01 February 2021 | by Guest
For LGBT+ History Month the Chair of the BPS Psychology of Sexualities Section. Adam Jowett, explores LGBT+ content in the archives of BPS journals.
February is LGBT+ month in the UK which seeks to raise awareness of the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, while the + recognises that there are many more ways to identify and describe gender and sexuality beyond the LGBT acronym.
The story and journey of the LGBT+ community often suffers from a lack of acknowledgment in mainstream historical accounts, and this is also true of mainstream accounts of the history of psychology.
In an attempt to uncover some of that history, I recently searched for LGBT+ content in the archives of the British Psychological Society’s flagship journals over the decades (not including BPS periodicals or The Psychologist magazine).
I found relatively few articles that made reference to sexual orientation or gender identity in BPS journals (just 69 articles across 11 journals) but what was published reflects how LGBT+ people have been considered within psychology over time (Jowett, 2020).
Most of the articles I identified on homosexuality up until the 1970s were published primarily in (what was then called) the British Journal of Medical Psychology (BJMP) and focused largely on the causes, assessment, diagnosis and treatment of homosexuality.
These articles generally pathologised homosexuality as a mental disorder from a psychoanalytic perspective with little empirical evidence provided to support their theories.
Up until same-sex acts were decriminalised, gay and bisexual men convicted of homosexual offences could be ordered to undergo treatment by court mandate.
A number of articles published in BJMP during the 1940s-60s discussed the use of conversion therapies to treat homosexuality using psychoanalysis and later behavioural therapy.
Where the outcomes of such treatments were published, they were found to be ineffective. For example, one case study reported that at follow up the patient “was a confirmed homosexual [and], had no wish to be otherwise” (Fox & Scipio, 1968).
Articles that presented homosexuality as an illness continued to be published in the BJMP throughout the 1970s, even after the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental disorders in 1973.
Several papers were also published on transgender identities in the BJMP in the 1970s, again largely from a psychoanalytic perspective and taking a pathologising position.
However, an article by Krysia Yardley in 1976 applied a more affirmative approach that sought to help trans clients live more successfully in their gender identity.
Yardley noted that conversion therapies attempting to modify a trans person’s gender identity typically failed and that “patients express greatest satisfaction when their sex-role identification is accepted” (p.329).
Yardley quoted a patient receiving affirmative care as follows:
“I have no regrets at all. For the first time in my life I can think of myself as all right. Before I felt bad, everything about me was wrong. Now I can accept that I don’t have to be perfect because I am the same outside as inside” (Yardley, 1976, p.336)
From the 1980s onwards, articles on homosexuality were predominately published in the British Journal of Social Psychology (BJSP).
This represented a shift away from homosexuality being understood as a medical problem to viewing homophobia as a societal problem.
Studies began to be published in BJSP that focused on topics such as lay beliefs about the causes of homosexuality and their relationship to homophobic attitudes.
The 1980s also saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately affected the gay community. Yet only one article published in a BPS journal during this decade made any reference to gay men in the context of the AIDS crisis.
Ikkos et al. (1987) noted that the higher rates of hypochondria they found among gay men likely reflected “legitimate fear rather than psychologically morbid concern” (p. 125) due to living through the AIDS epidemic.
It was not until the establishment of the British Journal of Health Psychology (BJHP) in 1996 that studies relating specifically to gay men and HIV began to be published in BPS journals (e.g. Flowers et al., 1997).
A focus on homophobia and sexual health have continued in LGBT+ related articles into the early 21st century but there has been a notable lack of diversity.
For example, I did not find a single study published in a BPS journal that specifically focused on lesbian women or bisexuality, only one article on intersex people (Alderson, Madill & Balen, 2004) and articles relating to trans people were limited to several published in the 1970s.
One could argue that this absence itself reflects LGBT+ history in certain respects.
Bisexual attraction and identities have been historically invisible and marginalised within psychology and society at large and men’s sexuality has been the subject of much greater attention than women’s sexuality.
While LGBT+ topics are well represented in specialist publications such as the BPS periodical Psychology of Sexualities Review, they are often absent or marginal within much of the discipline as a whole.
Looking back at how LGBT+ people have been represented (or not) over time is useful in reminding us how far we’ve come as a discipline but also highlights the need for greater recognition of diversity going forwards.
For 20 years of LGBT+ related content you can access back issues of Psychology of Sexualities Review from the BPS shop