In 1972, I was a young federal prosecutor and closeted even to myself. Even though I did not know it at that time, psychiatrist Dr. John Fryer was changing my life and the lives of every member of today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Seventy years ago, in 1952, the American Psychological Association first included homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-1. Treatments for homosexuality included electric shock therapy, chemical castration, placing individuals in mental institutions and performing lobotomies at California’s Atascadero State Hospital.

At the 1971 APA Annual Meeting, Gay Pioneers Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings organized a demonstration demanding the right to be heard on homosexuality. While not psychiatrists, they were granted the opportunity to present a program at the next annual meeting. That symposium titled “Should Homosexuality Be in the APA Nomenclature?” was to include Kameny, Gittings and two heterosexual psychiatrists.

Kameny and Gittings recognized they needed a gay psychiatrist for their presentation to have meaningful impact. At that time, most states would not license a homosexual psychiatrist. A licensee learned to be a homosexual could have the license revoked. To out oneself would result in losing patients, referrals, professional standing, friends, family members and put one’s license at risk. Nobody was willing to take such a risk after 20 years of schooling plus a four-year psychiatry residency; that would truly be crazy.

Gittings, who lived in Philadelphia, knew the closeted psychiatrist Fryer, then a part-time professor at Temple University School of Medicine. Fryer agreed to participate on three conditions: He would employ the pseudonym Dr. Henry Anonymous, wear a mask and use a voice modulator. It would be a fraught moment.

As Dr. Henry Anonymous at the 1972 Annual Meeting, Fryer announced he was a psychiatrist, APA member and a homosexual. He explained homosexuality was not a mental illness and anti-homosexual attitudes were a social prejudice, nothing more. At the conclusion of his presentation, Dr. Anonymous received a standing ovation.

Later that year, the Gay Activist Alliance demonstrated at a conference of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. An Association program advocated electric shock and chemically induced vomiting therapy. The GAA shut down the program and took over the session.

At the 1973 APA Annual Meeting, GAA’s Ron Gold was invited and titled his presentation “Stop It, You’re Making Me Sick!” He received a standing ovation. Later that year, the APA’s assembly endorsed by 13-0 the Committee on Nomenclature’s recommendation to remove homosexuality from DSM-II. In 1974 the APA membership in a referendum affirmed the declassification by a 58 percent margin. The following day, The Philadelphia Bulletin ran the headline: “Ten Million Americans Cured.”

From the perspective of 50 years, John Fryer’s legacy is profound. No longer were gays treated with barbaric cures. The classification could no longer be used to buttress homophobic legislation and regulations. It was a foundational step toward fellow Americans no longer fearing gays and lesbians. For gay activists, the burden of advocating for civil rights became less daunting. In 1979, the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists was founded. Formed six years after Dr. Anonymous’ presentation, it is the first national gay professional organization. The story of what happened 50 years ago is told in the documentary, CURED, which will be screened privately as part of Santa Fe Pride 2022 weeklong events. But the documentary also can be seen on PBS stations during June.

The seminal U.S. Supreme Court LGBTQ civil rights case is Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decriminalizing same-sex intimacy. It’s highly unlikely that 5-4 decision would have been won if homosexuality had remained classified as a mental illness. The Lawrence case underpins the holdings in Windsor v. U.S. (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which established the constitutional right to same-sex marriage. And it was Fryer’s bravery that enabled Saul Levin, an out gay psychiatrist, to serve as the APA’s current Medical Director and CEO.

Fryer is an iconic American civil rights hero. He demonstrated the power of a person to bend the arc of moral justice toward equality.

Malcolm Lazin is an attorney and founding executive director of Equality Forum, a national LGBTQ civil rights organization and LGBT History Month, the largest online educational resource of its type. Lazin is the 2021 recipient of the annual American Psychiatric Association’s John Fryer Award. He lives in Santa Fe.

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