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What we learned from telling the story of this deeply oppressive chapter of California queer history

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

What we learned from telling the story of this deeply oppressive chapter of California queer history

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Gene Ampon, 75, at the Seattle home he shared with his life partner, Roger Anderson.
Gene Ampon, 75, at the Seattle home he shared with his life partner, Roger Anderson.
(Photo by Lee Romney)

I was nervous when I dialed the Seattle number I’d found for Gene Ampon. I’d come across a first-hand account in a 1973 gay liberation newspaper by a young man by the same name. He’d been confined to a state psychiatric facility on California’s Central Coast — because he was gay. 

Compounding the trauma of his experience: He was just 16 years old when a judge committed him to Atascadero State Hospital, where he was housed with grown men, including some who had committed severe acts of violence due to their mental illness. Young Gene’s published account of his years of confinement describes sexual assault, sedation, homophobic slurs by staff and electroconvulsive treatments imposed as punishment.

The Gene Ampon I’d tracked down in Seattle was 75 years old. The ages matched. My research also indicated that he was openly gay with a longtime partner. I was almost certain they were one and the same. But I’d been sitting on the phone number for nearly a month, terrified of making a blunder. 

I’m Lee Romney, the lead reporter on our project. My collaborator and shared brain for this project is Jenny Johnson, a former public defender who helped launch and run San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court for 15 years. The nationally acclaimed court worked to slow the revolving door that sent people living with serious mental illness careening from hospitalization to jail to the streets and back again. The search for Gene was part of the research that Jenny and I were doing for our podcast-in-production, “November In My Soul.” It’s a deeply reported narrative podcast that explores mental illness, confinement and liberty in California through a historical and intersectional lens. 

Our goal is to shine some light on who society defines as mentally ill in the first place, how those diagnoses shift over time, who is most likely to lose their liberty, and who is least likely to be treated with dignity. Our reporting is focused on the voices of Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, elderly and other marginalized communities. While serious mental illness as we understand it today does not discriminate, we continue to label the most powerless among us as deviant, vagrant, demented, psychopathic, schizophrenic — and criminal. 

Jenny and I are pairing each historical episode in the podcast with a contemporary corollary, to demonstrate how bias still permeates our mental health and criminal justice systems. The California Impact Fund grant we received from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism helped us create a half-hour historical radio documentary and companion digital piece about the era when LGBTQ+ people were both criminalized and pathologized. As a result, gay men – and even teenage boys like Gene – could be jailed, imprisoned or committed by the courts to Atascadero for so-called psychiatric treatment. 

Our documentary aired June 24, 2022 on KQED-FM’s The California Report Magazine, and an extensive digital piece simultaneously posted to MindSite News, a nonprofit journalism website dedicated to mental health issues. The documentary serves as the foundation for an episode of our podcast, which we expect to release in late 2023. 

To craft a historical piece of journalism that would speak to listeners and readers, we needed a strong central character with lived experience. 

I knew that young Gene Ampon had dedicated his poetic and powerful piece published back in 1973 in Gay Sunshine to “all homosexual prisoners who must daily endure heterosexual justice-oppression.” He signed off with what appeared to be his real name, along with the institutional number he’d been assigned: #11302. He was a fighter, taking a stand. That said, cold-calling someone to ask about traumas they endured a half century earlier is delicate business. This was our first challenge, and we think other reporters in the field could learn from it. 

I’d already made a clumsy attempt for a separate episode to connect with a family about their late father’s unjust treatment by the mental health system in the 1960s. I’d done it over Facebook Messenger and it didn’t go well. The family slammed the door. Worse than that, I opened a deep wound, and I felt terrible about it. This time, I vowed to broach the topic over the phone, and to warn Gene that it could be a painful one. It’s impossible to know how others have or haven’t processed trauma, especially trauma from decades past. That brings us to our first takeaway.

Lesson 1: Be as transparent as possible when approaching potential sources about trauma, do it over the phone or in person — not online — and be prepared to take no for an answer. Above all, do no harm. 

The phone rang and a man answered. It turned out to be Gene’s longtime partner. I was a journalist from California, I explained. I knew that my call was out of the blue, that it might feel intrusive, but I wanted to talk to Gene Ampon about experiences he’d had half a century ago. I was intentionally vague. I wasn’t positive that this was the right Gene, and even if it was, he may have walled off this chapter of his life from everyone around him.

“Gene,” I heard Roger Anderson say casually over his shoulder, “there’s a journalist on the phone who wants to talk to you about something that happened 50 years ago.” 

With that, we were on our way. At first, Gene said his memory wasn’t great, but then the details started flowing. By the end of our call, he said he was willing to share his experience in a recorded interview. He told me he had never spoken to anyone outside his intimate circle about his time at Atascadero. He’d had a stroke a few years earlier, and now he was battling cancer. If not now, then when? 

