The Grande Dame of Gay Liberation : Evelyn Hooker’s Friendship With a UCLA Student Spurred Her to Studies That Changed the Way Psychiatrists View Homosexuality
THE SUMMER SUN beat down mercilessly as the Gay Pride Parade made its way along Santa Monica Boulevard. Leading the lively parade in a white Cadillac convertible was a striking woman whose strong, chiseled face resembles Golda Meir’s. Evelyn Hooker, retired UCLA psychology professor, would seem an unlikely grand marshal. But as she smiled and waved to the crowd lined up five deep on both sides of the parade route, dozens of spectators rushed up to greet her by name and cheer her on. Many others, however, were probably wondering how a woman who calls herself “hopelessly heterosexual” had come to occupy the place of honor at the Los Angeles gay community’s biggest annual event.
Three decades earlier, Hooker published a paper in which she cautiously concluded that homosexuality was not a mental illness, as most psychiatrists assumed. Experts agree that it was the first careful, controlled scientific study of the mental health of gay people. When the American Psychiatric Assn. decided to remove homosexuality from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders in 1973, Hooker’s study was a major piece of evidence used to attack the idea that homosexuality was a sickness--a psychopathological condition, in the jargon of psychiatry. “It was the reference point we always went back to,” says Dr. Judd Marmor, a former APA president and a leading proponent of “de-pathologizing” homosexuality.
Hooker, now 82 and retired, lives alone in the sunny Santa Monica apartment she has occupied for the past 20 years. Slowed by a bad back and other health problems, she retains a commanding yet warm presence. As she talks about scholarly research on sexual behavior, it is easy to see why former students describe her as charismatic: Her enthusiasm for the material is contagious. At the same time, she takes a keen interest in people, and the unwary interviewer, flattered by the attention of her searching intelligence, can find himself answering Hooker’s questions instead of asking his own. She is a woman of strongly held opinions, but she will as often as not answer a question with a “I’m not sure about that. What do you think?” An accomplished raconteur, she enjoys telling her stories and often breaks into a hearty laugh. At the end of one anecdote, she says with mocking self-importance, “I usually require an audience of at least a thousand to tell that one.”
But when Hooker leans back in her armchair, enveloped in cigarette smoke and lost in thought, one can imagine her listening intently to the patients who came to her during the 15 years she was a psychotherapist. “When you talk to her, you instantly feel the difference,” says Los Angeles artist Don Bachardy, a longtime friend. “Most people don’t listen. Evelyn does.” Though she no longer practices or teaches, she continues to read voraciously and frequently serves as a consultant on papers and manuscripts relating to sexuality and homosexuality. In fact, she had to delay one interview until she finished reviewing a series of papers from an “AIDS and Sex” conference at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction.
Upon reflection, Hooker is at a loss to explain why she didn’t share the pervasive prejudice against homosexuality that was more common when she first began her research in the late 1940s. Some of it she attributes to her warm feelings for the remarkable group of gay men with whom she was friendly: Christopher Isherwood, the novelist and outspoken gay-rights advocate who died in 1986, Don Bachardy (Isherwood’s lover) and poet W. H. Auden, among others. For a time, Isherwood lived in a cottage on the grounds of Hooker’s Brentwood house. “Christopher was an interesting mixture of two character traits,” Hooker recalls, “an absolutely compelling sense of humor and a deadly seriousness.”
Earlier in life, she observed acts of prejudice against ethnic minorities, which may have affected her feelings about the treatment of outsiders of any kind. During a fellowship in Europe in 1937, she lived with a Jewish family in Berlin. She became close to them and, though she never witnessed the worst anti-Semitic persecutions, she watched as members of the family were taunted in school, lost jobs and went to prison. Although Hooker is not Jewish, a mezuza--a Jewish ceremonial object attached to the door frame of a house--hangs in her home. “It was here when I moved in,” she says, “and I couldn’t take it down.”
EVELYN Hooker started her professional life as a researcher in animal psychology, at one time studying the behavior of neurotic rats. Born to a poor farming family in Nebraska in 1907, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. After working at several colleges, she came to UCLA in 1939. While teaching an introductory night class during the latter part of World War II, she met a student who changed her life.
