A Brief Bit of History on the Progress of LGBT People in Usamerica

(originally published on my Tumblr, 19 January 2011)

During a recent discussion of the proposed changes to the DSM-5, some points were made about the positions of homosexual (presumably meaning cisgender homosexual) people, relative to the positions of transgender/transsexual people in our society, and the circumstances that led to the removal of homosexuality as a diagnosis of mental illness in the DSM.

Part of my response included the following:

Not to get all ageist and shit, but I was born well before homosexuality was removed from the DSM, and may have a better first hand memory of how homosexual people have been treated over the last few decades. Things didn’t markedly improve for homosexual people until very recently, which is to say 20+ years after removal of homosexuality from the DSM.

Removal of homosexuality from the DSM largely happened because a group of very vocal, very angry activists literally crashed the party and demanded it. Those activists were way above the curve of public perception of homosexuality at that time (1973-4).

Here is an illustration of how slowly things have changed in that time.

It’s public knowledge that I was born in 1968 in New York City, that my parents were/are medical practitioners, and that I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1986.

Stuyvesant High School, 345 E 15th St, New York City, NY

Stuyvesant, for those of you who are unfamiliar with my alma mater, at that time was housed at 345 East 15th Street, near the corner of 1st Avenue, or just on the northern border of East Greenwich Village (or, “The East Village”). As we had limited cafeteria facilities and no school yard, we students spent a lot of time roaming the East Village, Greenwich Village, Union Square, Gramercy, The Lower East Side, and Murray Hill in search of meals and recreation, before, during, and after school.

In 1985, The New York City Department of Education’s Career Development Center, in collaboration with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, founded the Harvey Milk School, a very small project to provide for the educational needs of marginalized homosexual and transgender children. This was 11 years after the removal of homosexuality from the DSM-II. As I recall, the project was originally housed in a old church building just off Washington Square, and there were only a handful of students in the project at its inception.

From New York Magazine:

Many Harvey Milk students first come to the school as runaways seeking help from its umbrella organization, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a social-services agency that for 25 years has been ministering to “at risk” gay teens. The school actually began back in 1985 as a tiny non-diploma-granting institution within HMI—a place for the agency’s displaced youths to earn a GED degree, taught by one full-time instructor hired by the Board of Education. Over the next fifteen years, enrollment grew from 17 to 40 students—until Harold Levy, school chancellor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, set the wheels in motion in 2001 for the expansion of Harvey Milk into an accredited, four-year, diploma-granting high school.

Note that this article was written in 2005, and describes protests at the opening of the school as a fully-accredited NYC high school, in 2003, 29 years after removal of homosexuality from the DSM.
Also from the article:

In August 2003, Democratic state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, sued the city over the Harvey Milk High School. Diaz’s stated reason was the injustice of the city’s devoting millions of dollars to a school servicing just 100 students—“with all kind of high-technology equipment, air conditioning, the best teachers”—when so many other city schools, like those in his district, were in deep crisis.

Here is another take on the subject, from the New York Times, that “liberal media” bastion, in 2003:

No one could argue with the good intentions behind New York City’s plan to establish a public high school for gay and transgender students. The idea was to provide a safe environment for study for gay teenagers who face verbal and sometimes physical harassment in regular school settings. Some have the added problem of being ostracized and cast out by family in cultures that do not accept homosexuality. We support the school system’s basic aim, and we obviously deplore the homophobic response that creation of the school has unleashed in some quarters. Still, we cannot condone the concept of establishing a special school specifically for students based on their sexual orientation.

A school like Harvey Milk could also serve as a safe haven and short-term solution for gay teenagers and others who are most traumatized by mistreatment at their schools. In the long term, though, history has taught us the best way to fight discrimination is to dismantle it where it occurs.

A fine sentiment, to be sure, but does that mean it would have been right to abandon the needs of students disadvantaged by their orientation or gender identity in the meanwhile?

Washington Square United Methodist Church, the original home of the Harvey Milk School

After all, it was only this month, 37 years after the removal of homosexuality from the DSM and over 7 years since that NYT Opinion article, that New Jersey, another of the most homosexual and transsexual friendly environments in the country was able to pass an anti-bullying statute, and this only in the face of several concurrent highly publicized incidents of sexual orientation related bullying! You may remember the furor which I ignited with my second post here, which I can only hope helped ensure that trans people were included in the lobbying efforts to get that law passed. The state of New York itself only enacted such an anti-bullying law a few scant months prior.

