Why We Need A Recent History of Lesbian and Gay Psychology

Posted: Feb 06, 2018

By Peter Hegarty

On and off, since 1997, I have been teaching courses to psychology students in the USA and in the UK with such titles as “Lesbian and gay perspectives on psychology,” “Critical lesbian and gay psychology” and “LGBT psychology.” There has always been a substantial historical influence on my design of those courses, and those courses have always impacted the substance of my interests in the history of psychology. In those courses, students could write about any topic that was relevant. Their research interests sometimes reflected media framing of the pressing psychological issues for sexual and gender minorities in any given year, and sometimes reflected issues of enduring importance. These past cohorts of students’ understandings of what is relevant and attention-demanding in this field, and the vulnerability of those interests to the media cycle, prompted me to write a book – A Recent History of Lesbian and Gay Psychology: From Homophobia to LGBT – that would give some account of a field whose reality stretched over recent decades rather than the short attention span of the media cycle.

I also wrote this book to challenge psychology’s historians to change the relationship between the margin and the centre that keeps lesbian and gay psychology, and more recently LGBT psychology, at psychology’s periphery. Lesbian and gay psychology exemplifies how psychology seems to find its most important break with its historical past in the 1970s, most obviously in the ‘cognitive revolution.’ In lesbian and gay psychology, a similar 70s break is to be found with the 1973 vote by the American Psychiatric Association’s members to remove homosexuality from the DSM. By positioning this vote at the start of this recent history, I meant to claim that the lesbian and gay affirmative psychologists whose work formed the field in the decades that followed was ‘historical’ in the honorific sense. Beyond the fact that the depathologization of homosexuality is the clearest example of psychiatric demedicalization in recent history, I do not think we can narrate the growth of health psychology without psychology’s engagement with HIV/AIDS. I also describe in this book the American Psychological Association’s legal activism through amicus briefs, as the APA’s lawyers wrote amicus briefs far more frequently for cases concerning the rights of sexual minorities in cases about sodomy, discrimination protection, parenting rights, marital rights and other matters than any other psychological issue (bar none) in recent decades. It is striking how few Foucaultian scholars, with interests in the construction of subjects between the law and the psy- disciplines have attended to this history, and I am not sure that “darker” visions of the psy-complex can survive attending closely to what the APA lawyers attempted and achieved.

Like the students in my modules I took the liberty of writing, somewhat, about what had interested me most in this field. Specifically, I took the of liberty of putting some of my own social psychological research in a historical context. Whilst I think that the strategic importance of lesbian and gay affirmative psychology has been neglected in some quarters, I think that the hypothesis that biological arguments about sexuality have been assumed to have had positive social effects too hastily in others. Social psychologists’ experiments from this period – both my own and other psychologists’ – about the impact of ‘gay genes’ and ‘gay brains’ arguments have much to tell us about what form of psychology is ahead in the road if we look to neuroscience to address societal problems such as prejudice or to formulate a science of the human subject that attempts to escape questions about social values altogether.

This book ends with the American Psychological Association’s 2009 report on gender variance and gender identity. I had intended at one point to bring the book up to ‘the present’ but in the academic year 2015-16 the present was a moving target. I began the year just after the US Supreme Court decision on equal marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, and ended it in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election. In the interim, the shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, trenchant debates about the provision of PrEP to gay and bisexual men by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, the de-legitimation of behaviour modification as a psychiatric treatment for gender variant children, and the increasing evidence that many young people identified beyond the gender binary all informed my thinking. These developments mean that the “lesbian and gay psychology” that I describe here is, as ever, relevant and, as ever, demands re-invention by psychologists who must respond to the challenges that diverse people meet in living their lives. The movement for lesbian and gay liberation once looked outside itself for its metaphors, but it is now implicitly cited as ontologically foundational whenever we ‘come out’ as something other than as homosexual and the suffix ‘-phobia’ is used to describe any irrational fear or hatred (as Vladamir Putin recently did in reference to Russophobia). In a sense we all owe a debt to, and are all ‘lesbian and gay psychologists’ now.

Learn More

Hegarty, P. (2017). On the failure to notice that White people are White: Generating and testing hypotheses in the celebrity guessing game. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 146(1), 41–62.

Teigen, K. H., Böhm, G., Bruckmüller, S., Hegarty, P., & Luminet, O. (2017). Long live the King! Beginnings loom larger than endings of past and recurrent events. Cognition, 163(Supplement C), 26–41.

Author Bio

Dr. Peter Hegarty is Professor of Psychology at the University of Surrey, UK where he leads on the teaching of the history of psychology. His most recent experimental work in psychology has examined thinking about unnoticed Whiteness and the construction of historical events. Explore his Psychologys Feminist Voices profile here.

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