseking
American Studies 409
10 May 2017
Declaring War against American Psychiatry: Gay and Lesbian Activism from 1950-1973
I argue that the gay and lesbian activist protest at the 1971 American Psychiatric Association conference at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders should be historically recognized as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender historic site. Although it was not the first protest to depathologize homosexuality, let alone against the APA, it was where gay and lesbian activists officially declared war on the association. Radical activists already had saw psychiatry and psychiatrists as their enemies; now they were publicly using such rhetoric in the faces of psychiatrists.
The 1970 convention in San Francisco was the first direct attack on the APA. It was also where gay and lesbian activists centralized their efforts on a common foe (Bayer 1981). For Irving Bieber and many other psychiatrists, this was the first time that they had experienced direct confrontation with the people they were characterizing as less than human (Bayer 1981). The outrage and guerilla tactics utilized at the convention were carried over into the D.C. protest the following year.
The protest speaks to the amount of power that social movements had over the medicalization and demedicalization of social conditions in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s, mental health professionals were seen as one of the entities with the most power over whether someone had a medical condition (Conrad 2005). Today, using a movement to effect a change within psychiatry would be more difficult, since a greater distribution of power now resides in pharmaceutical and insurance companies (Conrad 2005).
Protests at APA conferences expatiated getting homosexuality removed from the DSM. By this time, sexologists, like Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker, had conducted their own research that countered the oppressive frames upheld by psychiatrists (Katz 1976; Drescher 2015). However, many therapists were not reading their work (Bayer 1981). Disruptive politics had a bigger effect on changing therapists’ perceptions of homosexuality by confronting their complicity in homosexual oppression.
Whereas gay and lesbian activists in the 1950s and early 1960s tried to educate professionals to eradicate homosexual oppression, more radical endeavors emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. New organizations like the Gay Liberation Front criticized older organizations like the Mattachine Society for being too nice to psychiatrists. At the D.C. protest in particular, Frank Kameny declared war against the American psychiatry. Psychiatrists had for decades advocated for “treatments” like aversion therapy, castration, electroshock therapy (Katz 1976). Radical activists wanted gay men and lesbians to define homosexuality for themselves while at the same time calling out psychiatrists for perpetuating homophobia and heterosexism.
Radical efforts expedited the process to remove homosexuality from the DSM. Activists placed psychiatrists under pressure to organize panels at APA conferences, meetings with committees, and eventually the final vote needed to remove homosexuality from the DSM. Although sexual behavior socially defined as deviant was still classified as a disorder in the DSM-III, being gay or lesbian, by itself, was no longer considered as a disorder after the 1973 vote.
History of the site
In 1970, gay and lesbian activists protested at the annual APA conference in San Franciscio. Under pressure by activists, psychiatrist Kent Robinson advocated that they get a panel at the following year’s protest in D.C. However, activists did not want just a panel (Bayer 1981). By this time, activists were engaging in disruptive politics and did want to get rid of the momentum that such politics brought (Bayer 1981). Therefore, activists wanted to engage in another protest.
Frank Kameny had gone to the Gay Liberation Front chapter in Washington D.C. to organize the protest. By this time, Kameny had been removed from Mattachine Society D.C., which he founded, due to his radical approach to politics. The Gay Liberation Front had been using “zaps” to counter psychiatric perceptions of homosexuality. Activists attended with picket signs the lectures of professors who spoke negatively about homosexuality (Bayer 1981). Now, the Gay Liberation Front was organizing a protest to be held at an APA conference.
The protest took place May 3rd, 1971 at the Shoreham Hotel (Blumenfeld 2016). One of the activists had placed a crack in a doorway to allow the Gay Liberation Front, the Mattachine Society, and Gay Activists Alliance to sneak into the site where they wore T-shirts and carried signs that said “Gay is Good” and “Psychiatry is the Enemy” (Blumenfeld 2016). Also taking part in the protest was the Gay May Day collective who had recently protested on May Day in an attempt to shut down the government (Blumenfeld 2016). At the same location was the panel titled “The Lifestyle of Homosexuality”. At the panel were Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, and Jack Baker, who was the first out gay student body president at the University of Minnesota (Blumenfeld 2016).
