October marks the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Dr. Evelyn Hooker's project, 'The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,' the first empirical research to challenge the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder.
Hooker's research established homosexuality as a field of study, enabling others to follow in her footsteps. Although it wouldn't occur until 1973, her research would contribute to the American Psychiatric Association's removal of homosexuality as a diagnostic category. It was a long and difficult journey, however. Hooker's groundbreaking research was highly controversial. To put it into perspective, she asked for grant money to fund her project at the height of the McCarthy era.
'It sent a shockwave through the whole mental health community,' said author and Hooker expert Dr. Henry Minton, who wrote Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America. 'The establishment…raked her over the coals for the research.'
A number of factors drove Hooker to conduct her research. First of all, she had always been committed to fighting social justice. Prior to her research, she was active in the Spanish Civil War, had traveled to Nazi Germany and visited the Soviet Union. 'She herself really suffered the problems of mistreatment as a women,' Minton added.
But it was a UCLA student who peaked her interest in gay issues. She formed a close relationship with a young gay student and his partner in 1944. She was introduced to a number of gay men during this time. Minton said that when in San Francisco and having sensed Hooker was an ally, the young couple took her to a drag bar and asked her to conduct a study of gay men like themselves. 'That really kind of shook her up,' Minton said.
'She was originally very hesitant about doing it for a number of reasons,' he added, stating that she told colleagues she lacked the self-confidence to immediately go forward. It took her several years before she started the study.
Hooker remained committed to the cause, long after the 1957 publication of her study. Her work would pave the way for others in the mental health field to conduct their own research on homosexuality.
Minton stressed that it was not just Hooker's study that led to the 1973 removal, however. By the late '60s, gay activists, influenced by the civil-rights movement, had mounted a campaign. Research done by Hooker and the others who followed in her footsteps provided them additional ammo needed to reach their goal.