“It quickly became clear that Sam From was very bright,” she recalls. For his part, From went away from the first session of Hooker’s class and told friends that his new teacher was “another Eleanor Roosevelt"--a woman of high ideals who spoke her mind. The two became friendly when From offered his professor a ride home after class. When the course ended, From called on Hooker and her first husband, Don Caldwell, a Hollywood screenwriter. After From’s first visit, Caldwell said, “You told me everything else about him. Why didn’t you tell me he was queer?” Hooker had never given the matter any thought and asked her husband how he knew. “He did everything but fly out the kitchen window,” he replied. Surprised, Hooker accepted the information easily and continued the friendship.
From and his lover spent a good deal of time with Hooker and her husband. On one occasion, the two couples went to San Francisco and took in the drag show at the Finocchio Club, the famous North Beach nightspot. Back at the Fairmont Hotel, From told her: “Now we have let you see us as we are. It is your scientific duty to do a study of people like us.”
Hooker insisted that she couldn’t undertake such a project. As a “rat-runner,” she worried that human behavior was not her area of expertise. In any case, she was already teaching 18 hours a week as well as conducting animal experiments. But From kept pressing her. He eventually won her over and persuaded her to begin the research. Hooker began to administer psychological tests to gay men whom she recruited through From. But she abandoned the project when she went to teach at Bryn Mawr College after the breakup of her marriage in 1947. She returned to UCLA the following year and married Edward Hooker, an English literature professor on campus, in 1951. (He died six years later.) She resumed her research on gay men, and shortly thereafter, From died in an auto accident as he was returning from the Salton Sea. “It was just before Christmas,” Hooker says. “He was always a very generous person--he had made all the (holiday) preparations. All his friends, myself included, were absolutely devastated.”
After From’s death, Hooker continued to pursue her research, but she realized that she would need a comparison group of heterosexual men if she ever hoped to publish her findings.
With a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954, Hooker was ready to proceed in earnest. She believed that there would not be a statistically significant difference between the test results of heterosexual and homosexual men. “How could my hypothesis have been anything else?” she asks. “I’d seen these men and saw nothing psychopathological in their behavior.”
Hooker had little trouble recruiting 30 homosexual subjects. By this time, she had dozens of gay friends and acquaintances, including members of the Mattachine Society, the pioneering gay liberation group founded in Los Angeles in 1951. Finding heterosexual subjects proved more difficult. She canvassed the education secretaries of labor unions, thinking that they would have liberal attitudes. “I was wrong,” she says; as soon as she explained the nature of the study, no one wanted to participate. Not only was there the traditional moralistic taboo against homosexuality but also anti-Communist witch-hunting targeted “sexual perverts” along with the politically unorthodox. So Hooker took to collaring candidates wherever she could find them, including a fireman who showed up to inspect her home. “No man is safe on Saltair Avenue,” joked her husband.
Subjects in place, Hooker began the long and demanding testing. Each of the 60 subjects was given an IQ test and three projective personality tests widely used at the time: the Rorschach test, the Thematic Apperception Test and the Make A Picture Story test. The Rorschach test requires subjects to describe ambiguously shaped ink blots. In the Thematic Apperception Test, the subject is asked to describe and make up stories about human images. The picture test is similar, except that the subject is asked to place cut-out figures in a variety of settings, such as a living room, a street or a bedroom, and then tell stories about them.
Hooker submitted the test results to three judges, all recognized psychological experts, who did not know whether a subject was homosexual or heterosexual. First, they evaluated each test and assigned a rating of overall psychological adjustment on a scale of 1 (superior) to 5 (maladjusted). On all three tests, two-thirds of the heterosexuals and homosexuals were assigned a rating of 3 (average) or better. Next, the judges were presented with pairs of tests and asked to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual. They were able to do so no more accurately than if they had been flipping a coin.
The judges’ shock is readily apparent in Hooker’s description of their efforts: “As a judge compared the matched protocols (results), he would frequently comment, ‘There are no clues’ or ‘These are so similar that you are out to skin us alive’ or ‘I just have to guess.’ ” Before he became a judge in the project, Edwin Shneidman, inventor of the picture test, had assumed that he would be able to pick out a homosexual with no trouble. By way of comparison, he says that “if you showed me the protocols for 30 schizophrenics, I’d be surprised if I didn’t get 28.” What Hooker’s test proved, he says, is that “homosexuality is not a diagnostic category.”
