The LGBT Health Movement, 40 Years Since Homosexuality Was a Mental Illness

Published: June 26, 2013

At the time of the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, people joked that never in history had so many "sick" people been cured so quickly.

Forty years later, health researchers across the U.S. are still assessing the ongoing fallout of discrimination on LGBT health. Today’s Supreme Court decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition Eight are among the factors that continue to shape the slowly fading stigma, and build on the positive gains toward equality that are important to public health. While we are learning that most members of the LGBT community cope remarkably well, considering what many have lived through, there’s also promise in several health movements that are developing evidence-based interventions to further optimize resilience.

Dr. Gregory M. Herek is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and an authority on prejudice against gay men and lesbians, hate crimes, and AIDS stigma. Under the George W. Bush administration, Herek was part of the so-called "hit list" of researchers working on LGBT issues who were allegedly blacklisted by those overseeing federal funding for scientific research.

In marked contrast, by 2011 Herek was asked to serve on a panel for the Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the National Academy of Sciences, which produced a groundbreaking report on LGBT health. The report, "The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding," said that a challenge in studying LGBT health is the sheer lack of even basic data: Who are they? Where do they live? What is their socioeconomic status? The IOM recommended including data on sexual and gender minorities in electronic health records as well as in the demographic information collected in federally funded surveys, just as race and ethnicity data are collected.

Merely collecting data on LGBT people represented a radical change for the federal government. "Having government-level research acknowledge the existence of sexual minorities has been incredibly controversial," said Herek. He recalled that the earliest attempt to include data on LGBT citizens, in the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, was "vehemently opposed" by rabidly anti-gay Senator Jesse Helms and his counterpart in the House, Rep. William Dannemayer. "They didn’t want the numbers used by the ‘gay agenda’ to promote the size of the LGBT population," said Herek. "They didn’t want the groups to be able to say ‘here’s how many of us there are.’"

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