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  • “We Are Certain of Our Own Insanity”:Antipsychiatry and the Gay Liberation Movement, 1968–1980
  • Abram J. Lewis (bio)

we are taught that we are insane—”silly”—a little “off”—we are “allowed” to be insane. we are certain of our own insanity, convinced of it … [but] there has been, always, an embracing of my own insanity—an entire history of ecstatic moments … the way to fly is, when you (finally) get to the edge of the cliff … you jump off.

—Paula Miriam Murray, WomanSpirit1

On 15 December 1973 the board of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted unanimously (with one abstention) to remove the diagnosis “homosexuality” from the organization’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a text that has since become the definitive mental illness classification handbook for clinicians and researchers worldwide. The decision was a dramatic reversal of majority psychiatric opinion only a few years previously, when attendees at the 1970 APA convention in San Francisco were appalled by protesters’ disruption of a panel on homosexuality. What the National Gay Task Force (NGTF) described as psychiatry’s great “turnaround” in the intervening three years has been widely attributed to concerted pressure from gay liberation activists, as well as to a more protracted campaign by homophile leaders stretching back nearly a decade. The revision was immediately hailed as a defining moment in gay politics. In their press release, the NGTF proclaimed the resolution [End Page 83] “the greatest gay victory” to date.2 In the decades since, this celebratory appraisal has been largely upheld. Writing in 2007, Jack Drescher and Joseph Merlino credited the revision with enabling “unprecedented social acceptance of gay men and women in both public and private arenas.”3 Their remarks speak to the enduring conviction that homosexuality’s emancipation from the registers of mental pathology finally secured the conditions of possibility for gay political intelligibility and struggle.

At the time, however, the flurry of gay press coverage following the vote also captured a less laudatory temperament: an outpouring of sarcasm and indifference. One gay student newsletter in Iowa scoffed, “Utopia at last! … [The APA] has waved its magic wand and cleansed us, oh joy, of our dark and horrible sickness.”4 Cynicism was palpable in the ensuing reflections on the “instant cure” bequeathed to homosexuals, and interviewees for the LA-based newsletter Lesbian Tide evinced a starkly indifferent disposition: “Well, good for them,” one remarked. “It’s nice they’ve finally come around, but who cares? Who needs them?” Another concurred: “I think it’s really nice of them … [but] it’s meaningless that they’ve done it, cause like, who cares what category the American Psychiatric Association puts us in?”5 In Michigan a feminist newsletter covered the vote under the headline “Too Little, Too Late,” its author reflecting: “My reaction to this piece of news might be compared to that of a woman who has treated her broken leg with her own and her friends’ home remedies, and who emerges at last from her front door, limping slightly, only to meet the family doctor bustling up the front walk with a jar of aspirin and a few well meant words of comfort.”6

Beyond simply registering exasperation at the revision’s belatedness, these comments elicit considerable skepticism about the redemptive power of psychiatric sanction. In fact, press coverage was quick to note that activists did not plan to desist in protesting the APA simply because of the noso-logical correction. In Ann Arbor, activists responded by swiftly organizing “a conference of gay people vs. mental health oppression” in support of other protests planned for the 1974 APA convention in Detroit.7 Even the mainstream gay press acknowledged ongoing wariness toward psychiatry, a wariness that not only persisted in spite of the revision but was actually [End Page 84] reinvigorated by it. In a 1977 interview, the Advocate highlighted antipsy-chiatric critic Thomas Szasz’s admonition that gay communities not allow their newly legitimized status to seduce them into condoning the larger institution of psychiatry.8

This article revisits LGBT organizing with, against, and apart from institutional psychiatry during the 1960s and 1970s, the end of the social movement...


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