Hooker recalls that when Shneidman was analyzing one subject’s picture test, he went through the living room, bathroom and street scenes, saying, “This is as heterosexual as I’ve seen.” When he turned to the bedroom scene, he discovered that the subject had placed two male figures--one naked, one clothed--in bed together. “He’s heterosexual everywhere but the bedroom,” he said and then burst out laughing.
“That was a paradigmatic moment of the study,” Shneidman now says.
Hooker published her findings, titled “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” in the Journal of Projective Techniques in 1957. Criticism sprang up almost immediately. Dr. Irving Bieber, a psychoanalyst and leading proponent of the view that homosexuality is an illness, wrote in 1962 that “the tests themselves or the current methods of interpretation and evaluation are inadequate to the task of discriminating between homosexuals and heterosexuals.” Years later, however, researchers confirmed Hooker’s results.
AFTER THE publication of her paper, Hooker continued her research but began to approach the gay community as an anthropologist might. She visited Los Angeles gay bars to better understand how homosexuals lived. “Quite early on, I began to have a sense that there was a gigantic intercommunicating network,” she says. “If the larger body politic has a community and gay people are left out of it--or think they are--they are going to form one of their own.”
Whenever the opportunity arose, Hooker dashed off to a bar with a gay friend or her graduate assistant for an evening of observation. Over the course of a decade, she interviewed hustlers, drag queens, as well as less-colorful patrons. She focused on bars because of their central place in gay society. In the days before gay volleyball leagues and clubs for gay bankers or bikers, the bars were practically the only social forum available to homosexuals.
As a woman--and almost 6 feet tall to boot--she stood out in the all-male environments. She never took notes for fear of standing out even more. The fact that she usually went with a known patron of the bar smoothed the way for her. Generally, she didn’t worry about what might happen if the police showed up. One time, however, she asked an attorney if she would have any problems if the police stopped her while driving with a man in drag. “Stay the hell out of the car,” the lawyer advised, and Hooker did.
Just entering a gay bar at that time was dangerous enough: Police raids were common well into the 1960s. As a precaution, she obtained a letter signed by the UCLA chancellor explaining the nature of her research; she carried that letter for 20 years but never had occasion to use it.
Hooker modestly downplays her bar studies, saying they weren’t systematic enough. But they were published in a number of scholarly journals and prompted more thorough studies of bar culture and other aspects of gay life. And her writings about the gay community and its social institutions were ahead of their time: As she noted in a 1956 article, “many homosexuals are beginning to think of themselves as constituting a minority, sharing many of the problems of other minority groups, having to struggle for their ‘rights’ against the prejudices of a dominant heterosexual majority.”
By the late 1960s, Hooker was recognized within the scholarly community as a leading authority on homosexual behavior and was asked by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health to head its Task Force on Homosexuality. The group recommended decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults and psychiatric treatment for homosexuals who desired it. Hooker acknowledges that she may have been too optimistic in hoping that all its recommendations--including the establishment of a center for the study of sexual behavior--would be implemented. Nevertheless, the report expressed a more compassionate approach and encouraged a flowering of research during the next two decades.
In 1970, Hooker went into private practice in Westwood as a psychotherapist. At the same time she was changing her life, the American gay community was undergoing a revolution. On June 27, 1969, a group of lesbians and gay men, including drag queens and young runaways, rioted after a routine police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Two nights of rock- and bottle-throwing ensued, and the name Stonewall became a byword for American gay liberation. In the following years, gay organizing picked up momentum, and a panoply of gay liberation groups emerged.
Gay activists began targeting psychiatry, contending that it had taken over the traditional role of religion in supporting cultural and social prejudice against homosexuality. They alleged that labeling homosexuals as sick was the justification for keeping sodomy laws in place and for practicing job discrimination. The gay patient who went to a psychiatrist usually embarked on a course of individual or group therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation. In the newer behavioral approach, gay men were given electric shocks when shown pictures of nude men to extinguish sexual desire for them. In 1972, the Gay Activist Alliance staged a demonstration during a meeting of the Assn. for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy to protest the use of aversion techniques.
A short time later, gay activists began meeting with members of the American Psychiatric Assn. to discuss the classification of homosexuality as a psychological disorder. In December, 1973, the APA board of trustees voted to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual while adding the classification “sexual orientation disturbance” for people who are disturbed by their orientation. But the new entry stated that homosexuality “does not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder.”
