The personal is the political is the psychopathological: Theories on the etiology and teleology of sex and gender

Plan Author

  • Emma Rusbarsky, 2016

Fields of Concentration

  • Gender Studies
  • Psychology

Sample Courses

Project Description

An analysis of the relationship between psychology and the LGBTQ+ community through the lens of nosological practices.

Faculty Sponsors

  • Tom Toleno
  • Jaime Tanner

Outside Evaluator

  • Megan Becker, Brattleboro Retreat


This Plan is an interdisciplinary investigation of the narrative of bi9ological essentialism and its impact on LGBTQ+ communities, including analyses of their historical relationships and medicalization and pathologization in the field of psychiatry. It includes a paper on the history of sex and gender diagnoses as pathologies, and one on the search for a biological basis of sexuality.


There is perhaps no better example of this phenomenon than the pathologization of homosexuality in the 60s and 70s and the resulting belief that removing homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders would bring acceptance and full equality to the gay community. Many of the same social critiques of the pathologization of homosexuality are still relevant in their parallels to the medicalization of transexuality taking place currently. The declassification of homosexuality in 1974 and the reclassification of Gender Identity Disorder as Gender Dysphoria in 2013 are comparable APA responses to similar social climates and activist pressures. By observing the environment and process by which homosexuality was declassified it is possible to gain insight into the potential future of the Gender Dysphoria diagnosis

As was the case with homosexuality before it, depathologizing Gender Dysphoria isn’t a comprehensive solution to trans* inequality but it will serve to reduce some of the stigma a diagnosis caries. The pathologization of homosexuality is reflective of the social climate that existed at the time and the same is true for Gender Dysphoria . As the defining field psychology helped further perpetuate a gay identity that is synonymous with illness, which became the primary characteristic of such an identity. Defining transgenderism in a psychiatric setting perpetuates the medicalization of identity in much the same way. The field of psychiatry is more aware than ever that the “DSM not only determines how mental disorders are defined and diagnosed, it also impacts how people see themselves and how we see each other.” With this in mind, removing transexuality from the nomenclature may very well be the most inclusive way forward.

While epigenetic theories unify much of the scientific literature on the mechanisms and causes of sexuality, and the research into the fitness benefits address the potential evolutionary reason for the existence of deviant sexualities, there has been little analysis of the relevance of this body of research and why it exists. The importance of identifying a biological basis for sexuality is deeply rooted in the belief that sexuality is immutable and outside the realm of personal control but the importance of that is questionable. The collective value of these scientific efforts is in recognizing that there is no one single mechanism by which homosexuality occurs. No theory of homosexuality is all encompassing, each one only serves to explain factors implicated in certain subsets of homosexualities. The science shows that multiple forms of homosexuality most likely exist, in which case, perhaps some of them aren’t influenced by biology at all.