September 2, 2014
Today is the 107th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, the psychologist who is widely credited with helping to establish that homosexuality is not inherently linked to mental illness.
In the course of her remarkable life, Dr. Hooker surmounted many of the barriers faced by women who sought an academic career in the 20th century.
She was born Evelyn Gentry on September 2, 1907, to a poor farm family in North Platte, Nebraska. The sixth of nine children, she received her early education in one-room schoolhouses on the Nebraska prairie, followed by high school in Sterling, Colorado. She subsequently earned baccalaureate and master’s degrees at the University of Colorado.
She wanted to apply to the doctoral psychology program at Yale but her University of Colorado department chairman (himself a Yale graduate) refused to recommend a woman. Instead, she entered the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1932.
She taught at the Maryland College for Women and then at Whittier College. While at Whittier, she received a fellowship to study psychotherapy for a year in Germany. As Hitler was ascending to power, she resided with a Jewish family in Berlin. While in Europe, she also visited Russia shortly after Stalin’s purge of 1938. Those experiences in totalitarian states further deepened her interest in working for social justice and human rights.
Whittier fired Dr. Hooker and several of her colleagues for their liberal political beliefs. She was subsequently hired by UCLA as an adjunct faculty member. According to the department chairman, she was relegated to that status because the Psychology Department faculty (all but three of whom were men) were unwilling to appoint another woman to a tenure-track position.
In 1951, she married Edward Niles Hooker, a distinguished UCLA professor of English and the man she called her “true love.” He died suddenly in 1957, a loss that deeply pained her.
Dr. Hooker is best known for her psychological research in the 1950s and 1960s with gay men.
Her studies were innovative in several important respects. Rather than simply accepting the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is a pathology, she used the scientific method to test this assumption. And rather than studying homosexual psychiatric patients, she recruited a sample of gay men who were functioning normally in society.
For her best known study, published in 1957 in The Journal of Projective Techniques, she recruited 30 homosexual males and 30 heterosexual males through community organizations in the Los Angeles area. The two groups were matched for age, IQ, and education. None of the men were in therapy at the time of the study.
She administered three projective tests to the men — the Rorschach inkblot test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and the Make-A-Picture-Story (MAPS) Test). Then she asked outside experts to use the test data to rate each man’s mental health. Although today it seems like an obvious safeguard against bias, Dr. Hooker’s was the first published study to utilize raters who did not know the sexual orientation of the study participants.
Using the Rorschach data, two of the independent experts evaluated the men’s overall adjustment using a 5-point scale. They classified two-thirds of the heterosexuals and two-thirds of the homosexuals in the three highest categories of adjustment.
Hooker presented the judges with the 60 Rorschach protocols in random order and asked them to identify each man’s sexual orientation. Only six of the homosexual men and six of the heterosexual men were correctly identified by both judges. She later gave the judges another opportunity, this time presenting them with matched pairs of protocols, one from a homosexual man and one from a heterosexual. Only 12 of the 30 pairs elicited correct responses from both judges.
A third expert used the TAT and MAPS protocols to evaluate the men’s psychological adjustment. As with the Rorschach responses, the adjustment ratings of the homosexuals and heterosexuals did not differ significantly.
Dr. Hooker concluded from her data that homosexuality is not a clinical entity and that homosexuality is not inherently associated with psychopathology. Her findings have since been replicated by other investigators using a variety of research methods.
In retrospect, we can see that Dr. Hooker’s main hypothesis — that no group differences in psychological distress should exist between heterosexual and homosexual samples — actually applied too strict a test. We know today that some members of stigmatized groups manifest elevated rates of psychological distress — for example, because of the stress imposed on them by social ostracism, harassment, discrimination, and violence. Such correlations don’t mean that group membership is itself a pathology.
By documenting that well-adjusted homosexuals not only existed but in fact were numerous, Dr. Hooker’s research demonstrated that the illness model had no scientific basis. She helped to lay the foundation for the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and for the American Psychological Association’s subsequent commitment to removing the stigma that has historically been attached to homosexuality.
Dr. Hooker died at her Santa Monica home on November 18, 1996. Her pioneering research and remarkable life were honored with awards from numerous professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, and many advocacy and community groups.
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For more information, see the 1992 Oscar-nominated documentary, Changing Our Minds The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker.
A biographical sketch and a selected bibliography of Dr. Hooker’s publications can be found on my website.
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Postscript. Although homosexuality has not been classified as a mental disorder in the United States for decades, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) still lists several diagnoses related to homosexuality (although not homosexuality itself) as pathological. For example, “ego-dystonic” sexual orientation, which was removed from the DSM in the 1980s, remains in the ICD.
In preparation for the upcoming 11th edition of the ICD, the World Health Organization created a Working Group on the Classification of Sexual Disorders and Sexual Health to review these diagnoses. In a report released this summer, the Working Group, headed by Prof. Susan Cochran of UCLA, recommended that all of them be eliminated.
The Working Group’s recommendations will be reviewed by the ministers of health from more than 170 WHO countries, including Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and other nations where sexual stigma is enshrined in law.
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This entry is an expanded and updated version of a 2008 Beyond Homophobia post.