The decision was vehemently criticized by many within the association, who successfully pushed for a referendum by the entire membership. The membership reaffirmed the board’s decision, although 37% of the members voted against it. Opponents of the change tried to challenge the referendum result on the grounds that the National Gay Task Force had helped organize a mailing to the APA membership. The APA upheld the results of the vote and ruled that no unethical action had taken place.
Hooker says she “did not lift a finger” to influence the APA action, although she was aware of the battle. Bruce Voeller, former president of the Gay Activist Alliance, says that Hooker’s study had a profound influence on the APA--and provided gay people with a positive self-image. “Evelyn’s work gave us the opportunity to stop thinking of ourselves as sick and perverted,” he says. “It is difficult to overestimate how important her contribution is.”
ONE OF HOOKER’S contributions to the research community has been to legitimize homosexuality as a field of study. “She’s stimulated other people to do research on homosexual behavior,” says Joe Carrier, a Los Angeles anthropologist who has studied homosexuality in Mexico and who considers Hooker one of his closest friends. “Over the years, she’s been approached by a number of graduate students for advice, and I don’t think she’s ever turned anyone down.”
According to John De Cecco, editor of the Journal of Homosexuality and professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, gay studies have grown dramatically during the past few years. “First, there was a focus on gay people themselves, which gradually broadened out to the social and political environment,” he says. “The area where research is now going on with the greatest energy is history.” Recent books have looked at subjects as diverse as ancient Greek homosexuality as a social institution and gay people in the American military in World War II.
Hooker points with great interest to new research on racial and ethnic groups within the gay population, including Carrier’s studies of male homosexual behavior in Guadalajara. Carrier found that his subjects classified themselves as active or passive according to their sexual behavior more rigidly than American gay men.
There also has been a surge in homophobia studies. A number of researchers have determined that prejudice against gay people tends to correlate highly with other types of intolerance, such as racism and sexism.
The lesbian community, neglected in the past, is also receiving more attention. Hooker never studied lesbians for two reasons: She did not have the personal entree into the lesbian community that her friendships with gay men gave her, and she thought that a woman researcher--even a married one--could have been undermined by critics who might have questioned her sexuality.
During the course of her professional life, Hooker has witnessed a growing social acceptance of gay people. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, there are between 45 and 50 openly gay and lesbian elected and appointed officials in the United States, including two congressmen. “It trickles down into every area,” she says. “It’s remarkable.” She wishes she could conduct some interviews on gay attitudes toward the larger society. “My hunch is that there would not be as many grievances as there were in 1954.”
But Hooker has her own grievances about an overriding issue in the ‘90s--federal AIDS policy. “The scandalous thing about federal policy is that the expenditures are niggardly,” she says. She also decries the labeling of people with AIDS as guilty victims who have brought the disease upon themselves. “What ought to be involved is an all-out effort of the federal government in the discovery of a cure and a vaccine.”
For years, Hooker was an unsung heroine of the American gay community’s struggle for acceptance and equal rights. Although well known among specialists, she recently has been receiving a good deal of notice, including leading the 1986 Gay Pride Parade. A documentary by filmmaker Richard Schmiechen (who won an Oscar for the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”) is scheduled for broadcast on public television this winter. Last December, she received the Morris Kight Humanitarian Award from the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center “for her compassion, foresight, intelligence and tenacity which has enriched and improved the quality of life for all lesbians and gay men.”
Accepting awards sometimes poses a challenge to Hooker’s speech-making ability. When she was asked to address the Assn. of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, she wondered what she could possibly tell them that they didn’t already know. “I decided to talk about not what I did for them but what they did for me,” she recalls. “Suppose,” she said to them, “I had not started this research. Where would I be today? I’d be doing animal research until the animal activists got to me.” In a more serious vein, she told the group that friendships in the gay world have enriched her life deeply.
“One of the great joys of my life is that I was able to do something for the ordinary man and woman,” she says. Often, people have approached her to thank her for her work. One woman told her that she had been waiting to meet her for years. Her parents had sent her to a sanitarium when they had found out she was a lesbian; the only thing that prevented her from undergoing electroshock treatment was that her doctor had read Hooker’s research. Another time, a pediatrician at a meeting of gay health workers came forward. “I hunted everywhere for some encouraging word about my homosexuality,” he told her, tears streaming down his face. “And I didn’t find it until I read your work.”
Says Hooker: “I’m gratified that my work had an effect on the APA, but what really brings joy to my heart is that somehow it reached those people I wanted it to reach.”