Monday, March 1, 2010

Check out this fascinating history of the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)-III. This was a critically important early post-Stonewall victory. The visibility of the gay rights and feminist movements and the improvements in the economic opportunities for women made it more possible than ever in the early-mid 1970's for women who had married men to come out, leave their marriages, and development same-sex relationships. But there was a catch. Ex-husbands could and did use lesbianism as a basis to deny a mother custody of her children.

As long as homosexuality was a mental disorder, it was virtually impossible for a lesbian mother to claim the right to custody of her children. After all, she had a mental illness. The removal of homosexuality from the DSM-III transformed that mother into a parent with a legitimate claim that her lesbianism should not be automatic grounds for denying her custody. Forward thinking judges began awarding custody to openly lesbian mothers, even in some surprising states (South Carolina comes to mind).

Well, I thought I knew the history of the change in the DSM-III, but an episode of This American Life that aired this past weekend contains a level of detail that I never knew and also has interviews with some of the key players. I always knew about the gay psychiatrist who spoke to the association in disguise because he was afraid to be identified, but the interview with this "Dr. Anonymous" is a priceless piece of gay history. The episode presents kitchen table strategy sessions and other meetings and discussions in a way that illuminates the micro level at which the change came about. It's a nice touch that the narrating journalist's grandfather played a pivotal role in the change and that it's his kitchen table that the journalist presents.

The APA change cleared the way for further progress in defending lesbian and gay parents. For example, in 1976 the American Psychological Association passed a resolution opposing use of sexual orientation as a primary component in custody, adoption, or foster-parenting determinations. This would have been unthinkable without the change in the DSM-III.

The episode is a great listen.

1 comment:

sara said...

When I was in library school, I did an independent study project that looked at Library of Congress subject headings relating to homosexuality and how those subject headings have changed over time. I found that significant changes occurred after homosexuality ceased to be considered a mental disorder. It was a fascinating project, and it made me appreciate the DSM change even more.