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New film chronicles fight to remove homosexuality’s ‘mental disorder’ label

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

The activists’ purpose 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 that characterization since 1952, when it first officially classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the first edition of its manual.

“We figured it was an opportunity for us to be there and raise our voices,” Alinder, 77, told NBC News of the confrontation. “We said, ‘This is our lives we’re talking about; we know them better than you do’… We created a bit of an uproar, and that was our intention.” 

“As long as the psychiatric establishment labeled and classified gay people as mentally ill, the consequences of that were really far-reaching.”

Bennett Singer, ‘CURED’ Producer

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

A new documentary, “Cured” — premiering on PBS on Oct. 11, or National Coming Out Day — chronicles this years-long campaign, which ultimately led the APA to remove homosexuality from its manual of mental illnesses in 1973. (The APA initially reclassified homosexuality as a “sexual orientation disturbance,” which it removed from its manual by 1980.)

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

“As long as the psychiatric establishment labeled and classified gay people as mentally ill, the consequences of that were really far-reaching — both in terms of society’s perceptions and unwillingness to consider civil rights or steps towards equality for gay people, and also in terms of gay peoples’ perceptions of ourselves,” Singer added. 

For decades prior to that shift, LGBTQ people were subjected to painful and traumatizing practices — including electroconvulsive therapy and shock therapy — in efforts to “alter” their sexual orientations. More extreme measures included castrations and lobotomies. Doctors and other perpetrators of these practices often justified the procedures based on the APA’s characterization of homosexuality as a mental illness.

Rev. Magora Kennedy leads a worship service in Harlem to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising.Story Center FIlms

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

Kennedy also felt betrayed by fellow activists who didn’t recognize the compounded discrimination she faced as a Black lesbian, she said. 

The white gay activists she organized with “didn’t recognize the role of race,” she said. “It was a whole different world.”

And “Black people in the Black Panther Party got thrown out because they were gay,” Kennedy added. (The Party’s cofounder, Huey Newton, published a letter in its newspaper in 1970 urging members to support the Gay Liberation Movement.) 

Greater acceptance of gay people became more normalized as the gay liberation movement gained steam following the 1969 Stonewall uprising. Resistance to the psychiatric establishment’s discriminatory views of gay people also became more widespread. 

For Alinder, his own questioning of psychiatrists’ dominant characterizations of gay people had begun a few years earlier, when he was a college student at the University of Minnesota in the ‘60s. There, he skimmed the writings of two then-prominent psychiatrists — Dr. Irving Bieber and Dr. Charles Socarides — who both argued that homosexuality was an illness 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 there?” (Alinder and others in the Gay Liberation Front heckled Bieber during his remarks, Alinder says in the documentary.)

Frank Kameny, center, marches with members of the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. to march in New York’s 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day march.Kay Tobin / The New York Public Library

At the 1971 APA convention, activist and astronomer Frank Kameny demanded the psychiatrists provide proof of their so-called theories about homosexuality being a mental illness — a request they were unable to fulfill. 

“Kameny was able to make a very persuasive argument that those claims were not based on solid scientific principles,” Singer said. “That was a really essential insight that mobilized the activists and also was really instrumental in getting members of the APA to rethink this diagnosis.” 

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

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

“Cured” features images and audio of Fryer’s speech, which showed “what was at stake for John Fryer and for gay psychiatrists at the time,” said Singer. “He could’ve lost his medical license, he could’ve been fired from his job. But it also underscores the courage that he summoned in making the decision to come out as a gay psychiatrist.” 

When the APA finally decided to remove homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, “it was really a fundamental building block for the progress that emerged after,” Singer said, pointing to the federal government lifting the ban, in 1975, on the employment of gay people in the civil service; 20 states repealing their sodomy laws over the course of the 1970s; and, later, the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage

But progress has neither been linear nor 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 Movement Advancement Project.

“There’s a direct connection between the impetus of wanting to ‘cure’ someone that we document in the film and the ongoing practice of conversion therapy,” Singer said. 

Still, the APA’s 1973 decision — 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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