November 19, 2006

Psychology 101 for the DoD

Posted at 1:49 pm (Pacific Time)

The Pentagon is encountering an inconvenient obstacle in justifying its antigay policies. It’s slowly learning it can no longer get away with equating homosexuality and sickness.

The Department of Defense (DoD) recently came under public scrutiny for its 1996 Instruction on Physical Disability Evaluation. The final appendix of the 88-page memo listed “conditions and defects” that are not considered physical disabilities but nevertheless warrant separation from the armed services. Among these conditions and defects: “Certain Mental Disorders including … Homosexuality.”

In June, the Pentagon was called to task by the US mental health profession’s two major organizations — the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Both APAs challenged the DoD’s factual error of labeling homosexuality a mental disorder and requested that the Instruction be corrected.

The DoD subsequently released a revised Instruction in which homosexuality was moved out of the “Certain Mental Disorders” category. But it’s still listed as a “defect” along with dyslexia, motion sickness, enuresis (bed-wetting), and “repeated veneral disease infections,” among others.

As was widely reported last week, the two APAs once again sent letters to the Pentagon. They acknowledged the DoD’s correction of the mental illness error, but noted that homosexuality isn’t a defect and pointed out that labeling it as such stigmatizes sexual minorities.

What’s particularly noteworthy about this story is the historic realignment it represents in how homosexuality is regarded by the institutions of American society.

The US military didn’t maintain regulations against homosexual activity until 1917, and then the sanctions focused on conduct, not sexual orientation. It wasn’t until the years immediately prior to World War II that the military began to exclude homosexual persons from its ranks, and that policy was based on a medical-psychiatric rationale.

Thus, the mental health profession played a central role in the original policy barring homosexuals from military service.

In 1973, however, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which had included homosexuality since 1952. The American Psychological Association quickly endorsed this action and, in the years since, the two professional associations have taken a leading role in working to eradicate the stigma historically associated with homosexuality.

After it lost the support of psychiatry and psychology, the military sought other justifications for barring gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel. Eventually, it settled on a rationale that emphasized supposed threats to unit cohesion and heterosexuals’ privacy rights. In essence, the Pentagon now argues that heterosexual personnel have so much antipathy toward gay people that they would be unable and unwilling to set aside that hostility for the good of the military mission. Moreover, the DoD portrays itself as powerless to confront this hostility in the manner it deals with, for example, racial discrimination or sexual harassment.

Of course, this argument is based on ideology rather than empirical data. US allies have successfully instituted policies that allow gay personnel to serve in their militaries. And empirical research reveals serious flaws in the Pentagon’s reasoning.

In the past, society’s major institutions spoke with one voice in condemning homosexuality. Organized religion declared it a sin. The law declared it a crime. And medicine — specifically psychiatry and psychology — declared it a sickness. The vocabularies used by these different institutions provided a quiver of rhetorical arrows for denigrating homosexuality and gay people — as immoral, criminal, sick.

The hegemony of heterosexism is crumbling, however. After the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling, consenting adult homosexual conduct isn’t illegal in the civilan world. And, as every student of introductory psychology learns, homosexuality hasn’t been considered a sickness for more than three decades.

Maybe the recent interventions by the two APAs will help the Pentagon to begin to grasp this fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.