The Evolution of the Queer Umbrella as Mental Illnesses

Photo credit: Daniel Gonzales, Flickr

With all of the recent gender identity coverage in the media, many people are stepping out of the shadows and into the queer limelight. While there has been a lot of acceptance from a large number of people,  others, including family members, have been tearing these people down, even going as far as sending these people to conversion therapy (but that’s a whole other can of worms). All of these beliefs and questions have led people down a path of homo- and transphobia, starting with denial, rampant bullying, and, in the worst cases, suicide or homicide. People have long wondered, “So, is this a mental illness? Can this just be all in their heads?” It has piqued the interest of many psychologists for decades and, while these diagnostic changes are “old news”, the current and extensive media coverage makes this social and political conversation arguably more important in 2015 than it was in 2013.

Even before gender queer existence was altered in the DSM, which is the book that details psychological disorders, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association, or APA, for 23 years. During this time of harsh classification as a mental illness, homo- and bisexuality were considered results of a traumatic home life or damaging experiences with the opposite sex.

Thus began aversion therapy and the treatments were torturous and blatant brainwashing. It was particularly rough in the 1950s and 1960s, with homosexual men, for example, volunteering to undergo therapy in order to avoid jail time. They were subjected to myriad behavioral modification practices, including electric shock therapy and hallucinogenic drugs while viewing explicit pictures of men to ideally create disgust for the male figure through pain. These practices were so violent the victims would vomit, sometimes for up to an hour. One man, Peter Price, remembers, “For 72 hours I lay in my own excrement and dirt, scared out of my wits”. Still, the doctors refused to let him clean himself, only helping him when they decided to hook electrodes to his penis administering more painful aversion tactics. Throughout this counseling, these victims were shown photos and videos of naked women in order to give them a break from the pain and associate positive emotions with women.

In regard to women, there is one scene from American Horror Story: Asylum during which Lana, played by Sarah Paulson, is admitted to the asylum for being a lesbian. Under the psychiatric observation of Dr. Thredson, portrayed by Zachary Quinton, she is submitted to these same practices. She was forced to look at a naked man and ordered to masturbate. She was also submitted to the same pain therapy, given a serum to make her vomit every time she viewed explicit photos of women. While this is a television show, a work of fiction, it still reflects the struggles of conversion therapy that was once considered the go-to counseling to reverse same-sex attraction.

It goes without saying that these practices were far more damaging than helpful.

Even after the diagnosis of homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness, many experts disagreed and still considered this sexual identity as a contradictory psychopathic trait when compared to the heteronormative way of life. This went as far as even considering a “normal” queer individual as being an oxymoron, strongly reinforcing that this community of people were going against a lifestyle that was unanimously accepted across the country as atypical among the heterosexual population. Now, however, these beliefs are considered to have come about because of “misinformation and prejudice.”

Following the sexual identity change in the DSM, the psychological diagnosis of gender identity evolved exponentially within the last 30 or so years. When it first began to make its way into the queer scene, it was referred to as “transsexualism”, which describes people who do not feel as though their assigned gender (dictated by their genitals) is not who they feel as a person, meaning women identify as men and vice versa. Now, transsexualism is considered an incredibly offensive label and the term was replaced with “transgender”, which is widely used in today’s society and considered politically correct.

I believe it is incredibly important to note that the need for the separate categories of gender identity and sexual identity is because the two are independent classifications. They are not one in the same.

So, where does gender dysphoria come into play? It has only been two years since the diagnosis was switched from the gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria. Gender identity disorder was defined as having “strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex. ” In contrast, gender dysphoria is more focused on the intense anxiety and the resulting crippling impairment of day-to-day functionality of being gender nonconforming, meaning that the individual does not feel as though their gender assigned at birth is not their true gender identity.

The difference between these diagnoses are immense. While gender identity disorder was treated as suppressing and ideally eliminating these gender nonconforming beliefs, gender dysphoria treatment helps the individuals cope with the consequential anxiety and depression that comes with this lifestyle. The latter is more accepting of the transgender community’s myriad identities, reinforcing that they are not unnatural. It validates their feelings and psychological issues in order to help them become more confident with themselves.

These developments are huge strides for the queer umbrella. The changes in diagnoses through the reputable DSM provides more social acceptance and scientific acknowledgement and validation. They are one more step up the ladder, becoming closer and closer to acceptance. We still have a long way to go, but every advancement is a small victory toward our goals, saving the lives of every single person who does not conform toy hetero- and cisnormative society. sexual and gender identities.

If you or someone you know needs help transphobia that sparks suicidal ideation, please visit this website. It is a hotline to provide support for the individual during a psychological emergency for those who feel insecure and do not want face-to-face assistance.

In addition to this, there are many counselors that will help someone become more comfortable in their sexuality and gender identity. This is to help people handle their psychological problems associated with discrimination and stigma of sexuality in the public. These counselors also help individuals cope with their gender dysphoria in a healthy way, pre- or post-operation. This is absolutely not conversion therapy.

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