Psychology and the politics of same-sex desire in the United States: an analysis of three cases.

Published: August 1, 2011


Psychological science has assumed an increasingly explicit role in public policies related to same-sex desire in the United States. In this article, we present a historical analysis of the relationship between policy discourse and scientific discourse on homosexuality produced within U.S. psychology over the 20th and early 21st centuries through the lens of three cases: Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and Perry v. Schwarzenegger (2010). Our analysis suggests that, for the majority of its disciplinary history, psychology produced knowledge that supported a status quo of legal and cultural subordination for same-sex-attracted individuals. The discipline’s shift in understanding of homosexuality, reflected in a 1975 policy statement of the American Psychological Association, reversed this relationship and opened up space for advocacy for social and political change regarding homosexuality. Our analysis of policy decisions rendered by the courts reveals the increasingly important role psychological science has assumed in challenging the legal subordination of same-sex-attracted individuals, though the basis upon which psychological science has sought to inform policy remains limited. We conclude with a critical discussion of the type of knowledge claims psychologists have traditionally used to advocate for gay and lesbian rights, suggesting the vitality of a narrative approach which can reveal the meaning individuals make of legal subordination and political exclusion.

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