An American psychologist who helped change stereotypes about homosexuals.
Evelyn Hooker's groundbreaking work on homosexuality paved the way for greater acceptance of a group of people who had for years been labeled “abnormal.” Modern society still finds many ways to discriminate against gay men and lesbians, but before Hooker's study many viewed homosexuality as a bona fide mental disorder. Hooker's research proved that, aside from their sexual preference, there was no demonstrable psychological difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Hooker originally planned to go to a teacher's college, but her instructors, recognizing her potential, convinced her to go instead to the University of Colorado, where she enrolled in 1924. She took a course with the psychologist Karl Muenzinger (1885–1958) and decided to major in psychology. Quickly distinguishing herself, she was offered an instructorship in her senior year. This gave her an opportunity not only to teach but to receive a master's degree. She wanted to stay on at Colorado for her Ph.D., but Muenzinger convinced her that going to another college would broaden her education. She chose Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and received her Ph.D. in 1932.
Hooker took a position teaching in a women's college outside of Baltimore. Stricken with tuberculosis in 1934, she was obliged to spend the next two years in a sanitarium in California. She began teaching parttime and in 1937 was awarded a fellowship to study at the Institute for Psychotherapy in Berlin. Her training went on outside the institute as well. She lived with a Jewish family and saw firsthand what the rise of the Nazis had meant to their lives. She also visited the Soviet Union. What she saw in the two dictatorships left a lasting impression on her.
Upon her return to the United States she took a position as a research associate at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). She quickly earned a reputation as a brilliant teacher, and she continued to do research. In 1941 she married Donn Caldwell, a writer. The marriage ended in 1947, and she married Edward Niles Hooker, an English professor at UCLA. While both of these events were significant in Hooker's life, there was another event that proved critical for her career.
Sam From, who took a course taught by Hooker in the 1940s, was a homosexual. After he took Hooker's course the two became friends, and he posed a question to her: Why not conduct research on homosexuals to determine whether homosexuality was some sort of disease or disorder—or, as he believed, non-relevant to a person's psychological makeup. Hooker was intrigued, in part because her experiences in Europe had left her with a heightened disdain for social injustice.
Hooker applied for a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study two groups of men: heterosexuals and nonclinical (i.e., not patients) homosexuals. Despite the fact that this was during one of the most conservative periods in American political history (the notorious McCarthy Era during the 1950s), she was awarded the grant.
Hooker's experiments were quite simple. She assembled groups of homosexual and heterosexual males and administered a series of standard psychological tests to them. The test results were then presented to a panel of experts on the assessments. No one on the panel could determine which subjects were heterosexual and which were homosexual; moreover, they gave the homosexual subjects high marks on emotional adjustment and personality development.
Hooker presented her results in a series of papers in the 1950s, the most important of which was a 1957 paper published in the Journal of Projective Techniques entitled, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual.” She continued her research throughout the 1960s, and in 1967, was appointed head of a study group on homosexual issues for the National Institute of Mental Health. One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic handbook—in effect saying that homosexuality was no longer recognized as a form of mental illness.
Hooker retired from UCLA in 1970 and continued in private practice for several years. In 1991 she was awarded the American Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in the Public Interest. She died at her home in Santa Monica, California, on November 18, 1996.
“Evelyn Hooker.” American Psychologist 47 (1992): 499-501. Hooker, Evelyn. “A Preliminary Analysis of Group Behavior of Homosexuals.” Journal of Psychology 42 (1956):217-25.
Hooker, Evelyn. “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual.” Journal of Projective Techniques 21 (1957): 18-31.