National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Task Force on Homosexuality, established by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1967 and chaired by noted psychologist Evelyn Hooker, issued a report that called for rethinking homosexuality as normal sexual expression. The report, along with later scientific research and social activism, led to the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 and to changing social and cultural attitudes in the United States.

Summary of Event

On October 10, 1969, the National Institute of Mental Health National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Task Force on Homosexuality released a twenty-five-page report that proposed the establishment of a center for the study of sexual behavior. The center would have an applied clinical program directed toward research, education, and treatment, accompanied by a social policy program aimed at reducing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The task force report was suppressed by the administration of U.S. president Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;gay and lesbian rights , although it was widely distributed among the homophile population (as the gay and lesbian community called itself at that time). Homosexuality National Institute of Mental Health Gay rights [kw]National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality (Oct. 10, 1969) [kw]Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality, National Institute of (Oct. 10, 1969)[Mental Health Report Normalizes Homosexuality, National Institute of] [kw]Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality, National Institute of Mental Health (Oct. 10, 1969)[Report Normalizes Homosexuality, National Institute of Mental Health] [kw]Homosexuality, National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” (Oct. 10, 1969) Homosexuality National Institute of Mental Health Gay rights [g]North America;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] [g]United States;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 10, 1969: National Institute of Mental Health Report “Normalizes” Homosexuality[10480] Hooker, Evelyn Yolles, Stanley F. Kinsey, Alfred Klopfer, Bruno

The task force had been established in 1967 by the NIMH and its director Stanley F. Yolles. Yolles asked Evelyn Hooker to chair the task force and help determine its membership. Fourteen people from the academic, legal, and mental health fields were selected. Hooker was to play a major role on the task force because of her pioneering NIMH-funded research with a nonclinical, noninstitutionalized sample of gay men (results published in 1957). Earlier work by psychologists and psychiatrists had focused on gays within mental health or prison networks.

While teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the mid-1940’s, Hooker was encouraged by her student Sam From to conduct research that involved his gay friends. From provided the initial introductions, which led to further connections to the gay community. For many reasons gays and lesbians most often were “in the closet” prior to and including this time period. Homosexual sex was a crime, gays were deemed unfit for military or government service, and psychiatry pathologized homosexuality as a mental illness (in, for example, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association) or DSM, of 1952 and later editions). Also, religion believed homosexuality was sinful, and politicians condemned gays and lesbians as “moral perverts.” Speeches by Republican senator Joseph McCarthy initially focused on the “dangers” of communism, but by the 1950’s he began targeting lesbians and gays as “security risks.”

Repression against gays and lesbians continued through the 1950’s and 1960’s despite the pioneering research of Alfred Kinsey, who had broadened public understanding of sexuality in general with his widely read Sexual Behavior in the Human Male Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Kinsey) (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Kinsey) (1953). The 1948 study of male sexuality was especially shocking to readers, who had traditional ideas about sexuality. Kinsey demonstrated that sexual orientation was not a binary category, that is, it was not a case of either/or. Instead, sexual orientation consisted of many gradations between socially acceptable heterosexuality and socially unacceptable homosexuality. These gradations could be plotted on what came to be called the Kinsey scale. Kinsey’s research also demonstrated that high numbers of men had experienced sexual encounters with other men.

Hooker used Kinsey’s studies as the foundation for her own research because she was focusing on a minority community that had been termed “deviant” by society. Despite strong social prohibitions against homosexuality, Hooker managed to obtain funding in 1953 from the NIMH. Her study collected responses to Rorschach Rorschach test inkblot tests from thirty gay men from a nonclinical population and from thirty heterosexual men. These responses were scored by several experts, including Bruno Klopfer, who had introduced the Rorschach to academics in the United States and was its most respected proponent. The Rorschach test at that time was assumed to be an ideal test for identifying homosexuality and mental-health aberrations, and it was the most popular projective test in clinical psychology. The Rorschach test also was used by the U.S. military; a “group Rorschach” had been used by the Army to screen out homosexual recruits since 1945.

The results of Hooker’s study appeared in the Journal of Projective Techniques in 1957. She demonstrated that specialists could not determine sexual orientation based on the Rorschach responses, and that the homosexual respondents were as mentally healthy as the heterosexual respondents. The results of her research were made available to gays and lesbians through the Mattachine Review, published by the Mattachine Foundation Mattachine Society (later the Mattachine Society), and The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis Daughters of Bilitis .

Alfred Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality helped broaden public conceptions of “normal” sexual behavior.

(Library of Congress)

Hooker’s groundbreaking work propelled her into the limelight, and it encouraged additional studies on the mental health and well-being of gays and lesbians. The study also led to further positive interactions with leaders of gay and lesbian activist organizations, including Harry Hay, Hal Call, and Donald Stewart Lucas of the Mattachine Foundation and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon of the Daughters of Bilitis. It also led to the creation of the NIMH’s Task Force on Homosexuality.

Significance

The task force’s final report was completed a few months after the June, 1969, Stonewall rebellion in New York City, where gays, lesbians, and transgender people resisted arrest by police officers following a raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Committee members would have been aware of the raid, the rebellion, and subsequent activism, which underscored the central message of their report: tolerance of sexual diversity and promotion of minority rights.

Despite the Nixon administration blocking the formal release of the task force report, the report did eventually filter out to gay and lesbian activists. Beginning in 1970, activists demonstrated before conferences of both medical and mental health specialists, calling for the elimination of homosexuality from the DSM. The American Psychiatric Association would declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. Ultimately, these changes appeared in later editions of the DSM and helped in the struggle for legal equality for American citizens of all sexual orientations. Homosexuality National Institute of Mental Health Gay rights

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bayer, Andrew Boxer, and Joseph Carrier. “Evelyn Hooker: A Life Remembered.” Journal of Homosexuality 36 (January, 1998): 1-17. A biography of Hooker that focuses on her scientific contributions that demonstrate homosexual mental health.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Presents the historical context of the decade in which the NIMH task force issued its report on homosexuality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duberman, Martin. About Time: Exploring the Gay Past. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1986. Provides primary source documents from 1826 to 1965, with accompanying explanatory essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hegarty, Peter. “Homosexual Signs and Heterosexual Silences: Rorschach Research on Male Homosexuality from 1921 to 1969.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12 (July, 2003): 400-423. An introduction to the Rorschach inkblot test and how scientists used it to “diagnose” homosexuality and mental health.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hooker, Evelyn. “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual.” Journal of Projective Techniques 21 (1957): 18-31. The first academic published research documenting the good mental health of a nonclinical sample of gay men compared to a sample of non-gay men.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. A good account of the government’s role in the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Cold War period in U.S. history. Also discusses social activism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., A Documentary History. 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992. A classic in the history of homosexuality that provides primary sources documenting the years 1966 to 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. http://www.kinseyinstitute.org. An excellent resource for studies of sexuality. Includes the institute’s Sexuality Information Service for Students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meeker, Martin. “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950’s and 1960’s.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10 (January, 2001): 78-116. Presents a history of the Mattachine Foundation, which developed into the Mattachine Society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minton, Henry L. Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. A detailed discussion of the historic foundations to the NIMH decision and its outcomes.

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