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It's been 50 years since homosexuality was removed from a list of mental illnesses


Fifty years ago today, the American Psychiatric Association did a big thing. It removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.


And that decision helped change how gay people were perceived in America.


BARBARA GITTINGS: We were cured overnight by a stroke of the pen, just as originally we'd been made sick by, probably, a stroke of the pen.

FADEL: Barbara Gittings was an activist for LGBTQ equality. And before her death in 2007, Gittings spoke with journalist Eric Marcus for an oral history book called "Making Gay History."

INSKEEP: Now Eric Marcus hosts a podcast called "Making Gay History," which draws from hundreds of interviews from the 1980s and '90s. Marcus says it's hard to imagine today what it was like for gay people to suffer under the label of sickness.

ERIC MARCUS: You could argue on moral grounds whether or not being a homosexual was a good or bad thing. You could say that it was sinful. If you've been labeled someone who is mentally ill by medical professionals, that's a very hard thing to fight.

FADEL: One of the people who helped bring about the change was Dr. Evelyn Hooker. She conducted a study in the 1950s that concluded being gay is not a mental disorder. She spoke with Marcus before her death in 1996.


EVELYN HOOKER: I know that wherever I go, whether I know it or not, that there are both men and women for whom my little bit of work and my caring enough to do it has made an enormous difference in their lives.

INSKEEP: Today, Marcus is focused on a fight for transgender people.

MARCUS: What we see among those who are leading the backlash now is that they've gone after the most vulnerable and the least understood people within the LGBTQ community.

FADEL: Marcus takes heart in the bravery of people like Frank Kameny, who in the late 1950s was dismissed from his position as an astronomer because he was gay. Before his death in 2011, Kameny fought for gay rights and for psychiatrists to remove the illness label.


FRANK KAMENY: We are the experts on ourselves, and we will tell the experts they have nothing to tell us. But it took a few years to get that across.

INSKEEP: One of the voices from the past heard on the "Making Gay History" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.