The Nixon-Masked Man Who Helped End Homosexuality as a Disease

In 1972, risking his career, a masked man stood up before the American Psychiatric Association and announced he was gay. One year later, homosexuality was no longer classified a mental disorder.

12.26.15 5:03 AM ET

“I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”

With those words, Dr. Anonymous began his famous address to the 1972 convention of the American Psychiatric Association. No one in the room recognized the homosexual before them because he was disguised in an oversized tuxedo, a distorted Nixon mask, and a wig. His boyfriend at the time was a drama major and helped him concoct the get-up, which proved difficult because he was a rather large man. But the costume was successful. No one recognized him, he later recalled. The costume was “clean.”

The man behind the mask was John Fryer, a psychiatrist and professor. He was born in Kentucky, educated at Transylvania College and Vanderbilt University, and held a faculty appointment at Temple University. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Fryer treated patients at Temple, Friends Hospital, and his own private practice in Germantown. His professional work focused on drug and alcohol dependence as well as death and bereavement.

As Fryer spoke into a microphone that warped his voice, Dr. Anonymous told the audience not to worry about his real identity—“I could be any one of more than 200 psychiatrists registered at this convention”—and to give him a fair hearing. What he had to tell them was an issue of life or death.

Dr. Anonymous, and other gay psychiatrists like him, were suffering, he said, from what he termed “Nigger Syndrome”—if they wanted to achieve success in their field, they had to “know their place.”

Much like the black man with light skin, who chooses to live as a white man, we cannot be seen with our real friends, our real homosexual family, lest our secret be known, and our dooms sealed.

Anonymous was sadly familiar with this doom. By the time he delivered his 1972 speech, he later recalled, “I had been thrown out of a residency because I was gay; I had lost a job because I was gay.”

Being gay in most career fields was risky, but this was especially so in psychiatry, the medical field responsible for defining homosexuality as a sickness. The conclusion that homosexuality was a mental disorder was so widely accepted that it was written into the APA’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [DSM], the first edition of which was published in 1952. According to the DSM-I (PDF), homosexuality was a sociopathic personality disturbance. The second edition of the DSM, released in 1968, classified homosexuality as a sexual deviation.

The publication of DSM-II coincided with the gay rights movement, a high point of which was the 1969 Stonewall Riots. It was this momentum that led to Dr. Anonymous’s speech. “Having successfully challenged the police and government attempts to shut down public places where gay people gathered, gay activists would soon challenge psychiatric authority as well,” notes the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists.

In 1970, the APA held its annual conference in San Francisco—then, as now, a very gay-friendly city. Just as the Gay Liberation Front disrupted the American Medical Association’s meeting in 1968, activists from the Society for Individual Rights and Daughters of Bilitis “took over an American Psychiatric Association session on sex,” according to a May 1970 story in The Washington Post. (The article was fabulously called “Gays and Dolls Battle Shrinks.”)

In an interview with Alix Spiegel for a 2002 episode of This American Life, Gary Allender, one of the protesters that day, explained their goals for the protest: “We were not polite. We were not quiet. We were not asking for favors. We were just trying to delegitimize their authority and we felt they were oppressing us and here was finally a chance to talk back to them.”

The protesters certainly weren’t polite. As some of them stormed a session on aversion therapy, others went throughout the building searching for Irving Bieber, at that time one of the most respected authorities on homosexuality, due to his 1962 landmark study, Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals. Since Bieber’s work confirmed the theory that homosexuality was a pathology, protesters focused their rage on him.

“Motherfucker!” they shouted at him. “If your book talked about black people the way it talked about homosexuals,” said another, “you’d be drawn and quartered and you’d deserve it!”

Despite the heightened emotions of the event, the protesters’ message to the APA was simple, said Barbara Gittings, a prominent lesbian activist: “Stop talking about us and starting talking with us.”

Fryer told Spiegel he remembered feeling uncomfortable with the protests. “I, frankly, at the beginning, remember the sense that I was embarrassed by it and that I wished they’d shut up.”

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Homosexuality was a disorder. That was the medical consensus. Most psychiatrists in the APA, Fryer told Spiegel, agreed with the assessment. “95, 98, 99 [percent agreed]. Even the ones of us who were gay.”

