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October 5, 2007

Normal, at last

A half-century ago, Evelyn Hooker proved that gay men are as sane as straight men

“It is not realistic to hope that [a researcher] will avoid theoretical preconceptions when looking at psychological material which he knows was obtained from a homosexual.”

This was the first hypothesis that Evelyn Hooker, Ph.D., had to test, to see if homosexual behavior was a “normal variant” of human sexual behavior or truly a mental disorder.

After all, she opined in the opening paragraph of her landmark work, “One problem is the attitude and theoretical position of the clinician who may be asked to examine the data . . . One hopes that the clinician does not react with ‘disgust, anger, and hostility.’ ”

In her watershed study, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” published 50 years ago in the scientific Journal of Projective Techniques, Hooker found that the researchers’ issues about their own sexuality were getting in the way of good science.

Arguably, Hooker’s words are still true among those with religious and political agendas against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights who are conducting questionable studies today.

But a half-century ago, in an era of sodomy laws, McCarthyism, forced lobotomies, castration of gay men, and constant harassment by police, Hooker’s research rocked American culture. It was the start of the movement leading to the American Psychiatric Association to take homosexuality off the list of mental disorders 16 years later.

Hooker’s work was “Exhibit A” during the APA’s hearings in 1973.

She was the first to conclude that there was no measurable psychological difference between homosexual and heterosexual men.

Hooker moved to California after recovering from tuberculosis and accepted a position at UCLA in 1939. While there, she befriended Sam From, a known homosexual student--the phrase “openly gay” was years in the future--who challenged her to study “people like him.”

According to biographical reports, From introduced Hooker and her then-husband, freelance writer Don Caldwell, to the lesbian and gay subculture growing in the area. In 1951, Christopher Isherwood, a gay novelist and partner of poet W.H. Auden, became Hooker’s neighbor.

While getting to know gays and lesbians, Hooker became convinced that homosexuals were normally adjusted people, not paranoid or criminal, and looked for ways to study this scientifically.

“She never treated us like some strange tribe, so we told her things we never told anyone before,” Isherwood said later.

In 1953, Hooker was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and began her work.

Using her home as her laboratory instead of a university facility, in order to protect the anonymity of the subjects, Hooker gathered 60 men ages 25 to 50. Thirty were homosexual, 30 heterosexual.

Hooker paired the men, one gay, one straight, based on their age, education, and tested intelligence quotient, giving her 30 matched pairs.

The men were not recruited randomly. The gay men were mostly members of the Mattachine Society, an early homophile organization. The heterosexual men were recruited from other community organizations.

Hooker dismissed men of both orientations who had “disturbances” and sought samples who were as close as possible to being exclusively homosexual and exclusively heterosexual.

Hooker observed the men and tested their personalities, social adaptively, attitudes and personality structures using instruments including the Rorschach “ink blot” test.

The nation’s top experts were called in to analyze the test results. The judges knew that some of the records were those of homosexual men, and some were of heterosexual men, but they did not know which.

The major finding was that though some records were identified by the scientists as homosexual based on traits such as “femininity” and “anality,” most were indistinguishable. But in mental health, there was no real difference between the groups based on sexual orientation. Thought patterns of the homosexual men were just as “normal” as their heterosexual counterparts, and occasionally topped them.

Hooker concluded that if there was pathology in homosexuality, it existed only in the sex sector of life, and did not, generally, indicate or cause pathology anywhere else.

In other words, homosexuality is merely a misunderstood difference.

Hooker’s study also suggested that personality-related difficulties which homosexual men may have experienced came from what was later dubbed “homophobia.”

If one is judged best by one’s enemies, Hooker was honored by the debunked anti-gay National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality researcher Jeffrey B. Satinover--one of the clinicians Hooker warned about--who said Hooker is “more than anyone else” the one whose work is responsible for normalizing homosexuality.

Hooker went on to publish works studying individual gay men, the relationships between males and their parents, why homosexuality occurs, and the incidence of venereal disease among gay men.

In 1967, Hooker was appointed the head of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Task Force of Homosexuality.

In 1989, the University of Chicago established the Hooker Center for the Mental Health of Gays and Lesbians.

For more than four decades, Hooker’s work was used to challenge anti-gay opinion in court cases and further medical study.

Evelyn Hooker died in November 1996 at age 89 in San Mateo, California.




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