Cross Cultural Psychology

Gay Pride Month and Mental Health: How one activist changed the psychiatric community’s stance on homosexuality

Today (June 9th), the 31st annual Philadelphia Pride Parade took place; beginning in the heart of the Gayborhood, at 13th and Locust Streets, ending at Penn’s landing. Similar parades and events are taking place across the globe to recognize the influence LGBTQ people have had around the world and serve as an opportunity to peacefully protest and raise political awareness of current issues facing their community.

Why June? Because it’s when the Stonewall riots happened, back in 1969

“I think you need to know the whole context of the 1960s, and just how much rebellion was going on throughout the culture. The birth of the feminist movement, the black struggle for Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination – it was an extremely violate decade. We began to think, well, black people have been long defined as inferior. But now they’re saying black is beautiful. We, gay people, have long been defined as inferior. Maybe it’s time we started to say, ‘Gay is beautiful,’” – Martin Duberman, writer of Stonewall.

Throughout history, in every culture, there have been lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Unfortunately, like most things that were considered to be different than the perceived social norm, these individuals have had to endure centuries of discrimination, including prosecution and lack of basic human rights. As most of us are aware of these implications and its impact on the LGBTQ community, my post will specifically be in regards to the psychological injustices experienced by the community.

For instance, did you know homosexuality was actually listed as a mental illness in the DSM for almost 40 years?

When same-sex attraction was first discussed within western medical books, it was widely believed to be a mental illness. This view, which was based more on morality than science, was written into the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952 – listing homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance. Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals, a large-scale 1962 study on homosexuality among homosexual males, was used to justify the inclusion of the disorder as a supposed pathologically hidden fear of the opposite sex caused by traumatic parent-child relationships.

Going off such ideas from Sigmund Freud, who had four theories on homosexuality:

1. Homosexuality arises as an outcome of the Oedipus conflict (a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex resulting in a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex) and the boy’s discovery that his mother is castrated. This induces an intense castration anxiety that causes the boy to turn from his castrated mother to a “woman with a penis” [i.e. a boy with a feminine appearance].
2. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud developed the theory that the future homosexual child is so over-attached to his mother that he identifies with her and narcissistically seeks love objects like himself so he can love them like his mother loves him.

3. If a ‘negative’ or ‘inverted’ Oedipus complex occurs, a boy seeks his father’s love and masculine identification by taking on a feminine identification and reverting to anal eroticism.
4. Homosexuality could result from reaction formation – a kind of psychological defense mechanism in which a person perceives their true feelings or desire to be socially unacceptable, so they attempt to convince themselves or others that the opposite is true. In this instance, a sadistic jealousy of brothers and father is safely converted into love for other men.

Though, what needs to be noted about Freud is that he did not view homosexuality as a sign of illness. Instead, he believed that it could be the natural outcome of normal development in some people. He concluded that homosexuality could occur in individuals with no other signs of deviation and no impairment in their functioning; thus forming his belief of homosexuality as the unconflicted expression of innate instinct. Yet just how some religions use the story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality (in which the tale referred to any form of biblically condemned sexual activity including masturbation, fornication, bestiality and oral or anal sex and not just specifically anal sex between men), researchers overlooked this aspect of Freud’s definition to improve their results.

Gay pride parade in Chicago, 1970s.jpg

Researchers came to the study’s conclusion through the use of questionnaires geared at understanding the subjects’ relationships with their families; in addition to their sexual development and functioning, their choice of a homosexual partner and homosexual practices and their relationships with women. It should be mentioned that these questionnaires were answered by the researchers – who referenced in their book, the “outstanding” feelings of hatred and fear among homosexual men towards their fathers; and how the “homosexual’s mother” usually preferred their gay son over her other children and the “homosexual’s father” usually had more negative feelings towards their gay son than his other children.

These results were very influential in the medical profession. As the DSM was created to help mental health professionals treat the long list of known mental disorders, some psychiatrists subjected LGBT people to cruel treatments designed to “cure” them. These treatments included castration, brain surgery, and electric shock therapy. Some therapists employed aversion therapy to ‘cure’ male homosexuality. This typically involved showing patients pictures of naked men while giving them electric shock or drugs to make them vomit. Once the individual could no longer bear it, the therapist would show them pictures of naked women or send them out on a ‘date’ with a young nurse.

lead_720_405_the atlantic

In addition to administering inhumane treatments, many psychiatrists also served as medical experts in legal cases, branding LGBT people as unfit to care for their own children, to teach or work with children or to hold jobs that dealt with security and intelligence. Fortunately, there were doctors and advocates challenging the idea that LGBT people were ‘sick’. For example, research conducted by psychologist Evelyn Hooker beginning in the 1940s demonstrated that gay people were as psychologically sound as heterosexuals. Activist groups, such as Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine Society, worked for years to educate the public about LGBT people and to fight discriminatory laws. Yet while research was proving that the idea that LGBT people needed to be cured was wrong, the medical and mental health communities were slow to update their practices.

That was until Charles Silverstein, a graduate student studying psychology, decided to do something about it in 1972. Silverstein knew that a big meeting of psychologists was taking place in New York that fall, and he asked the leaders of the Gay Activist Alliance (which he was a member of) for permission to “zap” the convention. “Zaps”, commonly used by activists of that era, were public demonstrations designed to confront a public figure, get media coverage and generate attention on an important issue.

Silverstein and his peers decided to “zap” a lecture on the use of aversion therapy on gay people. About a dozen people from the Gay Activist Alliance walked into the room and sat down. Silverstein remembers approaching the lecturer and saying something like, “Dr. Quinn, the room is filled with radical gay liberationists and we are here to fight against aversion therapy used against our people. You can talk for 15 minutes, then we’re going to take over the room and tell the audience how gay people are being tortured.”

pbs_legacy of stonewall

The audience erupted into a fury, but a lot of important ideas were exchanged during the meeting. As a result, Silverstein and his peers were invited to submit a report to the APA’s Nomenclature Committee, the group in charge of making changes to the DSM. When they presented their report, Silverstein criticized the committee for the large role that psychiatry had played in the discrimination of gay people. “What we hope to convey to you,” he warned, “is that we have paid the price for your past mistake. Don’t make it again.”

In 1973, the board of the APA recommended the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder by asking all members in attendance of that year’s convention to vote on whether or not they believed it was a mental illness. 5,854 psychiatrists voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM and 3,810 voted to retain it. The APA then compromised, removing homosexuality by changing the wording in the DSM to ‘Sexual Orientation Disturbance’ for people “in conflict with” their sexual orientation. It took two more changes – one in 1980 and another in 1994 – until homosexuality was completely removed from the DSM.

Today the American Psychological Association states that, “Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals agree that homosexuality is not an illness, a mental disorder or an emotional problem. Homosexuality was once thought to be a mental illness because mental health professionals and society had biased information.”


So in honor of Pride month, I’d like to recognize activists like Dr. Charles Silverstein, who helped to transform the belief system of the entire mental health community in the U.S. They paved the way for more equal treatment of LGBT people in their jobs, homes, relationships, and families – serving as a reminder to those still fighting against discrimination among the community, that ordinary people have the power to change institutions.


Since completing my undergraduate studies, I've dedicated my time to supporting and empowering individuals with behavioral health issues. This blog is to be a platform for the behavioral health community; examining the history of behavioral health and the progressions made within the field while providing information and resources to those who need it.

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