When we think about the history of the gay rights movement in America, we often conjure up images of the Stonewall riots, or of trailblazing political figures like Harvey Milk who shattered barriers and didn’t apologize for their sexuality.
While these events and figures played a pivotal role in giving today’s LGBTQ folks the opportunity to live their best lives, they tend to overshadow many other achievements—like science.
One of the most overlooked and underappreciated contributions to the modern gay rights movement actually came from scientific minds, and in this article, you’ll meet the three key researchers who laid the groundwork for the LGBTQ revolution.
The gay rights movement owes a massive debt to the pioneering work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey. In the 1940s and 50s, Kinsey crisscrossed the country to interview thousands of Americans about their sex lives. His first book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948 and it was groundbreaking for its depiction of homosexuality.
For the first time, it cast same-sex behavior as a normative aspect of human sexuality. In fact, Kinsey went as far as to say that “a considerable portion of the population, perhaps the major portion of the male population, has at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age” [emphasis added]. American readers were astonished.
Based on his data, Kinsey also reported that 1 in 10 men are predominately or exclusively gay. If you’ve ever heard that 10% of the population is gay, this is actually where that figure comes from.
Unfortunately, Kinsey’s estimates of the prevalence of homosexuality turned out to be wrong because he oversampled from the gay community by collecting a lot of his data in gay bars. Recent data from national US samples finds that less than 5% of the overall population identifies as LGBTQ.
Nevertheless, Kinsey’s data had a massive impact helping Americans realize that homosexuality was more common than they thought, and making discussions around sexuality far more mainstream.
Nearly a decade after Kinsey’s explosive work, psychologist Evelyn Hooker published a major article titled The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual. Hooker wanted to determine whether there were differences in the mental health of gay and heterosexual men.
At that time, homosexuality was formally classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. It appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a paraphilia (the term psychologists use to refer to unusual sexual interests) alongside exhibitionism, voyeurism, and pedophilia, among others.
Hooker gave a series of psychological tests (including the Rorschach ink blot test) to two groups of men: those who identified as straight and those who identified as gay. Hooker took the results of these tests and gave them to a panel of experts, who were asked to evaluate the mental health of each participant, without knowing their sexual orientation.
It turned out that (shocker!) the experts couldn’t figure out who was gay and who was straight based on the tests. This finding was repeated by other researchers in later studies and the results were used to argue against the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness.
The combined work of Kinsey and Hooker had the effect of normalizing homosexuality, showing not only that it was common, but that it wasn’t pathological. Their findings were instrumental in the push to remove homosexuality from the DSM, which formally occurred in 1973. The declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder is one of the most significant milestones in the gay rights movement—and it’s all thanks to the work of these trailblazing sex researchers.
In the 1960s and 70s, it was common for gay men in the United States to have sex in public bathrooms. They did this because safe, dedicated queer spaces weren’t readily available back then and having partners over to your home was risky. Few people were out at the time, and having partners over to your home could tip your neighbors off about your sexuality.
The bathrooms where gay men hooked up were known as “tearooms,” and police officers around the country were spending a lot of time and resources identifying tearooms and arresting patrons.
But along came a sociology doctoral student named Laud Humphreys. He wanted to better understand who these men were and what motivated them to have tearoom sex, despite the risk of arrest.
Humphreys went undercover and performed extensive observations of what he called “tearoom trade.” His research showed that tearoom sex was consensual—men weren’t coercing others into sexual activity. Instead, they were sending delicate, choreographed signals (like toe-tapping) that required a specific response or acknowledgement in order for a sexual encounter to begin.
Humphreys also tracked down a number of the men he observed and discovered that most of them were married to women and, aside from cheating on their wives, they were otherwise upstanding members of their communities. In other words, his work showed that it wasn’t social deviants who were having tearoom sex.
Humphreys’ findings that tearoom visitors were upstanding citizens had a big societal impact. His conclusion, that “the only harmful effects of these encounters, either direct or indirect, result from police activity” led to police departments gradually spending less time and money prosecuting tearoom sex and funneling those efforts elsewhere.
Kinsey, Hooker, and Humphreys are arguably the three most important scientists whose research challenged the popular view of homosexuality as depraved and disordered. Without their data, there wasn’t a compelling way to refute these persistent stereotypes and false beliefs.
Each of these scientists laid a cornerstone that was pivotal in building up momentum for the gay rights movement. So when we think back on how we got to where we are today, let’s be sure not to overlook their important contributions. The LGBTQ community has a freer future thanks to the great thinkers of our past.