Editors’ note: This story takes us back to an era before the rights of gay people were recognized as inherent to their humanity and right to privacy. The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v Wade makes clear that the removal of a woman’s right to privacy and bodily autonomy might now be extended to the rights of LGBTQ people.
Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, wrote that the court “should reconsider” three other “demonstrably erroneous decisions”: Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision granting married couples the right to contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case that struck down sodomy laws; and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case giving gay couples the right to marry.
This article is a collaboration between MindSite News and KQED Public Radio‘s The California Report Magazine. You can listen to the audio documentary here.
Spider, spider, along the ceiling slide
spin your prison cell locking me inside,
now should my fearful trembling send
a tremor through your webbed descent
then it is true what I surmise
that men their dreadful dooms devise
on as thin a silk as yours.
—Gene Ampon, #11302, Atascadero State Hospital, circa 1962
Gene Ampon committed his “Spider Spider” poem to memory as a teenager locked in solitary confinement at Atascadero State Hospital. It was the early 1960s, and across the country, state laws and psychiatric diagnoses had converged to create a grim era for LGBTQ people – especially gay men.
The state psychiatric facility on California’s central coast had opened just eight years before Ampon got there, proudly proclaiming itself the only one in the world to specialize in the treatment of “sexual deviants.” Scholars would come to describe it as the most notorious facility in the Western United States to confine and mistreat gay men.
Most patients were adults who’d been targeted, entrapped and arrested for public displays of gay behavior. And because “homosexuality” was considered a psychiatric disorder, judges could commit them to Atascadero – sometimes before their criminal cases had been adjudicated – for evaluation and indefinite treatment.
Others weren’t even adults.
Ampon was just 16 years old when law enforcement delivered him to the locked hospital. His story is part of a dark history when gay men, and even teens, were confined by the state and subjected to treatments that today would be considered torture.
It’s a time that’s been largely forgotten, crowded out by celebrations of LGBTQ PRIDE. Yet it’s essential that we remember. Because LGBTQ rights are once again under attack – in Florida, Texas, Alabama and beyond.
As in most bleak chapters of history, there are points of light – heroes who rejected the notion of “homosexuality” as a mental illness, and galvanized a movement that brought about radical change.
* * *
The 75-year-old Gene Ampon agreed to an interview in August 2021. The Seattle home he’d shared with his life partner for four decades sits atop peaceful Queen Anne hill. Wind chimes that Ampon collected cover the porch.
Ampon suffered a stroke in 2019 and at the time of the interview had just completed a round of chemotherapy for cancer in his liver and lungs. His hope in openly sharing his experience, he said, was that “moving forward,” the country and world would have more “enlightened attitudes towards dealing with gay people, especially young gay people.”
Ampon was born in the Bay Area in 1946 to a Filipino father and Irish mother, who soon split up. Money was tight and chaos in his home life gave him the freedom to explore. At age 13, he was spending school days at an arcade near San Francisco’s Tenderloin and its thriving gay scene.
“I used to like pinball machines,” he said. “And there were always older men who would say, ‘Oh you need another quarter?’ I said sure, why not?”
Soon, Ampon was lying about where he was spending the night to hang out with other gay teens – and hook up with men for a place to sleep and a free meal.
“We did actually a lot of cuddling,” he said, “and there was some sex.”
He’d been picked up for truancy before, so he was on the radar of local police. One day, while he was having lunch at a diner, officers strolled in to question him. He landed in juvenile hall and “it snowballed from there.” He was bounced through a series of youth facilities for nearly five months, he said, so his “homosexuality” wouldn’t corrupt other kids.
Men in Ampon’s era were often criminalized for being gay. They could be charged with “lewd and lascivious behavior” for simply holding hands, kissing in public or dancing in a bar. Undercover cops who posed as potential sex partners entrapped men in public parks and restrooms. Charges included solicitation, loitering, vagrancy and indecent exposure. Sodomy and oral copulation carried more serious consequences.
