‘Cured’ shows how homosexuality was removed as mental disorder

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association made the landmark decision to remove homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. It had classified same-sex attraction as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in its first edition, which was published in 1952.

In the documentary “Cured,” filmmakers Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer give an inside look at the movement to remove the classification and the pioneering activists who took on the American Psychiatric Association, a formidable institution, and won.

“To be considered a sociopath is quite an intense burden to be branded with,” Singer says.

The activists’ mission was not only to overturn the official diagnosis, but also create a meaningful dialogue with the rank-and-file members of the association that would challenge deep-rooted prejudices and transform minds.

Cured Documentary

Disguised as “Dr. Henry Anonymous” in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Richard 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. Activists Barbara Gittings, far left, and Frank Kameny, also were on the panel to talk about being gay. Photo: Kay Tobin via Manuscripts & Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

“Cured” will make its broadcast debut on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday — National Coming Out Day.  The film will also be available on the PBS Video app from Tuesday to Nov. 9.

Up until 1973, the psychiatric establishment said homosexuality was a condition that needed to be cured. In addition to intensive talk therapy, LGBTQ people received painful and brutal treatments including electroconvulsive therapy, aversion therapy, and in extreme cases, castration and lobotomies.

Fearing these “cures” and widespread stigma, many gay men and lesbians were afraid to be their authentic selves.

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Adding insult to injury, the American Psychiatric Association’s “scientific” diagnosis was often used to justify discrimination and persecution against gay men and lesbians.

The documentary “Cured” also provides vital historical context for the ongoing debate about conversion therapy, a harmful practice that aims to cure gender identity or sexual orientation through psychological or faith-based interventions, sometimes called “Pray the Gay Away.”

Although conversion therapy has been discredited by the American Psychiatric Association and other major medical organizations, it is still legal for minors in 30 states.

Stephen Canals (“Pose”) has optioned the documentary as the basis for “81 Words,” a limited series on FX.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Singer, who co-produced and co-directed “Cured,” talks about the gay and lesbian trailblazers showcased in the film and their quest to have homosexuality declassified as a mental disorder.

Here are some excerpts.

Movement to have homosexuality removed as a mental disorder

“I had a general sense that something had changed in 1973 and that there was a turning point, but I didn’t know what had happened, what it meant  or how it had happened,” Singer says. “Patrick, my co-director and co-producer, had the idea that this was a story that hadn’t been told.

“It’s a pivotal moment in the modern LGBTQ movement. This story deserved a closer look to really understand what happened and why it mattered,” he says. “The clock was ticking because so many of the participants and activists at the heart of the story were at an advanced age. Of the 15 people we interviewed, five of our storytellers have died.

“It really underscores in a big way that essential history is easily lost if it is not documented.”

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Idea to make the film

In pushing for the declassification, activists had to appeal to the sensibilities of the American Psychiatric Association members. Activists knew that APA members would need to be persuaded by one of their own. In 1972, at the APA’s annual conference, for the first time, featured a panel discussion on homosexuality lead by gay men and lesbians. The panel had Barbara Gittings; Frank Kameny; and a gay psychiatrist , Dr. John Fryer, who testified on behalf of the declassification campaign. Given the risk involved with publicly identifying as a gay psychiatrist, Fryer presented himself as “Dr. Henry Anonymous” and disguised his identity by wearing a mask and using a microphone with a voice distorter.

“The initial spark (for ‘Cured’) was Dr. Henry Anonymous speaking on the (American Psychiatric Association) panel in 1972 in Dallas. It was a really arresting moment when a psychiatrist puts on a distorted mask, wig,  and oversized tuxedo,” Singer says. “It was the most surreal coming out story you can imagine.

“In order to reveal his true self, Dr. John Fryer had to conceal his identity and call himself Dr. Anonymous. If he had done it openly, he would have been fired and had  his medical license revoked.”

Having dialogue with psychiatrists

“Gay people very smartly wanted to engage in conversation and dialogue with psychiatrists and psychologists and make the point that as gay people they didn’t feel sick or they needed to be cured or treated ot changed,” Singer says. “This was fundamental to the movement. They didn’t encounter psychiatrists  because they didn’t think they needed help. There hadn’t been a history of interaction.

“It gave the rank and file members a chance to think about the issue. If people say they are happy and well adjusted, should we say they are sick and need to change?”

Frank Kameny

During these discussions, activists pressed the American Psychiatric Association to examine evidence and data, urging psychiatrists to move beyond what activist Frank Kameny called the “shabby, shoddy, sleazy pseudoscience masquerading as science” that underlay the sickness label for homosexuality.

“Frank is central to the story,” Singer says. “Frank was a scientist, an astronomer who got his PhD from Harvard. He was fired in the 1950s as part of this purge of gay people from the federal government.  He was an accidental activist.

“Frank said science was essential to this conversation. Frank had a strong personality,” Singer says, with a chuckle. “He was ultimately respected despite his personal style. As a strategist and activist, he had thought through an effective set of arguments to scientists and the general public.”

Barbara Gittings

“Barbara was such an essential activist who deserves a huge amount of credit for the outcome of the story,” Singer says. “She was the perfect counterpart and collaborator to Frank Kameny, who alienated people. Barbara had the opposite personality. She had an engaging style. She could make people laugh and have a  dialogue with them. She was another force to be reckoned with in the LGBTQ movement for equal rights.

“Barbara had a voice of reason,” Singer says. “She brought a lot of heart and soul to the movement. She was able to get people to rethink their opposition and prejudice. She humanized the issue.”

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Kay Lahusen

Kay was Barbara’s partner, but she was more introverted. She was happy to pick up a camera,” Singer says. “So much of what’s in the film is a direct result of Kay Lahusen. She had a smart instinct and realized it was an important moment that should be documented, and I’m going to take pictures. The John Fryer scene and numerous marches are examples of that.

“Kay was always collaborating behind the scenes with Barbara. It was her idea for Dr. Fryer to be part of the panel discussion in 1972, Could you find a gay psychiatrist? Barbara and Kay were an amazing team.”

Impact of removing the mental disorder label

“Once the label had been removed, it opened the doors to a whole range of other civil rights progress in legislation,” Singer says. “The federal government began rethinking its prejudice policies toward gay people.

“There is a direct line up to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the legalization of same sex marriage. There was a rethinking of gay people as healthy, productive citizenswho deserved rights and dignity.”

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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