I think we can all agree that New York City is one of the most progressive and homosexual and transsexual friendly environments on the planet, and has been so for at least the last 100 years.

There was widespread outrage and derision even in 1985 over the fact that the Department of Education was allocating money to provide safe schooling for homosexual students who were finding it “difficult or impossible to attend their home schools due to threats, violence, or harrassment.” Some were concerned, as the NYT editorial staff was in 2003, that the city wasn’t doing enough to integrate these students into the regular schools and prevent bullying there, and should not be focusing money on “separate but equal” programs. Others were more malicious, like Republican Candidate for Mayor of New York City Diane McGrath, as reported in the New York Times on 20 August 1985:

Diane McGrath, the Republican candidate for Mayor, opened her campaign headquarters yesterday with an attack on the policies of Mayor Koch and City Council President Carol Bellamy toward homosexuals.
”I believe it’s time for a mayor who cares about the people,” Mrs. McGrath said, ”who rides the subways with them, who shares respect for family values, who will not march in the Gay Parade, who will not throw senior citizens out of nursing homes to make room for AIDS patients, who would close the Harvey Milk School.”
Mrs. McGrath referred, in part, to a city proposal to move some AIDS patients needing long-term care to empty beds in a city-owned nursing home in Neponsit, Queens, and to a public school in Greenwich Village for homosexual youths.

Unfortunately, there is little other information available that I have been able to locate about the original opening of the Harvey Milk School (as I believe it was more simply titled in 1985). The New York Times did run an article at the time, but it is now a paid article which I cannot read at the moment, so I will simply have to rely on my memories of the time. I was quite surprised that I was unable to find any mention of the original school on the Village Voice’s website. I’m certain the Voice ran a front page article at the time, as well.

To state that the reason that homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1974 was a result of improving conditions for homosexual people is quite simply, a revisionist view of history. 37 years later, we still cannot summon the political will in this country to ensure that homosexual people cannot be fired from their jobs simply because they happen to be homosexual, let alone those of us who require protection because of our gender non-conformity.

Given that this is the case, it is illogical to assume that removal of homosexuality from the DSM was caused by changing attitudes toward homosexuality. If that were the case, looking at the fact that federal hate crimes legislation protecting homosexuals was only passed recently as well, we would still be discussing removal of homosexuality from the DSM, and hoping it would happen with the DSM-5, rather than being able to discuss the same for gender non-conformity.

This is the clearest demonstration I can think of that conditions for homosexual people have only markedly improved in recent years. We are only 14 years past Ellen DeGeneres publicly outing herself. For those of you who are among the younger set and may not remember the public environment in which this occurred, I can personally tell you that this was a very, very big deal even as late as 1994, 20 years after removal of homosexuality from the DSM.

To my mind, this history demonstrates the paramount need for the removal of gender non-conformity diagnoses from the DSM. Widespread public acceptance of transsexuality will inevitably lag years behind removal. We can only hope that the lessons we have learned from the treatment of homosexual people, coupled with the fact that we already have limited legal protections in place for trans people, will mitigate the length of time it will take the rest of society to catch up.

We are tired of waiting. We should never have had to wait in the first place. I fully subscribe to the Dallas Principles:

1. Full civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals must be enacted now. Delay and excuses are no longer acceptable.

As well, I fully subscribe to the Yogyakarta Principles.

Without removal from the DSM, gender non-conformity will always be fought by people who will insist that gender non-conformity is a mental disorder, and their arguments will always be assumed by the general population to be credible.

Arguments that stigmatization of mental illness should not be condoned, and therefore, that removal from the DSM is unnecessary, are utterly unrealistic. The fact is that the majority of people hold the belief that people with mental disorders of this type as diagnosed by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are not in touch with the rational, real world, and do not deserve recognition by society of their so-called delusions.

The only way to combat this line of thought is for the profession of psychiatry to take a stand and refute that gender non-conformity is a mental disorder by summary removal of Gender Identity Disorder, Gender Incongruence, and related diagnoses by all psychiatric diagnostic organizations from their diagnostic manuals, just as the APA did with homosexuality in 1973-4. France and Cuba have already taken this brave step, and the United States, upon whose diagnostic manual is formed most of the basis for the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, should lead the rest of the world, if belatedly, and follow suit.

The Seal of Yin-Haan