Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker

Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker (Directed by Richard Schmiechen. Frameline, 1992) Narrated by Patrick Stewart, this award-winning documentary by Schmiechen (who also directed The Times of Harvey Milk) combines an intimate biographical portrait of American psychologist Evelyn Hooker and her groundbreaking research in the 1950s and 1960s that was central to the depathologization of homosexuality. Schmiechen uses a series of interviews with Hooker and others in conjunction with archival footage depicting the experiments to which gays and lesbians were subjected as “cures” for what was believed to be a psychological illness.

Hooker’s movement into the study of homosexuality was gradual, but not unexpected given her early experiences as a socially isolated child, as a woman in a male-dominated field, and as a researcher visiting Europe who saw first-hand the political manipulation used by Nazi Germany to pathologize specific groups of people. Hooker, a heterosexual woman who married and taught at UCLA in the Psychology department, had trained at Johns Hopkins and quickly took exception to the study of “behaviorism” pervasive in the 1920s.

After meeting a circle of homosexual men in Los Angeles and persuaded by a friend to undertake a study of their lives, Hooker became the first social scientist to publish research on the gay community using a sampling of gay men who were not in therapy for severe problems or from a prison population. After securing grant money from the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), Hooker recruited volunteers largely from the Mattachine
Society and established another group of heterosexual men whose tests would be compared by an independent panel of experts. The study, which made heavy use of Rorschach tests, conclusively found that there was no difference in the psychological adjustment level and pathology between the heterosexual and homosexual subjects. Her findings were reported in a paper presented at the 1956 American Psychological Association (APA) convention, and they had a lasting impact on the way the medical community and social scientists perceived homosexuality, as well as the decriminalization of homosexuality as a category of acceptable legal discrimination.

In 1974, the APA finally removed homosexuality as a classified mental illness, in no small part due to Hooker’s research findings. Prior to that time, gays and lesbians had been subjected to electroshock therapy, hysterectomies, castrations, massive doses of estrogen for both men and women, aversion therapy, and more as treatments for their “sickness.” Hooker’s ongoing research and later work as a practicing psychologist were instrumental (along with the Kinsey Report) in assisting activist organizations and progressive researchers to call for a change in institutional practice and unproven cultural assumptions. Although Changing Our Minds is focused on the work of one individual, it is also a useful documentary for illustrating 20th Century attitudes in the U.S. about sexuality and the impact those attitudes had on the lives of gays and lesbians.

The details of Hooker’s work and findings in the second half of the film go by rather quickly, and those individuals interviewed
are confusingly almost never fully identified by name, association to Hooker, or position. However, these are minor details in light of the quality of oral history and archival content, and the documentary is highly recommended for courses and research on GLBT Studies, Women and Gender Studies, History, and Psychology.
Diana King University of California, Davis diking@ucdavis.edu

Movie Posters