Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Born Today In 1937: LGBTQ Activist John E. Fryer M.D.


John E. Fryer, M.D. was born today, November 7, in 1937. He was an psychiatrist and gay rights activist best known for his anonymous speech at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual conference where he appeared in disguise and under the name Dr. Henry Anonymous. 

This event has been cited as a key factor in the decision to de-list homosexuality as a mental illness from the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which helped pave the way for significant advances in LGBTQ civil rights. The APA's "John E. Fryer, M.D., Award" is named in his honor.

At a time when homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness, a sociopathic personality disturbance according to second edition of the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II), published in 1968, Fryer was the first gay American psychiatrist to speak publicly about his sexuality. 

In 1970, a protest at an APA event in San Francisco on aversion therapy, the message of which, according to lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, was “Stop talking about us and starting talking with us,” earned gay and lesbian activists a voice in the association. The next year at the 1971 convention in Washington, Gittings organized a panel discussion on "Lifestyles of Non-patient Homosexuals," which was chaired by gay Harvard University astronomer Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, who had previously lost a job with the Federal Government due to his homosexuality.

In a planned protest, members of the APA's Gay Liberation and the Radical Caucus seized the microphone. Kameny denounced the APA's "oppression" of homosexuals by psychiatry, calling it "the enemy incarnate."

This protest led to a session the next year, at the association's 1972 annual meeting, on homosexuality and mental illness, which included Kameny and Gittings on the panel. Gittings' partner, Kay Lahusen, had noted that the panel had on it homosexuals who were not psychiatrists, and psychiatrists who were not homosexuals, but no homosexual psychiatrists, so Gittings set out to find one who would be willing to be a panel member. 

After numerous contacts, she was unable to find a gay psychiatrist who would speak. Fryer later said that the recent death of his father was one factor that caused him to accept the invitation, but his experiences at losing positions because of his homosexuality meant that he did so only after Gittings suggested that he could be disguised.

Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and Fryer as Dr. Henry Anonymous
Listed only as "Dr. H. Anonymous," later expanded to "Dr. Henry Anonymous," Fryer appeared on stage wearing a rubber joke shop face mask, a wig, and a baggy tuxedo, and spoke through a microphone which distorted his voice. 

In 2002, Dr. Jack Drescher, then the head of the APA’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Issues pointed out "The irony ... that an openly homosexual psychiatrist had to wear a mask to protect his career. So the fact that someone would get up on stage, even in disguise, at the risk of professional denunciation or loss of job, it was not a small thing. Even in disguise, it was a very, very brave thing to do."

At the time of his speaking, Fryer was on the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia, but did not have the security of tenure, so was in real danger of losing his position if he had been identified – he had already lost a residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and was later forced to leave a position on the staff of Friends Hospital because of his flamboyance; ironically the administrator who told him "If you were gay and not flamboyant, we would keep you. If you were flamboyant and not gay we would keep you. But since you are both gay and flamboyant, we cannot keep you" was, according to Fryer, in the front row at his 1972 appearance as Dr. Anonymous, never realizing that Anonymous was Fryer.

Dr. Fryer's speech began "I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist," and continued on to describe the lives of the many gay psychiatrists among the APA who had to hide their sexuality from their colleagues for fear of discrimination, and from fellow homosexuals owing to the disdain in which the psychiatric profession was held among the gay community. Fryer's speech also suggested ways in which gay psychiatrists could subtly and "creatively" challenge prejudice in their profession without disclosing their sexuality, and help gay patients adjust to a society that considered their sexual preferences a sign of psychopathology. There were reportedly more than 100 gay psychiatrists at the convention.

At least one other panelist agreed with Fryer and Kameny that the stance of the psychiatric establishment toward homosexuality was wrong. The APA's Vice President at the time, Dr. Judd Marmor– who would later become the association's president – said "I must concede that psychiatry is prejudiced as has been charged. Psychiatric mores reflect the predominant social mores of the culture." He later wrote "In a democratic society we recognize the rights of such individuals to have widely divergent religious preferences, as long as they do not attempt to force their beliefs on others who do not share them. Our attitudes toward divergent sexual preferences, however, are quite different, obviously because moral values – couched in 'medical' and 'scientific' rationalizations – are involved."

Homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, a year after Fryer's speech – leading the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin to print the headline "Homosexuals gain instant cure" – and Fryer's speech has been cited as a key factor in persuading the psychiatric community to reach this decision. 

Gittings later said of it: "His speech shook up psychiatry. He was the right person at the right time." Fryer himself later wrote in 1985, in the newsletter of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, that it was "something that had to be done" and "the central event in my career." "I had been thrown out of a residency because I was gay. I lost a job because I was gay. ... It had to be said, but I couldn't do it as me. ... I was not yet full time on the [Temple] faculty. I am now tenured, and tenured by a chairman who knows I'm gay. That's how things have changed."

Fryer became a professor at Temple, both of psychiatry, and of family and community medicine. He specialized in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction as well as in death and bereavement. Sometime after 1973, he began treating gay men with AIDS who were dying, seeing them in his home office rather than in his practice at Temple, for reasons of patient confidentiality. He was involved in setting up Physicians in Transition, Temple's Family Life Development Center, the APA's International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement and the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force. In 1980, at the behest of Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of London's St Christopher's Hospice, he took a sabbatical from Temple and helped to restructure the hospice's education department. He retired from Temple in 2000.

Fryer was being treated for diabetes and pulmonary sarcoidosis, and eventually died from gastrointestinal bleeding and aspiration pneumonia in 2003.

Fryer received a "Distinguished Alumnus" aware from Vanderbilt University in 2002, and in that same year was awarded a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP), now the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists. 

After his death, the AGLP, along with the American Psychiatric Association, endowed the APA's "John E. Fryer, M.D., Award" in his memory, to honor a person whose work has contributed to the mental health of sexual minorities, and includes both a lecture at the Fall conference of the ALGP and an honorarium. The first two recipients of the award were Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny.

On October 3, 2017, a historic marker was unveiled in Philadelphia's "Gayborhood," across the street from the Historical Society. It reads:
JOHN E. FRYER. M.D. (1937-2003)
Temple professor and psychiatrist Fryer, disguised as "Dr. Anonymous," spoke against the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as a mental illness at the APA's 1972 annual meeting. Fryer's testimony convinced the APA to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, ending treatments such as chemical castration, electric shock therapy, and lobotomy and paving the way for advances in LGBT civil rights.

1 comment:

Bob Slatten said...

I hadn't heard of him before.
Good that he spoke, sad that he felt the need to do so in hiding, but his little step was huge for the rest of us, and for his profession.