Charles Silverstein, helped remove homosexuality as mental illness, dies

Charles Silverstein Dies

Charles Silverstein, who helped remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses and coauthored “The Joy of Gay Sex,” has died at age 87.

Charles Silverstein, who helped remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses and coauthored “The Joy of Gay Sex,” has died at age 87.

“Today we mourn Dr. Charles Silverstein, who passed away on January 30. 23,” the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, which announced Silverstein’s death, said in a tweet. “A hero, an activist, a leader, and a friend. His contributions to psychology and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals have been felt around the world.”

Charles Silverstein’s first career was as an elementary school teacher, but in the 1970s he earned a Ph.D. in psychology and opened a private psychotherapy practice, according to Outwords. 

It was a pivotal decade for him in many ways. In 1973, his presentation helped persuade the APA to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a landmark decision for gays and lesbians.

“Since I was a psychologist, or at least working on my Ph.D. in psychology, it was decided that I should make the professional presentation, meaning the presentation, all the research and clinical work that suggested that homosexuality was not a mental disorder,” he told The Advocate’s LGBTQ&A podcast in 2021, in one of his last interviews. “And then Jean O’Leary, who had been a nun but was no longer a nun. She left the church. She would make the presentation from the point of view of ordinary people, about discrimination in the city of New York. So it was a very well-organized presentation. We knew what everybody was going to do.”

“I really do like to say these changes that occurred are not because of any one person at any one time. It’s really the sum total of a number of people who fought, sometimes against the enemy, sometimes with each other, because we had lots of that,” he continued. “There is no one person that can claim responsibility for these changes. We worked together.”

The movement to have homosexuality removed as a mental illness started earlier. In 1972, Dr. John E. Fryer made history when he spoke on an American Psychiatric Association panel and told the audience, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”

Fryer, who feared losing his medical license, was disguised in a mask and used a voice modulator and introduced as Dr. Henry Anonymous.

Fryer was invited to the panel, “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe To Homosexuals?,” by pioneering gay and lesbian rights activists Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny. 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, but they all rejected the invitation because a requirement was that the person had to publicly say they are gay. When Gittings and Kameny agreed with Fryer to let him wear a mask, Fryer accepted.

In the 1970s, Silverstein was also involved with the Gay Activists Alliance, a group known for its in-your-face protests, known as “zaps.”

In 1977, the first edition of “The Joy of Gay Sex” was published. Silverstein wrote it with novelist Edmund White. Silverstein had little idea what he was doing in his first gay sexual experience, and wanted to help other gay men be better prepared, he said during the podcast.

Silverstein also wrote other books:

  • “Man to Man: Gay Couples in America”
  • “Gays, Lesbians, and Their Therapists”
  • “A Family Matter: A Parent’s Guide to Homosexuality”
  • “For the Ferryman: A Personal Memoir.

Silverstein was editor of the Journal of Homosexuality.

Silverstein received many honors, including the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Psychological Association and the Achievement Award from GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality.

Silverstein’s longtime partner, William Bory, died of AIDS complications in 1992.

Silverstein married Bill Bartelt in 2017.

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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