- Katherine A. Hubbard
Hooker, Evelyn (2 Sept. 1907–18 Nov. 1996), psychologist and key figure, in the movement to depathologize homosexuality in the US, was born Evelyn Gentry in her grandmother’s one-room farmhouse in North Platte, Nebraska, the sixth of nine children of Edward and Jessie Bethel Gentry. Her father was a tenant farmer and her mother worked as a practical nurse during the 1918 flu epidemic. Her mother had only a third-grade education but deeply encouraged Evelyn, or as she pronounced it “Eva-leen,” to get an education because that was one thing that could never be taken away. To this end, the family moved to Sterling, Colorado when Evelyn was thirteen years old in a covered prairie schooner wagon.
Coming from a relatively poor family on the wrong side of the tracks meant Evelyn described growing up as a painful process. She was particularly conspicuous as a nearly six-foot-tall teenager. Sterling High School was relatively progressive and she was encouraged by her teachers to continue her education. She enrolled in an honors program with a course in Psychology and graduated in 1924. She enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder at seventeen and worked cleaning houses in order to bolster her scholarship. Having been awarded her undergraduate degree in 1928 she stayed on to work with psychologist Karl Muenzinger for her Masters degree, which she received in 1930.
As she made her decision as to what to do next, the United States was in the firm grip of the Great Depression. This undoubtedly had an impact on her own career options, but she also faced other challenges being a young woman embarking on a career in a field where women’s contributions often went unrecognized. Despite being offered a place in the Ph.D. program at Colorado, her supervisor Muenzinger was keen for her to go to an eastern university. She chose Yale, but the chair of her department (a Yale man himself) refused to provide a woman with a letter of recommendation. Instead, Evelyn became one of only eleven women studying at Johns Hopkins University where she was supervised by Knight Dunlap who agreed to take her on despite not approving of women doctorates. She completed her Ph.D. in 1932 and later recollected that Johns Hopkins had been the right kind of place for her.
Following her Ph.D., she luckily managed to secure a job at Maryland College for Women. After a period of teaching and recovering from tuberculosis she spent some time in Europe studying at the Institute for Psychotherapy in Berlin. Upon her return, she applied for a job at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but she was told she could not be employed because there were already three women in the department. Sexist barriers continued to plague her career as they did for many early women psychologists. However, she was accepted by the Extension Division at UCLA as a research associate and continued teaching experimental and physiological psychology there for the next thirty-one years.
Throughout her life Evelyn was well known among circles of famous psychologists and artists. She knew Alfred Kinsey the sexologist Bruno Klopfer (also a UCLA colleague) famous Rorschach psychologist, and Stephen Spencer, the poet. Her first marriage in 1941 to Donn Caldwell, a freelance writer, lasted until 1947 and ended in divorce. In 1951 she married her second husband, Edward Niles Hooker, a professor of English at UCLA. The two had met at UCLA despite graduating from Johns Hopkins the same year. Another central person in her life was Sam (“Sammy”) From, who was initially a student of hers. It was because of this friendship with an openly gay man, and at Sam’s direct request, that she began to conduct her research on non-pathological gay men. This research enveloped her into gay communities and sparked her ongoing work to remove the pathologization of homosexuality in Psychology. Her acceptance into these communities also allowed her to make further friends, most famously with Christopher Isherwood the author and his partner Don Bacchardy.
Hooker’s research on homosexuality began in 1953 when she applied for a six month grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In a period of intense McCarthyism and homophobia, Hooker said she had to be as “pure as the driven snow” in order to be authorized to conduct such research (Hegarty, p. 416). She later claimed that this was part of the reason why she did not research lesbian women: if she had, she would have been considered to have ulterior motives. At the time, homosexuality was considered a severe and pervasive emotional mental disorder and gay men and lesbians were being investigated for being “sexual perverts” with potential communist ties. The NIMH eventually agreed to grant the funding, even though it warned that it could be halted.
With the funding Hooker conducted her research on thirty gay non-pathological men, a sample that had never been collected for psychological research before. These men were recruited through her own friendships and via the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights activist group. Unsurprisingly, confidentiality was absolutely vital to protect the gay men who took part in Hooker’s research. She even was said to carry a letter explaining she was on the faculty at UCLA in the event she was caught up in a raid while at a gay bar recruiting participants. Indeed this occurred, and she was held in a Los Angles jail. Her participants then completed a Rorschach test, a Make a Picture Story Test, and a Thematic Apperception Test, and their results compared to thirty heterosexual men who were matched according to age, IQ, and education. When she asked experts in the field of projective psychology to separate out the test scores according to the participants’ sexuality, they could not do it any better than chance. From this study Hooker argued “very tentatively” that “homosexuality as a clinical entity does not exist.”
The mid-1950s were highly intense time for Hooker. In 1955 Sam From died in a car accident before seeing the impact Hooker’s work was soon to have. In 1956 Hooker presented her research to the American Psychological Association and in 1957 “The Adjustment of the Overt Male Homosexual” was published by both The Journal of Projective Techniques and the Mattachine Review. Tragedy struck again in 1957 when Hooker’s second husband unexpectedly died; the two had been married only six years.
The NIMH continued to fund Hooker’s research until 1961 when she received a research center award. In 1967 Hooker became the chair of the NIMH task force on homosexuality, which concluded that homosexuality should be decriminalized and lesbians and gay men should be protected by law. The report’s publication, however, was delayed by the Nixon administration and it did not appear until 1969.
In 1970 Hooker opened her own private clinical psychology practice in Santa Monica. Three years later American Psychology removed homosexuality “per se” from their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and Hooker’s work was cited as pivotal in the change. Recognized as a key figure in the movement to depathologize homosexuality, Hooker’s place in the history of Psychology and gay liberation was cemented. She died in Santa Monica, California.
The Evelyn Hooker archive is housed in the UCLA library. Her most famous paper is Evelyn Hooker, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” Journal of Projective Techniques 21, no. 1 (1957): 18–31. For her own reflections on her career see Hooker, “Reflections of a 40-year Exploration: A Scientific View on Homosexuality,” American Psychologist 48, no. 4 (1993): 450–453. See also Andrew M. Boxer and Joseph M. Carrier, “Evelyn Hooker: A Life Remembered,” Journal of Homosexuality 36, no. 1 (1998): 1–17; and Edwin S. Shneidman, “Evelyn Hooker (1907–1996) Obituary,” American Psychologist 53, no. 4 (1998): 480–481. Also of interest is Peter Hegarty, “Homosexual Signs and Heterosexual Silences: Rorschach Research on Male Homosexuality from 1921 to 1969,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 3 (2003): 400–423. Hooker was the subject of a documentary film: Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker (1992). An obituary appeared in The New York Times, 22 Nov. 1996.