’81 Words’ series from ‘Pose’ co-creator Steven Canals to explore queer history

81 Words Steven Canals

Dr. John E. Fryer, right, disguised as Dr. Henry Anonymous, speaks on a 1972 panel at the American Psychiatric Association. Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, left, and gay activist Frank Kameny, middle, also participated on the panel. Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

“Pose” creator Steven Canals will develop “81 Words,” a miniseries examining the historic effort in the 1970s by a group of gay and lesbian activists who challenged the definition of homosexuality as a mental illness.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association rocked the mental health world when it declared homosexuality was not a disease. The psychiatric group made history by simply changing the 81-word definition of sexual deviance.

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Canals, the Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning co-creator of “Pose,” will write the script for the FX drama. It will be based on Alix Spiegel’s award-winning 2002 “This American Life” episode “81 Words” and “Cured,“ a forthcoming PBS documentary directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer.

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In 1973, activists Frank Kameny, who identified as gay, and Barbara Gittings, who identified as a lesbian, risked their career reputations.

Gittings was a prominent activist for gay and lesbian equality. She organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis from 1958 to 1963 and edited its national magazine The Ladder from 1963 to 1966. Gittings also worked closely with Kameny in the 1960s on the first picket lines that brought attention to the ban on employment of gay people by the largest employer in the country,  the United States government.

Gittings and Kameny worked with GAYPA, a clandestine group of closeted psychiatrists within the American Psychiatric Association, to change the definition of homosexuality from a mental disorder in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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Dr. John E. Fryer was invited to Gittings and Kameny’s 1972 panel discussion “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe To Homosexuals?” They wanted to overturn the federal government’s ban on gay and lesbian employees and the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.

Gittings and Kameny had invited about a dozen psychiatrists to speak at the panel, but they all turned down the chance to appear. Whoever accepted the invitation had to public acknowledge being gay. Many of the invited guests thought that such an admission would be career suicide and public humiliation.

When Gittings and Kameny agreed with Fryer’s condition to allow him to wear a mask, Fryer accepted their invitation.

Gittings and Kameny succeeded in their efforts.

Previous to their success in having the American Psychiatric Association assert that homosexuality is not a mental illness, the medical establishment considered gays and lesbians sexually deviant and diagnosed them as mentally ill.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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