For several hundred years, psychiatry has served as a means of social control (Brown 1990). Throughout the twentieth century, it has determined who may live in the “real world’ and who is isolated and sent to asylums; who has a job; who is healthy; who is normal. Psychiatry’s oppressive actions against homosexuality is a continuum of homosexual oppression by Western societies. Religious institutions were the first demonize same-sex behavior and punished with castration those who had sex with members of the same sex (Katz 1976). Legal and then psychiatric institutions adopted pathologizing attitudes towards homosexuality and saw castration as appropriate for punishing homosexuality (Katz 1976). Other “treatments” included aversion therapy, electro-shock therapy, and marriage (Katz 1976).
Psychiatrists framed homosexuality in one of three ways: mental disorder, sexual immaturity, or normal variation (Drescher 2015). Since homosexual was at first a medical term (Katz 1995), it is not surprising that psychiatrists first framed it as a mental disorder (Drescher 2015). By the mid-twentieth century, most psychiatrists had accepted this frame (Drescher 2015). The first psychiatrist to see homosexuality as a disorder was Richard von Kraft-Ebing (Drescher 2015). Other prominent psychiatrists, like Sandor Rado, Irvine Bieber, and Charles Socarides, would later adopt this frame (Drescher 2015). In 1952, the DSM-I defined homosexuality as a disorder (American Psychiatric Association 1952). Homosxuality would not be removed from the DSM until 1973. The psychiatric legitimization of homosexuality as a mental disorder served as a basis upon which to justify its criminalization.
If psychiatrists did not see homosexuality as a disorder, then they most likely saw it as a sexual immaturity. The idea behind this thinking is that homosexual behavior is associated with childhood. Similar to framing homosexuality as a frame, these psychiatrists thought that a child would eventually “grow out of it”. A homosexual adult would be seen as having stunted growth mentally. Sigmund Freud is one of those most well-known for holding this kind of thinking. However, he thought that homosexuals could change their sexuality only if they wanted to.
. Some gay men and lesbians looked toward any of the frames as a lens through which to better understand themselves. Others saw the harmful effects of these frames and rejected the pathologization that such frames constructed of homosexuality. Gay men and lesbians developed shame for their sexualities and went to mental health professionals to admonish their guilt. Psychiatrists would respond by worsening the shame and guilt that their patients had. It would take years for patients to develop an affirmation for their sexualities.
A minority of social science researchers saw homosexuality as normal or innate. Alfred Kinsey was one of the first of such researchers to conduct a study that showed that homosexuality was more common than many people believed. The one-in-ten statistic that he developed is still used today, although more recent research suggests that his statistic is an underestimate. Evelyn Hooker’s work also combats oppressive frames of homosexuality. Her study of homosexual men found no differences in characteristics between homosexual men and heterosexual men.
Early homophile societies focused on promoting social life or educating U.S. society about homosexual oppression. One of such organizations was the Mattachine Society. Formed in 1950 in Los Angeles, the Mattachine Society was focused on creating a homosexual subculture (Bronski 2011). In terms of activism, they were initially concerned with police entrapment. Later, the Daughters of Bilitis were founded. This organization of lesbians brought in an analysis that included their oppressions as both a homosexual and a woman (D’Emilio 1983). The two organizations used the publications OUT Inc. and The Latter to publish articles that educated other gay men and lesbians about their oppression. Consciousness-raising groups were created. Information was presented to lawyers and mental health professionals to debunk myths. The goal was to convince professionals that homosexuality was not a disorder, but a normal variation. For example, the Mattachine Society volunteered some of its members to participate in Hooker’s study that concluded that homosexual men were no different than heterosexuality men when various characteristics were compared (D’Emilio 1983).
Initially, homophile organizations were reluctant to attacking psychiatry for its part in perpetuating homosexual oppression. There was no precedence to use as a model for how to combat psychiatric oppression. Organizations like the Mattachine Society were more focused on gay rights, such as ending sodomy laws and police entrapment. Frank Kameny tried to get the Mattachine chapter in Washington D.C. to commit to focusing attention on psychiatry’s role in homosexual oppression. With great struggle, the D.C. chapter publicly stated in 1965 that it would
Then, homophile organizations learned of the upcoming APA conference in San Francisco. Activists had heard about who would attend. Psychiatrist Irving Bieber especially sparked interest in gay and lesbian activists to disrupt the conference since his work in particular had a substantial impact on U.S. perceptions of homosexuality. How Ronald Bayer describes it, up to the time of the conference was when gay and lesbian activists identified a common foe (Bayer 1981).
