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This Week’s This American Life Tells How The APA Stopped Classifying Homosexuality As Mental Illness

This week's episode, "81 Words," tells the story of this crucial change to diagnostic criteria in the early 70s, a huge advance in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

Marilyn Drew Necci | December 21, 2018

If you have any interest in the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, this week’s episode of This American Life is crucial listening. The story it tells is not recent — indeed, it goes back to the early 70s, back when the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM-II.

The story is told by Alix Spiegel, a regular This American Life host who podcast nerds might recognize as one of the hosts of Invisibilia. Spiegel has a very personal connection to the story — her grandfather, Dr. John P. Spiegel, was elected president of the APA in 1973, around the time the controversy around the DSM-II’s listing of homosexuality as a mental disorder was heating up. He was also a gay man.

The story Spiegel goes on to tell throughout the hour-long episode is full of fascinating characters, from a secret group of closeted gay psychiatrists within the APA, who referred to themselves as the “GAYPA;” to “Dr. Anonymous,” a gay psychiatrist who addressed the APA’s 1972 convention wearing a Richard Nixon mask, so his identity wouldn’t get out and hurt his future job prospects.

What is most shocking about the story is learning just how flawed and fundamentally biased the research was that was done on homosexuality at the time. When societal bias was removed from the equation, it quickly became clear that the conclusions about gay people that the psychiatric world had taken for granted for decades were based on false assumptions that immediately fell apart under scrutiny.

But there’s way too much for me to sum up all in one article, so you should really hear the whole thing for yourself. Stream or download “81 Words” from This American Life’s website, or check out a full transcript, and learn more about a fundamental chapter in the fight for LGBTQ rights.