But Ampon was a juvenile, so all he had to do to get locked up was skip school and hang around the gay scene. Because back then, a judge could find a teen to be a “psychopathic delinquent” simply for violating social norms. If their parents or guardians agreed, they’d get shipped off to a state facility for an indefinite stay.
With the perspective of time, Ampon can laugh at the label.
“It kind of sounds like you’re little monsters,” he said. “It wasn’t like I’d killed somebody or stole something, but they didn’t really have any idea what to do with gay kids.”
Ampon insists that his years at Atascadero do not define him. But as a young man, he conceded, “I was angry.” He wrote an account of his confinement after his release that was published by two gay newspapers in the early 1970s. He dedicated his prose poem to “all homosexual prisoners who must daily endure heterosexual justice-oppression.”
In that written account, he described how guards came to his cell with the judge’s order, signed by his parents, too. Soon, he was in handcuffs in the back of a Sheriff’s car, headed to Atascadero.
The car sped south along the California coast
stretching, snapping the ties of family and home.
Sitting, watching his childhood fade thru
the rear-view mirror into mile-long years of fog behind.
Reminding himself to not let them know they’d hurt him;
his defiance shackled to the backseat.
Imprisoned by names he’d been labeled with:
Incorrigable, truant, vagrant, queer, faggot, punk.
“A Menace to Society,” he recalled them saying;
a crime whose only victim was himself.
Like everyone committed to Atascadero, Ampon was considered a patient, not a prisoner. He was there for “treatment,” because “homosexuality” had been listed in the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – since the first edition was published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1952. Now in its Fifth Edition, clinicians still rely on it in diagnosing mental disorders.
If you were gay in 1962, when Ampon got to the hospital, you’d be diagnosed with “psychopathic personality disorder with pathologic sexuality.“
The teens at Atascadero were in the minority, housed with grown men, some of whom were seriously mentally ill and had committed violent crimes. On Ampon’s second day, a group of adult patients sexually assaulted him.
“It was in the utility room, one of the few rooms that didn’t really have a door,” he said. “It’s where the buckets and mops were.”
To reclaim some power, he converted future assaults into transactions — agreeing to sex in exchange for cigarettes and food.
“I guess I was a growing boy and I always wanted more,” he said, “kind of like Oliver Twist.”
Atascadero would get called out by the radical gay press in the early 1970s for a host of inhumane treatments. One headline picked up nationwide described the facility as a “Dachau for Queers.” A review of historical records indicates that by the time those reports were circulating, the worst was over. But not in Gene’s day, when there was no radical gay press in existence to call attention to the horrors.
Transorbital lobotomies, performed with an ice pick, occurred largely during the 1950s and were rare by Gene’s time. But electroconvulsive shock therapy was in full force, for all kinds of patients, not just gay ones. Some received as many as 60 treatments in a single year.
Handwritten notes from an Atascadero research assistant describe one gay patient’s experience. He was given ECT in the late 1960s to “cure” his attraction to men. Then the doctor taunted him, “I bet you won’t do that again.” Ampon knew about these treatments.
He saw the electric shock box wheeling down the hall
stopping at someone else’s room; the guards taunting
him with the threat, “Your turn next.”
A new terror shot through his thoughts as the overhead light
flickered while each jolt burned into some unfortunate brain.
Ampon’s age spared him the electroshock. Instead, he got a morning dose of phenobarbital for more than two years. Psychiatric medication was relatively new but widely used, often with the sole goal of sedating patients.
Gene was also punished with solitary confinement, he said. The longest stint stemmed from “a puppy love” crush. When hospital guards noticed the friendship, they shipped the young man off to prison, and Gene to a sweltering windowless concrete cell, with nothing but a thin sleeping mat. He spent a month there, lost in thought, composing poems about spiders and doom.
Beyond punishment and pills, treatment consisted of pressuring Ampon to not be gay.
“I remember this one doctor who was talking about homosexuality,” Ampon recalled with a mischievous smile. “And he said, well there is a normal homosexual period between 8 and 12 and then beyond that it’s abnormal. So I piped up and said, ‘Is that a.m. or p.m.?’”