More radical, direct-action campaigns emerged following the Stonewall Riot of 1969. Organizations like the Gay Liberation Front were more focused on mass protests, whereas older homophile organizations saw education as the primary way to achieve equality. The Gay Liberation Front saw such organizations, including the Mattachine Society as hampering rather than effecting social change. The chapter in California in particular was criticized for asking for respect, rather than demanding it. To Gay Liberation Front groups, discussions that organizations like the Mattachine Society had with mental health professionals gave too much power to them over the definition and perception of homosexuality. Frank Kameny also believed that mainstream gay and lesbian activists treated psychiatrists too much as experts and that activists needed to see themselves as the experts. The Gay Liberation Front was often criticized for its intersectional framework, being critiqued by The Advocate for not focusing solely on gay rights but also on anti-capitalism and other systems of oppression.
Radical activists participated in disruption politics to combat oppressive rhetoric of homosexuals. Picket lines occurred in lectures of professors who denounced homosexuality. Protests occurred at television programs such as at the taped interview of Marcus Welby (D’Emilio 1983). For radical groups, any opinion that oppressed homosexuality was not tolerated.
Through protest, gay men and lesbians were defining their own sexuality. Psychiatrists, particularly heterosexual psychiatrists, had too much power over the definition of homosexuality. Psychiatric resistance had a scarcity of gay voices. Activists from outside the discipline needed to change how homosexuality was perceived; that meant challenging the discipline that had declared itself to be “experts” on this “disease” or a “phase”. Although they had adopted a definition initially crafted by psychiatrists, they were still advocating for participation in everyday life, which meant getting their sexuality out of the DSM.
The D.C. protest helped lead to the 1972 panel and protest in Dallas, Texas. Radical efforts at this site held less of a presence. Rather, the significance of this site is due more to the fact that gay psychiatrists used the space to provide their insights from occupying two seemingly oppositional social positions. At the panel were Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, and psychiatrist Dr. John Fryer (Drescher 2015). At the panel, Fryer went by Dr. Anonymous to protect his identity and career since psychiatrists were fired for being gay (Clendinen 2003; Blumenfeld 2016). Wearing a mask, he asked that psychiatrists listen to gay and lesbian activists who were advocating that homosexuality be removed from the DSM (Blumenfeld 2016). No other gay psychiatrist at the time had (Clendinen 2003).
The protests alone were not enough to achieve this goal. Following the protests was a lengthy process within American psychiatry that eventually led to its removal. In the end, the Board of Trustees of the APA, none of whose members were psychiatrists, voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM.
Frank Kameny and Larry Littlejohn tried to start the final process at the 1971 D.C. protest when they talked with Kent Robinson about having a meeting with the APA Committee on Nomenclature (Bayer 1981). The activists were denied access. However, the Gay Activists Alliance protested at the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy in New York in 1972 (Bayer 1981). At the protest was Robert Spitzer a member of the committee who, after watching the protest and hearing demands by activists, allowed gay and lesbian activists to speak with the committee.
Although homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, psychiatrists continued to pathologize non-heterosexual behavior and gender non-normativity. For example, the same version of the DSM from which homosexuality was removed was the same one in which transsexuality, and transvetic fetishism were added. In other words, psychiatrists still maintained a heterosexist understanding of sexualities and any challenge to heteronormativity as a problem in itself. Conrad (1992) refers to medicalization as declaring a non-medical non-problem to be a medical problem. Therapeutic endeavors, argues social worker and co-author of the SOC-7 Arlene Lev (2004), should embrace a collaborative model with patients and work to strength patients. Yet, diagnosing socially defined deviant behavior and identities was never meant to strengthen powers but rather to maintain the social order.
The protest at Shoreham Hotel was the beginning of the end of the pathologization of homosexuality. Gay and lesbian activists officially declared war on the American Psychiatric Association. The site also was where activists first tried to start the final administrative processes necessary to depathologize homosexuality. Although Frank and Kameny as well as other radical activists wanted gay men and lesbians to have most of, if not complete control over, how the United States would define homosexuality, they engaged in efforts to demand, rather than ask, that psychiatrists see them as human beings.
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