Medicine

“A fact of life – not a crime”

WUSM psychiatrists Marcel T. Saghir and Eli Robins.

Fifty years ago today the Stonewall uprising began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. In the 1960s, as in preceding decades, police commonly raided bars that catered to gay and lesbian clientele on the pretext of liquor license violations. This was the case at Stonewall when officers belonging to the NYPD’s now-defunct Public Morals Squad raided the Stonewall Inn because of supposed liquor law abuses. Although the four nights of violence that began with the raid of the Stonewall Inn did not originate the gay liberation movement[1], nor was it the first time gays fought back against police abuses[2], Stonewall was a historic turning point in gay civil rights movement. The first anniversary of the uprising, known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, became the first Gay Pride event.

Nearly two decades before Stonewall, in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I). This manual classified homosexuality as a paraphilia – a sexual perversion or deviation. That a professional organization like the APA would label homosexuality as abnormal and deviant had a significantly negative impact on gay men and women, who already faced constant religious bigotry and discrimination or blackmail directly related to laws criminalizing gay sexual acts. The APA’s classification only served to further legitimize these views by classifying homosexual individuals as inherently “sick,” thereby inferring homosexuality was something to be cured through medical intervention.

The APA’s de facto consideration of homosexuality as a pathological condition was especially unfortunate in light of the research studies on male and female sexuality published by researchers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, most famously “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) by Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, and W.B. Saunders. The book introduced the public to the now-iconic “Kinsey Scale” that places human sexuality on a scale of 0-6 from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. Not long after the DSM-I was published, psychologist Evelyn Hooker published her study proving that experienced psychologists could not determine her test subjects’ sexuality by evaluating their unmarked psychological profiles. The results of her study issued a direct challenge to the association between homosexuality and psychopathology that psychiatrists and psychologists typically presumed.[3]

At Washington University School of Medicine in the early 1970s, psychiatrists Marcel T. Saghir and Eli Robins determined to undertake a study of homosexuality and psychopathology from a starting position of neutrality; that is, they attempted to “describe the natural history of this relatively common phenomenon” while keeping sexual orientation itself as a neutral variable.

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