His humor is a testament to his resilience, even then. But Ampon wanted out, and he’d end up trying to play the game, telling his treatment team he wanted to “explore” heterosexual experiences. “They thought that was good,” he said.
When Gene turned 18, in mid-1964, he was released. His parents had hardly visited. He was on his own, with no follow-up support. As it happens, he got out just in time. Because “treatment” at Atascadero was about to become even more sadistic.
* * *
In 1966, top clinicians at the facility began experimenting with aversion therapy, a form of conditioning that punishes bad behavior. In this case, it amounted to pure torture.
The treatment involved a drug called Anectine, or succinylcholine. It’s a paralytic traditionally used on unconscious patients before they undergo shock treatment, to keep them from convulsing and hurting themselves. But, historical records show, Atascadero used it on conscious patients – and left out the electric shock.
The goal was to paralyze patients, first their limbs and then their lungs, until they stopped breathing and felt as though they were drowning.
“After respiration stopped, the talking phase of the treatment began,” the doctors wrote in a paper they published about their approach. “Both negative and positive suggestions spoken in a confident, authoritarian manner were made by the male technician.”
The negative admonishments included things like don’t steal, don’t fight, and don’t engage in homosexuality. The team administered the drug to at least 90 patients between 1966 and 1969 without consent. And it wasn’t just gay patients who wound up on a gurney with an IV.
A young psychiatrist who blew the whistle on inhumane treatments at the hospital wrote that “masturbation, hallucinations, escape attempts, [B]lack militance, lying, homosexuality, laziness and mental retardation” were all used as justification for this so-called treatment.
That psychiatrist’s name was Michael Serber. In interviews, his wife at the time – along with four colleagues who joined his mission to transform the hospital’s culture – described him as outspoken and devoted to the civil rights of his patients.
Serber was hired as Atascadero’s research director in 1970. He would die in early 1974 after a short battle with cancer. In the interim, he made waves.
Serber went to the press about violations of patients rights, including the use of Anectine. And he wrote an outraged paper – which no journal would publish – after the American Psychiatric Association concluded that the paralyzing experiments were not unethical. Serber called it a “whitewash.”
A state mental health official had quietly put the Anectine experiments on pause in early 1970 while problems of consent were worked out. Serber put an end to them for good. He’d go on to advocate for all patients, but especially gay patients. He didn’t believe “homosexuality” was a sickness.
Meanwhile, outside Atascadero’s walls, the radical gay rights movement was taking off, and setting its sights on psychiatry and psychology.
“We looked at the sources of gay oppression, and we kind of nailed them as the mental health industry, the church and the state,” said Don Kilhefner, 84.
* * *
Kilhefner is a Jungian psychologist, self-described gay tribal elder and advocate for justice and joy on behalf of LGBTQ people. The Stonewall uprising of June 1969 changed his life. A grad student in history at UCLA, Kilhefner was perusing his daily papers when he saw the story.
“Gay people fighting back, overthrowing police cars, throwing stones, what have you,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Oh, these are my people.’”
The police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s West Village was a spark that lit a fire that still burns today. Trans women had stood up to police in a riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 1966 and a raid of gay patrons at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles the following year triggered its own uprising. But the scope and timing of Stonewall spread the fire across the country, launching a nationwide in-your-face kind of gay activism that replaced the quiet assimilationism that had dominated in the preceding decades.
Kilhefner had been deep in the closet. Three months after Stonewall, he was attending weekly meetings of the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in Los Angeles. Soon, he’d dropped out of school and found an office for the GLF in a rundown fourplex where he was sleeping on the couch at night.
He was also the office manager, which meant manning the hotline. As the only organization in the country with “Gay” in its title and a listed phone number, calls poured in from around the country.
“Ring Ring. I’m dealing with a drug problem. Ring Ring. My landlord is threatening to throw me out. What legal rights do I have?” Kilhefner recalled in a recent interview at his Hollywood bungalow. “Ring Ring. I’ve been arrested. You get it?”
