Dr. Evelyn Hooker is arguably history’s most revered gay-affirming activist scientist, and so it is that, at a time when social science is frequently abused in public discussions of same-sex issues, Hooker should be remembered and praised for her clearheaded allegiance to proper scientific standards.

No single piece of research contributed more to the demise of the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness than Hooker’s 1957 study. In an era in which homosexuality was considered intrinsically pathological, and in which almost all studies of homosexual persons drew on patient or prison populations and thus reinforced the disease concept, Hooker set out to “obtain a sample of overt homosexuals who did not come from these sources [clinics, psychiatric hospitals or prisons]; that is, who had a chance of being individuals who, on the surface at least, seem to have an average adjustment.”

Hooker was remarkably clear about the scientific logic of her study. Implicitly invoking Popperian falsificationism, Hooker recognized that in the face of an absolute claim that all homosexuals are pathological, it only required one disconfirming case to bring the professional consensus crashing down. It was her goal to gather a sample of homosexual men who demonstrably were not mentally ill, and to thus challenge the hegemony of the disease conception.

How, in an era when homosexuality was highly stigmatized, did Hooker assemble a sample of psychologically healthy homosexual individuals? Building on initial contacts with the leadership of the highly secretive Mattachine Society, she slowly worked to gain access to and the trust of a cadre of subjects. By her own account, she “accepted invitations to gay parties, gay organizations, gay after-hours clubs, and gay bars”; she even tells of being invited into the gay baths of Santa Monica, though she was coy about whether she actually went.

Hooker assembled 30 homosexual and 30 heterosexual males painstakingly matched pairwise for age, IQ, and education. Her homosexual sample was anything but random. She “attempted to secure homosexuals who would be pure for homosexuality; that is, without heterosexual experience,” and she screened out of her homosexual sample individuals who gave evidence of psychological fragility.

Hooker tested her subjects using the gold standard of the day: the projective assessment methods of the Rorschach Ink Blot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test, and a few other tests. Subject responses were transcribed, scored objectively, and then evaluated by premier scholars of the day in each of these projective methods who each offered their diagnostic judgments for each of her subject protocols while “blind” to the sexual orientation status of each of the subjects.

The results were stunning. With almost total agreement, the expert diagnosticians rated the psychological adjustment of the homosexual sample as equivalent on average to the heterosexuals, and could not do better than chance in discriminating the homosexuals from the heterosexuals. It was clear in the data from this select sample that sexual orientation had no necessary direct bearing on psychological adjustment. The prevailing scientific hypothesis had been refuted; in Hooker’s terms, “clearly there is no inherent connection between pathology and homosexuality.”

Fifteen years after her initial publication, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual as a distinct diagnostic category. Hooker had succeeded, with one well-designed study, in demolishing the reigning consensus of her day. Science had said that homosexual persons were necessarily, inherently, and absolutely pathological. Hooker’s subjects and results confounded that claim.

Hooker’s work was a model of transparent, careful and defensible methodological standards. Sadly, too many gay affirming scholars following in her footsteps have not embodied the same virtues, as I attempt to demonstrate in my companion essay.

The Achilles’ heel of research into the homosexual condition today is the issue of sample representativeness. To make general characterizations about any population or subpopulation, scientists must know that they have sampled individuals who truly represent the broader group about which they are going to make generalizations.

Hooker was able to avoid this problem entirely, because a representative sample is not needed to refute an absolute assertion about all members of a group; it only takes one non-white swan to refute the absolute claim that all swans are white. She noted the problem, even impossibility at the time, of making assertions about “homosexuals in general”: “It should be stated at the outset that no assumptions are made about the random selection of either group. No one knows what a random sample of the homosexual population would be like; and even if one knew, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain one.”

Hooker’s skepticism is now long lost. As discussed in my recent article for First Things , it is now becoming clear that findings of important earlier studies on such crucial issues as the emotional well-being of homosexual persons and on the causation of the homosexual condition are severely distorted by volunteer bias created by the way unrepresentative samples have been gathered.

Further, Hooker’s example of successful dissent by conducting creative, good scientific research is a particularly important one for today’s conservative minority. The failure of dissenting voices to appear in the contemporary research dialogue is striking. Researchers who dissent from the dominant professional viewpoint can do good science, can contribute something valuable, and can be agents of change. Today we need more such researchers in the mold of Evelyn Hooker.

Stanton L Jones is provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College (IL) and the author of this month’s feature article on the problems with same-sex science . An expanded version of his original essay, from which both of the First Things contributions are derived, is available at www.christianethics.org , as is a document offering the specific citations for the February feature article.

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Articles by Stanton L. Jones

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