From the Desk of Dr. Jeffrey Akman
August 18, 2022
Dear Members and Friends of the GW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences:
American psychiatry and the gay rights movement arrived at an historic intersection fifty years ago at the 1972 Annual Meeting when psychiatrist John Fryer, MD appeared before the membership disguised in a mask, wig and oversized tuxedo as Dr. Henry Anonymous. The “terrified” Dr. Fryer was there to reveal to his stunned colleagues “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” Here is the New York Times article (published 5/2/22) on John Fryer and audio tape of Dr. Anonymous at the annual meeting.
With homosexuality listed as a mental illness in the DSM and many state laws criminalizing homosexuality, no psychiatrist dared risk coming out publicly for fear of losing one’s medical license and career. But John, who was far from being the only closeted LGBTQ psychiatrist in the APA at that time, was there to make his colleagues understand that the closet was a terribly unhealthy place. “We are taking an even bigger risk, however, in not living fully our humanity,” he said. “This is the greatest loss, our honest humanity.”
Catalyzed by Dr. Anonymous’ appearance at the Annual Meeting, the following year the APA removed homosexuality per se out of the DSM. It would take until 1987 for homosexuality to disappear completely from the DSM when “ego dystonic homosexuality” (a diagnosis that legitimized conversion therapies) was removed from the DSM-III-R. By that time, I was an out gay psychiatrist on the GW faculty and friends with John Fryer.
As a professor of psychiatry at Temple engaged in medical student education with expertise in hospice care, death and dying, and HIV/AIDS, John and I had a lot in common. We would see each at APA Annual Meetings and meetings of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists. I visited him in his large Victorian home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and listened to him play the organ in his home. I joined him as his guest at the Institute of Religion in the Age of Science conference where I presented a paper on homosexuality and creativity. But one thing that John rarely spoke about was his experience as Dr. Anonymous. He was no longer closeted, was living a full life as an out gay man, and no longer wanted to be defined by those ten minutes in 1972.
One would think that with all of the advances in LGBTQ civil rights since 1972 that there would little need for continued vigilance or activism. Yet, we are seeing the highest rates of hate crimes targeting LGBTQ individuals and significant health disparities among LGBTQ individuals especially related to mental health and addiction. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made clear in his opinion that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade potentially neuters the legal foundation for much of the civil rights gained by LGBTQ individuals and couples. And across the country, Republican legislators and governors are falling over themselves to pass mean-spirited anti-LGBTQ legislation including the “don’t say gay” laws in public schools and laws that criminalize physicians for prescribing gender reassignment treatments while traumatizing parents and their children by labeling these treatments as child abuse. These laws are already causing LGBTQ kids to feel helpless, depressed and suicidal. These legislators say they care about children and their families, but they really don’t. We are, unfortunately, back in the culture wars where politicians only care about scoring political points with their base at the expense of the vulnerable minority.
It is hard to believe that we are once again seeing states criminalize healthy LGBTQ identity development. Dr. Anonymous’s actions might have led to homosexuality not being considered a mental illness, but the stigma, bigotry and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and their families, unfortunately, remains.
Jeffrey S. Akman, MD