Kilhefner, then in his early 30s, was helping to build a gay community, counseling peers, bailing men out of jail in the middle of the night. But the problem of the mental health industry loomed. Kilhefner said he was well aware that “those in power make the diagnosis.” In order to get gay people out from under the thumb of being pathologized, and get “homosexuality” out of the DSM, the radical gay community would need to engage those people in power.
In the fall of 1970, Kilhefner learned an international conference on behavioral psychology was coming to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Kilhefner had an inside contact who allowed about 30 members of the GLF to infiltrate.
Film footage captured the moment. Right before a presentation on the use of electric shock to “cure” homosexuality, Kilhefner grabbed the mic.
“We’ve been listening to you most of our lives,” he screamed. “Now you listen to us!”
Then he laid out the rules. There would be dialogue, and then the conference could continue. “If you can dig it, stay,” he said. “If you can’t dig it, we ask you to leave.”
About half of the participants stuck around, breaking into small groups for discussion. The message of the Gay Liberation Front that day: Being gay is not a sickness, the mental health field is making gay people sick.
“It was driving some people to suicide, to depression, to drink,” Kilhefner said. “It was dangerous.”
That dialogue began to bring the two sides together. In late 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of homosexuality as a disorder in and of itself from the DSM.
Even before the American Psychiatric Association agreed that being gay was not a sickness, Atascadero’s Michael Serber was collaborating with Don Kilhefner.
Serber did not believe in trying to turn gay patients straight. Instead, he wanted to help gay patients find community, a stronger sense of self, and, as he wrote, “aid in adjusting to a society which is predominantly heterosexual and is still generally hostile towards homosexuals.”
The Gay Liberation Front had by now morphed into the Gay Community Services Center, with Kilhefner as executive director. He was running a program that offered an array of services to gay men coming back to the community from jails, from prisons – and from Atascadero. Kilhefner’s offer: “We can help them get housing, we can help them get jobs, we can provide mental health support.”
Atascadero began intentionally placing gay men in the gay community. It marked the state hospital system’s first attempt at community follow-up or community care – something that Gene Ampon never had.
After he left Atascadero State Hospital, Ampon moved to Long Beach and tried to do what his treatment team had pushed him to do. He had two live-in girlfriends, one after the next.
“I thought for a while there I was gonna turn straight,” he said, tongue slightly in cheek. “But the main problem I had with them is they both talked too much.”
But Stonewall spoke to him too.
“I stayed gay.”
In 1975, California legalized all sex acts between consenting adults. Two years later, Gene met Roger Anderson, his life partner.
Their Seattle home is covered wall to wall in photos of their worldwide travels. Every year since Atascadero, Ampon said, “seems to be an improvement.”
Both Ampon and Kilhefner cautioned that the fight isn’t over, particularly for transgender people, who continue to face significant discrimination and marginalization, which has contributed to disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and arrest.
Still, the gains of the past half century, Kilhefner said, are worth celebrating. His Gay Community Services Center turned into what is now the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the largest of its kind in the world.
“We’re everywhere,” he said.
Even a young Gene Ampon could see the end game:
We have seen your wrath and suffered your whims
We have endured your laws and survived your justice.
We are your dead victims.
We are your future unborn generations.
We are inevitable.
There is no cure that can make us well in your eyes,
There is no humiliation that can keep us on our knees;
We are inevitable.
Note: In early 2022, Gene died of cancer, with Roger by his side. We’d like to dedicate this story to him.
Lee Romney is an independent journalist with a specialty in mental health and criminal justice. Jenny Johnson is a former public defender who co-founded San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court. This story is a preview of their podcast-in-production, November In My Soul, about mental illness, confinement & liberty in California. Their reporting has received support from a California Humanities California Documentary Project production grant; the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s California Impact Fund; and the California Health Care Foundation. Also, a big thank you to the research librarians at the ONE Gay & Lesbian Archives at USC and at the California State Archives.