Promiscuous Interdisciplinarity, Part 7: Science and Sexuality: Mental Health and Homosexuality in Post-1973 America

AHA Session 151
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 8
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Murray Hill Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Susan K. Cahn, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
Susan K. Cahn, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

This panel is intended to be part of the Committee on LGBT History's "Promiscuous Interdisciplinarity" special track of programming.

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness often serves as an end point for historians studying the intersection between mental health and homosexuality. However, this panel demonstrates that 1973 is not the end of the story, but the start of a new one. Taking an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes scientific developments around sexuality, this panel charts the ways in which mental health and politics intersected after the declassification.

Debbie Weinstein’s paper analyzes how cultural views of family life and homosexuality impacted the practice of family therapists during the 1980s and 1990s. In a shift from their earlier indifference to sexuality, family therapists began to understand homosexuality as an important dimension of family dynamics, with sexuality becoming an issue for which families and couples sought treatment. By drawing on social history and science studies, Weinstein examines how family therapy adapted to meet the shifting needs of American families.

Similarly, Emily Johnson takes up the question of changing medical theories and therapies, using gender studies and religious studies to examine the rise of ex-gay ministries in the wake of the APA declassification. While only some ex-gay ministries were explicitly linked to political projects, all became central to conservative Christians’ political responses to the gay rights movement. In addition to tracing the emergence of a controversial therapeutic practice, Johnson’s paper highlights the shifting theological impetus for ex-gay ministries, revealing how religion has informed the evolving science of sexuality.

Marie-Amelie George’s work combines methodologies from law and history to examine the relationship between mental health and sexuality in context of lesbian custody rights. Courts adjudicating custody disputes often based their decisions on whether a parent’s sexual orientation would have a negative psychological impact on the child, leading scientists to undertake research on the subject. By employing a legal lens, George is able to uncover how judicial demands shaped research agendas, demonstrating how interdisciplinary is crucial to answering historical questions.

Taking another interdisciplinary approach, Mathias Danbolt draws on performance theory to highlight the continuing history of aversion therapy. Through the lens of Mary Coble’s 2007 performance of aversion therapy before an American audience, Danbolt analyzes how historical practices for treating homosexuality shape the ways in which injustice is understood today. His paper questions the idea that historians can bracket the intersection between psychiatry and homosexuality into distinct time periods, using interdisciplinary methods to emphasize the fluidity between past and present.            

This panel demonstrates the necessity of bridging multiple disciplines to understand the history of sexuality in modern America. Science, politics, religious studies, gender studies, law, and performance theory each provide crucial lenses that historians must use to understand the driving forces behind gay and lesbian history. By embracing a multidisciplinary approach, this panel revises the history of science and sexuality, extending its contours far past the traditional ending of the APA’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness.

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