In terms of queer history, 1973 is most often remembered in New Orleans as the year of the horrific Up Stairs Lounge fire. Understandably so—the fire claimed 32 lives and remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history. June 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the fire.
This year, however, also marks another golden anniversary. 50 years ago, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. This decision went a long way in effecting a paradigm shift in the way society views queerness. No longer being classified as a mentally disturbed sexual deviant by the medical establishment was an important early step in changing the public’s attitude toward homosexuality.
Describing the APA classification’s effect on the Gay Liberation Movement, Barbara Gittings called the mental disorder diagnosis as “an albatross around our necks.”
The mental health establishment’s attitude toward queerness had for decades been reinforced by the fact the APA had officially classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
The first DSM, published in 1952, described homosexuality as a “sexual deviation” and a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”
The second edition (1968) classified it as a “non-psychotic mental disorder.”
By 1970, LGBT+ activists had enough.
At the 1970 APA convention, activists secretly infiltrated the convention and heckled presenters. Many well-known activists began calling on the APA to remove the mental disorder classification. These included Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Ron Gold and Rev. Magora Kennedy, among others.
If these activists were banging on the APA’s gates from the outside, there were also members of the medical establishment attempting to effect change from within, chief among them Lawrence Hartmann, Evelyn Hooker, Charles Silverstein, Gerald Davison, and Jack Drescher.
Of course, there was opposition. The decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM was far from unanimous. Homophobic therapist Charles Socarides, whose son is gay and who made a lot of money “curing” gay men, railed against the decision and began to appear regularly on television talk shows hawking his conversion practice and a book he had written called, The Overt Homosexual.
One psychologist who believed in conversion therapy, for a while anyway, was Gerald Davison. Davison promoted “Playboy Therapy” aggressively, publishing articles and even making a short film about it. Davison’s approach caught the attention of Charles Silverstein, another clinical psychologist, who was gay. Frustrated that Davison was missing a larger point, Silverstein invited Davison to a symposium he had organized at the 1972 Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) convention.
At the symposium, Silverstein argued that Davison’s new treatment was only propagating the status quo. Davison was angry at first because his motives, at least in his own mind, were pure. “I didn’t think homosexuality was an illness, nor a perversion. But I thought they were making a voluntary decision, and I saw it as my duty to help them through it.”
A nerve, however, had been touched and a dialogue started. As the film expertly illustrates, Silverstein eventually convinced Davison to abandon conversion therapy altogether. To paraphrase, the crux of Silverstein’s argument was that people seeking conversion therapy do not do it voluntarily; rather, they do it because they feel guilt and shame and loneliness, which are imposed on them by societal mores. Davison’s epiphany led him to conclude that conversion therapy should not even be offered, even if clients requested it. His mantra became, “The question is not can we turn gay men straight, but rather should we?”
Davison’s story was the subject of a recent documentary, Conversion (2022). Davison’s story, however, is just one of many in the overall struggle to remove homosexuality from the DSM. Three other documentaries about the APA’s change of heart are Independent Lens (2021), Cured (2020), Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker (1992).
In Rise and Fall of the Medical Model, Vernon Rosario wrote, “In the span of a century, the diagnosis of homosexuality had come full circle, from being ‘discovered’ as a profound psychiatric illness to being a normal variation of human sexuality. This history serves as a powerful example of the social and political malleability of supposedly objective scientific knowledge.”
The APA voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in December of 1973. That vote paved the way for gay liberationists to transform society. The gay men who died at the UpStairs Lounge in June of 1973 could never have imagined how far we’ve come since then.