If we had not found Gene, it would have been difficult if not impossible for us to make our piece. Many other people I had tried to locate during our research were long gone. Others, I learned from family members, had died just days or months before I reached out. We were racing against the clock, and we were so privileged to be able to shepherd Gene’s story into public view. We also struck gold when we met Don Kilhefner, a Los Angeles-based Jungian psychologist and self-described gay elder who was a pioneering figure in the early days of L.A.’s gay liberation movement. Kilhefner participated in the fight to persuade the psychiatric establishment to stop classifying “homosexuality” as a pathology. He recalled those events as if they’d happened yesterday. Remarkably, we were able to find and license audio of Don at a historic protest back in 1970. 

As we kept digging, we recognized that we’d found another key character crucial to our piece – a psychiatrist at Atascadero in the early 1970s named Michael Serber, who bucked the system and pushed to treat his gay patients with dignity. Serber died in 1974 and we couldn’t find any archival audio of his voice. How would we bring him to life? It was only when we spent a few days hunched over files at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC, spoke with a number of Serber’s former colleagues, and sat down with his former wife who was gracious enough to share his personal papers that we realized just how important he was to the story we wanted to tell. He was an unsung hero. He had protested a culture of patient abuse at Atascadero State Hospital and helped to change it. He also wound up working hand in hand with Don Kilhefner to help gay men coming out of Atascadero. In the end, we used a voice actor to play Serber in the audio documentary and read from some of his notes and published papers. 

Lesson 2: If you’re working on a historical piece, expect dead ends and open your mind to surprise appearances by characters you’ll never be able to interview. 

Perhaps our most dramatic challenge in this reporting was letting go of the story we thought we were going to tell, and making room for the richer story that was taking shape in front of us. Before we managed to visit historical archives, we had read about the treatment of gay patients at Atascadero in gay publications from the early 1970s. Thanks largely to a reporter named Don Jackson, Atascadero became known in some circles as a “Dachau for queers.” Jackson had written about a drug called Anectine, or succinylcholine, that clinicians were allegedly using on gay patients. The drug is a paralytic, and Atascadero’s protocol was to give it to conscious patients until their lungs stopped working and they felt as though they were drowning. Then, they were firmly berated by psychiatric technicians. 

Don Jackson’s writings are what initially drew us to the Atascadero story. But the task of separating fact from fiction in his accounts required persistence. He suggested the torture treatment targeted gay patients exclusively, and he was adamant that the abuses at Atascadero were ongoing in the early 1970s. Neither was true. It took visits to archives in Los Angeles and Sacramento, interviews with Serber’s contemporaries, and access to handwritten notes from Serber’s research assistant to peel back the layers. 

What we learned about that era was in many ways worse than what Don Jackson had reported. Yes, the paralytic drug was administered to gay patients, as were electroconvulsive “treatments” — as punishing “aversion therapy” or as a purported “cure.” But, we learned, they were also inflicted on patients who were Black militants, those in full-blown psychosis, and others who were severely developmentally disabled. We also found out that a state official had quietly ordered a temporary halt in the use of the paralytic drug in January 1970 – and Serber made sure that it never resumed. 

Don Jackson had a narrow agenda, and he’d led us down the garden path, at least for a while. But our research revealed that the abuses affected many vulnerable patients, all of them lacking mainstream allies. It just so happened that, by the early 1970s, with the birth of a radical nationwide gay liberation movement, there was finally a gay press around courageous enough to advocate for gay men confined at Atascadero. 

Lesson 3: Don’t stay wedded to what you think the story is. Be prepared to let go of your assumptions. 

Our final challenge involved making sure that the history felt relevant to our audience. Why should they care? Because bias against LGBTQ+ people is persistent, even ascendant. It’s important to understand this history so that we don’t repeat it. Our pieces were scheduled for broadcast and digital release on June 24, 2022. That morning, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs decision was stunning and disquieting. Jenny and I were also disappointed at the timing for selfish reasons. We wanted our piece to shine. But as we listened to the live broadcast of our documentary that evening, the relevance to the LGBTQ+ movement sunk in. Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas, in his opinion concurring with the ruling, explicitly stated that the court should reconsider three “demonstrably erroneous decisions,” two of which directly impact the LGBTQ+ community: the right to same-sex marriage and the right to privacy in the bedroom. Both of our outlets had already grabbed the opportunity to emphasize that connection by placing an editorial note at the top of our digital pieces. 

Lesson 4: Remind your audience that the history is relevant. Don’t lose your tether to the present.

Jenny and I wound up on an unexpected journey. We started out believing that we were reporting on trauma and scandal for an expose about the hidden torture of gay men at a state-run psychiatric hospital. What we didn’t expect to find were the heroes ahead of their time whose courage to resist oppression and fight for justice gives us hope.

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