Ovesey was born in Manchuria of Ukrainian parents, who took him to the United States. He grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from the University of California in 1937 and the University of California Medical School in 1941. He interned at the Los Angeles County General Hospital, and spent four years in the United States Army. With Abram Kardiner, Ovesey wrote The Mark of Oppression: A Psychosocial Study of the American Negro. Published in 1951, it became a landmark study of the effect of contemporary culture on the black middle class. His wife was advertising executive Regina Ovesey.
Ovesey has been grouped with Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides as the main representatives of the U.S. psychoanalytical current that has been active in promoting analytical methods to revert homosexuality. His notion of pseudohomosexuality was one of the important developments that followed the Kinsey Report of 1948. Ovesey is also known for developing a taxonomy of male-to-female transsexual sexuality with Ethel Person, based on the developmental model of Margaret Mahler. Ovesey's model emphasized the child's separation-individuation anxiety producing a fantasy of symbiotic fusion with the mother which the transsexual tries to resolve by surgically becoming his mother.
- Kardiner A., Ovesey L. (1951). The Mark of Oppression: Explorations in the Personality of the American Negro. Meridian Books
- Ovesey L. (1969). Homosexuality and Pseudohomosexuality. Science House, ISBN 0-87668-017-1
- Ovesey L. Psychoanalytic Theories of Gender Identity. In Person ES, ed. (1999). The Sexual Century. Yale University Press, 1999 ISBN 978-0-300-07604-2
- Ovesey L. The Transsexual Syndrome in Males: Primary Transsexualism. In Person ES, ed. (1999). The Sexual Century. Yale University Press, 1999 ISBN 978-0-300-07604-2
- Person E., Ovesey L. (1974). The transsexual syndrome in males. II. Secondary transsexualism. Am J Psychother 1974 Apr;28(2):174-93
- Kardiner A., Karush A., Ovesey L. A methodological study of Freudian theory. I. Basic concepts. Int J Psychiatry. 1966 Sep;2(5):489-544.
- Lionel Ovesey, Psychoanalyst, Is Dead at 80
- Simon LeVay, Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, The MIT Press, 1996, ISBN 0-262-12199-9
- Kenneth Lewes, Ph.D., The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality, New American Library, 1988, ISBN 0-452-01003-9
- Mahler M, Pine F, Bergman A (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-09554-4
- Person ES, L Ovesey L (1974). The transsexual syndrome in males. II. Secondary transsexualism. Am J Psychother 1974 Apr;28(2):174-93
- Ovesey L, Person ES (1973). Gender identity and psychosexual pathology in men: A psychodynamic analysis of homosexuality, transsexualism, and transvestism. In Person ES, ed. (1999). The Sexual Century. Yale University Press, 1999 ISBN 978-0-300-07604-2