New Film Columns Fight To Remove “Mental Disorder” Label From Homosexuality


In May 1970, Gary Alinder and other members of the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front militant group attended – or, as Alinder later recounted, “invaded” – the American Psychiatric Association’s National Convention in San Francisco.

The activists’ goal was clear: they planned to confront the more than 10,000 psychiatrists present about the APA’s designation of homosexuality as a mental illness. The organization had maintained this characterization since 1952, when it first officially classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder” in the first edition of its manual.

“We thought it was an opportunity for us to be there and speak out,” Alinder, 77, told NBC News of the showdown. “We said, ‘This is our lives we’re talking about; we know them better than you ‘… We created some uproar, and that was our intention.

“As long as the mental institution labeled and classified homosexuals as mentally ill, the consequences were really dire.”

Bennett Singer, producer of ‘CURED’

The Berkeley Gay Liberation Front’s action was “the first active protest that actually disrupted one of their conventions,” he said. Over the next few years, others followed.

A new documentary, “Cured” – which premiered on PBS on October 11, or National Coming Out Day – chronicles this multi-year campaign, which ultimately led the APA to remove homosexuality from its mental illness manual by 1973. (The APA initially reclassified homosexuality as a “sexual orientation disorder,” which it removed from its textbook in 1980.)

The 1973 decision was “a turning point in the LGBT equality movement,” according to producer and director Bennett Singer, who partnered with Patrick Sammon to make “Cured.”

“As long as the mental institution labeled and classified homosexuals as mentally ill, the consequences of this were really profound – both in terms of perceptions of society and reluctance to consider civil rights or measures towards equality. for homosexuals, and also in terms of how homosexuals perceive ourselves, ”Singer added.

For decades before this change, LGBTQ people were subjected to painful and traumatic practices – including electroconvulsive therapy and shock therapy – in an attempt to “alter” their sexual orientations. More extreme measures included castrations and lobotomies. Doctors and other perpetrators of these practices have often justified the procedures on the basis of APA’s characterization of homosexuality as a mental illness.

Reverend Magora Kennedy leads a worship service in Harlem to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969.History center films

People who have been spared from these procedures face other forms of torture. For Reverend Magora Kennedy, who appears in the documentary and grew up in upstate New York, the threat of being sent to a mental institution hung over her childhood, she said. When she was 14, her mother forced her to marry a man who was 21 years older, she added. The marriage was quickly called off due to Kennedy’s age, but the damage to her relationship with her mother persisted for decades, she said: “I really felt betrayed by my mother.” Kennedy, 83, told NBC News.

Kennedy also felt betrayed by other activists who did not recognize the aggravated discrimination she faced as a black lesbian, she said.

White gay activists she organized with “failed to recognize the role of race,” she said. “It was a whole different world.”

And “black people in the Black Panther Party were kicked out for being gay,” Kennedy added. (Party co-founder Huey Newton published a letter in his journal in 1970 urging members to support the Gay Liberation Movement.)

Greater acceptance of homosexuals normalized as the gay liberation movement gained momentum after the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Resistance to the mental institution’s discriminatory views of homosexuals grew. is also widespread.

For Alinder, his own questioning of the dominant characterizations of psychiatrists regarding homosexuals had begun a few years earlier, when he was a student at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. There he perused the writings of two psychiatrists. then prominent – Dr Irving Bieber and Dr Charles Socarides – who both argued that homosexuality was a disease that could be “cured”.

When Alinder later learned that Bieber was going to be at the 1970 convention that he would disrupt, “it was like the devil himself was going to show up,” he said. “How could we not be here? (Alinder and other members of the Gay Liberation Front heckled Bieber during his remarks, Alinder says in the documentary.)

Frank Kameny, center, walks with members of the Mattachine Society of Washington DC to participate in the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in New York City in 1970.Kay Tobin / The New York Public Library

At the 1971 APA convention, activist and astronomer Frank Kameny asked psychiatrists to provide evidence for their alleged theories that homosexuality is a mental illness – a claim they were unable to. satisfied.

“Kameny was able to make a very convincing argument that these claims were not based on sound scientific principles,” Singer said. “It was a really essential idea that mobilized activists and was also very helpful in getting APA members to rethink this diagnosis.”

At the next year’s convention, resistance came from within: An anonymous psychiatrist, wearing a disguised wig and mask – who later introduced himself as Dr John Fryer – gave a speech describing to both the challenges and the responsibilities that gay psychiatrists faced, based on his own experiences. “I am homosexual. I am a psychiatrist ”, we read in the first two lines of his speech.

Disguised as “Dr. H. Anonymous” in an oversized tuxedo and warped Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shockwaves through the American Psychiatric Association’s 1972 convention by describing his life as a closed-ended gay psychiatrist.Kay Tobin / The New York Public Library

“Cured” features footage and sound of Fryer’s speech, which showed “what was at stake for John Fryer and for gay psychiatrists at the time,” Singer said. “He could have lost his medical license, he could have been fired from his job. But it also underlines the courage he showed in making the decision to become a gay psychiatrist. ”

When the APA finally decided to do away with homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, “that was really a fundamental building block for the advancements that emerged thereafter,” Singer said, noting that the federal government had lifted the 1975 ban on employing homosexuals in the public service; 20 states repealing sodomy laws in the 1970s; and, later, the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military, and the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage.

But progress has not been linear or complete, Singer said, pointing to the persistence of conversion therapy – the controversial practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – which is currently legal in at least 22 states, according to the Advancement Movement. Project.

“There is a direct connection between the urge to want to ‘heal’ a person that we document in the film and the continued practice of conversion therapy,” Singer said.

Yet the APA’s decision in 1973 – and the years of activism that preceded it – were, for LGBTQ people, “really a first step in claiming some kind of legitimacy as people,” Alinder said. .

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