Not until nearly three decades into my life could I begin living as my complete self. My journey out of those early years from shame into pride and defiance evolved the way people often come into our own, through movements for social change.
It Happens Every Time Women Try to Break Free
“The subject of Lesbianism
is very ordinary: it’s the question
of male domination that makes everybody
Judy Grahn poem, “A History of Lesbianism”
Many lesbians have been committed to mental institutions, sent to prisons, or have taken our own lives. In 1964, as a 23-year-old, closeted schoolteacher in Louisville, Kentucky, I was diagnosed “paranoid schizophrenic” by an incompetent, straight, white, male psychiatrist. This doctor insinuated that I had no chance of a healthy, normal life and suggested commitment to a mental institution in Chicago. He justified his prognosis merely because as a lesbian I struggled with my inability to continue the pretense of being straight
I sat alone in his office faced with his authority and fell into internalized homophobia. All those deeply buried feelings of not being normal, of harboring unnatural feelings for women validated by this doctor. Not until I walked out of that office did I find support for throwing off his homophobic lies. The enlightened minister’s wife, whom I had fallen in love with, sat waiting outside for me. The love we shared defied any of the lies this doctor had uttered. She assured me being a lesbian was quite normal.
Years later after my move to California, a lesbian friend, not as fortunate, became enamored with a straight woman who had her picked up on a complaint – singing outside the woman’s window. Because my friend had a history of suspected mental illness, the cops hauled her off to Napa, the infamous California mental institution. Our lesbian household in Berkeley received a phone call too late to prevent this action, so we planned regular visits to Napa.
As soon as you walked onto the grounds, you entered a dichotomized reality – zombie-like paces of everyone except yourself and the hospital workers. Most of the patients trudged along drugged with Thorazine (Chlorpromazine). It is a psychiatric drug put on the market in early ‘50s and used widely in the ‘70s, especially in state mental hospitals, to treat schizophrenia. Patients and many doctors referred to it as a chemical lobotomy because it affects the frontal lobe of the brain. Thorazine has severe side effects, muscle stiffness, difficulty speaking, loss of balance, blank expression, dizziness, uncontrollable movements, confusion.
During one of our visits, women overheard our conversation and joined us. Occasionally, we suspended our chatting as individual inmates were summoned to the center nurse station for daily drug doses. We published some of their poetry and writings in It Ain’t Me Babe, our feminist newspaper. Women wanted us to realize that they were not crazy and not so different from us. Most were poor, maybe lesbians committed by families or husbands, or just considered not normal. They were mothers of children that they could not raise alone, or women who had rebelled. They might just be our other luck of the draw.
On a last visit, two of us tried to break out our friend from the clutches of Napa and almost ended lock-up ourselves! After our friend’s release, she suffered many side effects for weeks until the drugs evaporated from her system. I later wrote a song for her and women committed against their will.
See the woman dressed in hospital green
how they’ve shot her up with Thorazine.
So she ain’t coming back
to stand with you and me.
It happens every time wymon try to break free.
They’ll fry our minds and twist our souls with their lies
that are thousands of years old.
They want you not to know and not to see
all the plans they’ve made for you and me.
It happens every time wymon try to live free.
Militant lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists, and the cultural changes emerging from social protest movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s forced the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Prior to this in 1953, Evelyn Hooker, professor of psychology at the University of California, pioneered studies on male homosexuality. Her work throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s challenged the prevalent belief that homosexuality was a sickness. To this day, the Hooker study is the only paper referenced in detail on the main website of the American Psychological Association in discussion about gay and lesbian issues. The Hooker study provided some of the documentation the APA used to remove homosexuality from the list of psychological disorders. Her research declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, but a normal minority variant on human sexuality.
Del Martin also pioneered the struggle by publishing an account of a 1958, KPFA radio program, “The Homosexual in Society”, in the January 1959 edition of The Ladder, the official publication of the Daughters of Bilitis. She became a leader in the campaign to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness.
Struggles still followed as some APA members forced a compromise position calling for a diagnosis of Sexual Orientation Disturbance (SOD), which stated that only those homosexuals having a conflict with their orientation had this mental disorder. In the 1980’s, the SOD diagnosis was challenged and replaced with ego-dystonic homosexuality (EDH). That diagnosis was finally removed in 1987. In decades following another APA diagnosis, GID has drawn protest from trans and transsexual communities for its label of gender diversity, gender transition and medical transition care as mental illness and sexual deviance. This vestige of transphobia must also be removed. The GID diagnosis has also been used by right wing politicians to block legislation to guarantee housing and employment rights to transpersons.
I am a circle, I am healing you.
You are a circle, You are healing me.
Unite us, be as one.
Unite us, be as one.
-Attributed to Adele Getty
Hilary White, The Mother of the Homosexual Movement – Evelyn Hooker PhD. Last Updated: July 16, 2007, Last Accessed September 24, 2011, http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/archive/ldn/1970/71/7071603
 Equality California, Last Updated August 27, 2008, Last Accessed September 24, 2011 http://www.eqca.org/site/pp.asp?c=kuLRJ9MRKrH&b=4445141
 LGBT Issues Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP), Last Accessed September 24, 2011 http://www.aglp.org/gap/1_history/#declassification; LGBT Mental Health Syllabus