I  said I didn’t trust psychiatrists, and the man said, “Why?” I said, “Because for thirty years or so of my life, psychiatrists said being gay was a mental illness” on no respectable evidence, and then in 1973 they changed their minds. In the US, there are millions of gay men and women who were living before 1973 who grew up thinking that they were sick, unworthy, failed people, that they ought to change, because that’s what psychiatrists told them. It’s difficult, even impossible, when you’ve thought that you were mentally sick for thirty years, to stop thinking that, just because psychiatrists decide to change their minds. Many, many gay men and women were psychologically crippled by what the psychiatrists did, and the idea of it comes back on a person, unexpected and unwelcome, like a memory of a nightmare. Of course, this is equally true about the various religions and their destructive effect on the humans.

I am focussing here on the relationship between gay people and psychiatrists. (There are plenty of other communities in this country—women, Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, the victims of the Tuskegee experiment—who ought to receive reparations.) Gay people don’t owe psychiatrists anything that I can think of, but psychiatrists as a profession have a large—and as yet undetermined—debt to gay people. Admittedly, it is a loaded word in our culture. Some white people are afraid they’ll lose everything in reparations to black people because of slavery. Germans paid reparations for the Holocaust, and if we pay reparations to black people, we must be as depraved as the Nazis. I doubt that any political unit in the US would vote today to pay reparations to gay people, and yet the idea has been raised now, in this campaign, first by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of the book, Between the World and Me, in his article in 2014 in The Atlantic,The Case for Reparations,” by Bernie Sanders’ comment last week on cable that reparations were not yet politically possible, and this week by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ shorter article in The Atlantic,Why, precisely, is Bernie Sanders against reparations?” In this article, Coates says that Hillary Clinton says the subject is “divisive.” The idea has now come to the forefront of the national consciousness just at the moment when the future seems clearer. Queers now have a relatively secure place in this country under our constitution. The next question is this: What about the past? What about the present?

We have no idea yet what reparations would look like. Ronald Bayer discusses the history of the relationship between queers and psychiatrists in Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. Bayer says that the official listing of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1952) listed homosexuality among “sociopathic personality disturbances” (p. 34). The DSM-II (second edition, published 1968, second printing October 1968) moved the listing to “other non-psychotic mental disorders,” grouped under “sexual deviations”—homosexuality, fetishism, pedophilia, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism and masochism (p. 44). These words and the judgments to which they pointed were the basis for the secular abuse of gay people in the courts, in the professions, in the military, in academia, in the government, and even in the churches, and it was one of the first post-Stonewall goals of the men and women who fought in the riots to force the psychiatrists to change their diagnosis. Yet, after this was done, in 1973 (in the seventh printing of the DSM-II), it was clear that there were millions —even at the lowest proposed percentage of queer men and women in America—still suffering from the damage that had been done them by the psychiatric profession and by the governments of the United States and of the various states. There are still men and women walking the streets of America today who are the walking wounded of those wars that the government waged against us. And the fact that the US government has now changed its mind about these horrific acts, does not mean that the US government didn’t do this horrible thing to its own citizens who still suffer. The suffering of these citizens should be ameliorated in some way, and the government should have to pay. I have raised the question of reparations to gay people here (in 2013) and here (in 2015), but murmuring, “Reparations!” gets us nowhere.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has now forced the issue into the middle of the Presidential campaign. This week, Coates published an article in The Atlantic, asking why Bernie Sanders is opposed to reparations for slavery. This article is built on the foundation of the article Coates wrote in June 2014, also in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” in which he called for a national discussion of the appropriateness of reparations for slavery and what those reparations might consist of.

What Coates says about reparations for slavery is true also about reparations for the treatment of  gay people in this and the last century (and all the way back to Governor William Bradford, who came to America on board the Mayflower with the Pilgrims, who complained in a report on the health of the colony about the amount of sodomy being committed in Plymouth, which included all of the Cape and Provincetown). The first person hanged in Massachusetts Bay Colony was hanged for “buggery.” Discrimination against LGBTQ people was principally a matter of state discrimination. It began with state discrimination. It was a matter of colonial law, and consequently when the law changed, the people executed under the law are today thought to have been executed unjustly. It is that fact—the state acted unjustly against a whole class of its own citizens—that makes reparations appropriate. The state must acknowledge its unjust actions, and the state must suffer punishment, which means pay money to benefit the aggrieved person. If the aggrieved person is already dead, then the money should be paid to benefit people in like circumstances. If the abuse is not a matter of state action—the APA is not an arm of the government—but the abusive action is enabled by the government or used by the government (as the courts and the federal government have used the diagnosis of the APA as the foundation for DADT and the sodomy laws), and if there are men and women who still suffer from the effects of their action, then the APA owes reparations. The APA cannot be allowed to do what it did to so many hundreds of thousands of men and women before 1973, and then to change its mind, and move on, leaving those hundreds of thousands of maimed persons struggling to lead full lives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a fuller description of these facts in his 2014 article for The Atlantic. In my next post, I will describe his proposals for recognizing a situation when reparations are appropriate, and analyze why it is that queer people are owed reparations by the federal government and by the APA, and I will look at Coates’ ideas for the forms that reparations might take.


Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. (New York: Basic Books, 1981. Not in digital format.)

Committee on Nomenclature and Statistics of the American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-2. (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 1968. Second Edition, 1-6th Printing.)

Committee on Nomenclature and Statistics of the American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-2. (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 1968. Second Edition, 7th Printing, containing the new language pertaining to homosexuality adopted in 1973.)