Ideas for social sciences for LGBT history month: Mental illness

Barbara Gitting demonstrating

February is LGBT history month, so I thought I would come up with a quick list of ways to get LGBT equality onto the curriculum for sociology and psychology, the two areas I teach on. I think one of the main problems faced by E & D (other than a lack of knowledge) is a lack of time for adapting and for A levels where the specs tend to be very content heavy and prescriptive that doesn’t leave much room for challenging the stuff that is set out for us so I have been lucky to spend quite a bit of time on Access courses where you have a lot more freedom to think about what you are delivering. Hopefully these fit into a number of different specs and obviously the best thing is to be including stuff through the year, but I guess the point of a history month is to flag up that you should be thinking about it.

Hopefully I will get one area a week done for February.  I’m going to start off with mental illness, which can be looked at in the main curriculum for psychology or within social construction of health and illness in sociology.

1) Mental illness: diagnosis and treatments.

One way to highlight for students the extent to which diagnostic criteria reflect power within society and can be argued to be a form of social control (an argument they hopefully should be familiar with by the end of a mental illness unit) is to use homosexuality as a case study. It took until 1973 for homosexuality to be removed from the DSM, largely an achievement of the gay rights movement. Historically both the biological approach and the behaviourist approach have been involved in dehumanising and brutal treatments for the “illness” of being gay, from testicular transplants to aversion therapy. For anyone teaching psychosurgery as a biological treatment it is worth noting that up to 40% of Freeman’s lobotomies were carried out on gay patients. Gay people were institutionalised, lobotomised, castrated, given various chemical treatments, and their history in the asylum and out highlights the experimental nature of psychiatry as it developed as a hierarchical force for “science” and social norms.

Historically the diagnosis and treatment of lesbianism has its origins in the general suspicion of women, female sexuality and resultant mental health that can be seen writ large through the victorian era in the diagnoses of nymphomania (symptoms including committing adultery, flirting, being divorced, feeling more passionate than one’s husband, and homosexual impulses) and hysteria (the mental illness caused by having a womb). The treatments given to women showing deviant sexuality include a huge array of abuse, including what we would now describe as FGM and see as a problem of religion rather than science.

Gender identity disorder – nowadays called gender dysphoria – remains as a disorder on the latest edition of the DSM. Trans issues are likely to be the most misunderstood by students. One way to approach trans rights within mental health as a topic is to look at the horrific case of David Reimer, the child who was experimentally raised as female following a botched circumscision. The case of David and the mental health problems that plagued him (probably as a result of abuse alongside being raised in a gender identity which felt wrong to him) can be used to look at the parallel damage society can do to anyone forced into the wrong gender.


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