It was the height of the McCarthy era in the United States. Political persecution of “possible communists” and homosexuals was rampant. Many in the LGBT community were imprisoned for their sexual orientation. Anyone associated with a known persecuted group was subject of intense scrutiny, investigation, and in some cases, imprisonment. Gay bars were frequently the target of police raids, and being openly gay had extensive ramifications. It was during this time that one woman began her research into homosexuality. The objective? To prove that homosexuality was not the “sexual perversion” or “deviant behavior” that most renowned psychologists of the time perceived it to be. Her research would then be cited as one of two papers that led to the American Psychological Associations’ elimination of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
That woman’s name is Dr. Evelyn Hooker. Born into an impoverished family in 1907, Evelyn had humble beginnings and a great deal of determination to pursue higher education. On the encouragement of several faculty members at her school, she enrolled in the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1924 with a tuition scholarship. She paid for her living by working as a housecleaner for a wealthy family in Boulder. It was here that she became a student of Dr. Karl Muenzinger and found intrigue and inspiration on his lectures on the scientific investigation of behavior.
She continued her work with Dr. Muenzinger as a master’s student, and on his suggestion, began working on her Ph.D. in psychology with Knight Dunlap (who normally did not approve of women doctorates) at Johns Hopkins. Since faculty positions for women were hard to find during the great depression era, she studied psychotherapy in Berlin, where she boarded with a Jewish family and witnessed the rise of Nazism firsthand. Witnessing the persecution of these groups of people spawned her desire to “make her life count in helping to correct social injustice.” Working as a research associate at UCLA, Dr. Hooker befriended one of her brightest students, Sam From, who introduced her to his circle of gay friends and urged her to conduct research on homosexuals. It was then that she began administering psychological tests on homosexual men. After a divorce and a few years of personal struggle, in 1953 she applied to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for a grant to study nonpathological homosexual men. The application was seen as unusual owing to the fact that during this era, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by psychologists, sin by the church, and crime by law. Despite the nature of the study, her grant was approved with a fair warning from the chief of the grants division about the possibility of her being subject of an FBI investigation due to her association with the LGBT community. Her study required utmost privacy due to the confidentiality concerns of the subjects of her study. Despite attempts by law enforcement to look at the contents of her study and one incident of her arrest, she protected the privacy of her subjects. The conclusions of her study were corroborated by a panel of experts who failed to distinguish the results of homosexual and heterosexual men proving that there is no abnormality in homosexual behavior.
When I was invited to give a paper at the International Congress of Psychology. I learned that a young Norwegian, Finn Carling, was beginning a study of homosexuals and that it would be worth my while to see him… After we had tea, he turned to me and said, “I want you to know that I am on their side.” I think I said, “Me too.” And then he said an astonishing thing: “I am not only studying homosexuals, but I am studying refugees, because they teach me the meaning of movement. I am studying the blind, because they will teach me the meaning of sight, of vision. I am studying homosexuals, because they will teach me the meaning of love.
Before Evelyn Hooker’s study, the common corrective procedures on gay people included lobotomies, chemical castration, and electroshock therapy. Sodomy laws criminalized homosexual behavior, and the APA wasn’t advocating for the civil rights of LGBT citizens. This would all change over the course of the next fifty years. After her groundbreaking research, Dr. Evelyn Hooker spent the remainder of her life advocating for the LGBTQ community and becoming one of our most treasured allies.
She has done the work that enabled generations of queer youth to be liberated and pursue our civil rights without the burden of who we are being perceived as a pathology by the scientific community. Real allies pave the way for the liberation of oppressed masses and lay the foundations for their empowerment.