Fryer’s discomfort came to a head in November 1971 when Gittings contacted him at his lover’s house in New Hampshire. Gay rights activists had been making great strides. Earlier that spring, some had been invited to participate in an APA conference held in D.C. Franklin Kameny, an early gay rights pioneer and a Harvard-educated astronomer, was asked to moderate a panel called “Lifestyles of Non-Patient Homosexuals.” When the panel was disrupted by a planned protest, Kameny shouted at his audience: “Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate. Psychiatry has waged a relentless war against us. You may take this as a declaration of war against you!”

Perhaps war wasn’t necessary. Maybe what was needed was a mediator, someone who could stand in the gap between homosexuals and the APA.

“John, we need you to be on a panel,” Gittings told Fryer over the phone. “It’s going to be a panel about homosexuality, and we need a gay psychiatrist.”

“Sooo…?!” was Fryer’s response.

He wasn’t feeling “very secure” professionally. His faculty appointment at Temple was part-time, and he didn’t have tenure—not to mention he’d already been fired for being gay.

“But I thought about it and realized it was something that had to be done,” he said. And so he reluctantly accepted Gittings’s request, with the stipulation of the costume and voice changer.

Fryer’s speech was brief. He began by acknowledging the existence of many closeted gay psychiatrists—the GAY-PA they cheekily called themselves—and argued that the Academy’s stance on homosexuality gravely affected them. “As psychiatrists who are homosexuals,” he said, “we must look carefully at the power which lies in our hands to define the health of others around us.” Because the world sees gays and lesbians as dysfunctional, he argued, it was important that homosexual psychiatrists “have clearly in our minds our own particular understanding of what it is to be a healthy homosexual.”

Gay psychiatrists, noted Dr. Anonymous, were in a double bind: their professional community denigrated homosexuals, and their gay friends returned the favor. “There is much negative feeling in the homosexual community toward psychiatrists. And those of us who are visible are the easiest targets on which they can vent their anger.”

Gay psychiatrists, like the masked man before them, had the unique opportunity to positively influence both sides of the battle. In particular, he suggested, his audience should show some “creative ingenuity” in discussions with colleagues looking down on homosexuality. “Make sure you let your associates know that they have a few issues that they have to think through again.” And when fellow gays come to you for treatment, he warned, “don’t let your own problems get in your way, but develop creative ways to let the patients know that they’re all right.”

In conclusion, Fryer pleaded with his colleagues to find ways they might become involved with movements seeking to change the minds of gay and straight people alike on homosexuality. Everyone must work together, he said, because everyone has something to lose—something much more crucial than a job promotion or a faculty appointment. Something that cuts through the heart of each of us: our full humanity, “with all of the lessons it has to teach all the other humans around us.”

This is the greatest loss, our honest humanity, and that loss leads all those others around us to lose that little bit of their humanity as well. For, if they were truly comfortable with their own homosexuality, then they could be comfortable with ours. We must, therefore, use our skills and wisdom to help them and us grow to be comfortable with that little piece of humanity called homosexuality.

Fryer says he got a standing ovation.

One year later, homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder. There were many people who were integral in bringing about this moment, but as playwright Ain Gordon, who is composing a play on Fryer, notes, “the wheels began turning almost immediately” after Dr. Anonymous opened his mouth.

Fryer kept Dr. Anonymous a secret for two decades, until the 1994 APA convention in Philadelphia. In recognition of the importance of his speech, the AGLP honored Fryer with its Distinguished Service Award in 2002. The association has also named an annual award after Fryer, which is given to individuals “whose work has contributed to the mental health of sexual minorities.”

Gordon says he’s struck by the doctor’s bravery, and finds it telling that Fryer never sought public glory for his speech, even later when he was openly gay at Temple. For Gordon, there’s something noteworthy about the dichotomy between the heroic, larger-than-life moment a masked Fryer took that stage, and the ordinary man—“much like the rest of us”—Fryer was in his daily life.

There’s a question Gordon thinks Dr. Anonymous puts to us: “If we reached the precipice moment and were asked to stand up, would we each have the guts?”

Alas, courage comes at a cost. One year after Fryer secretly addressed the APA, while on staff at Friends Hospital, trouble caught up to him. According to Fryer’s account, one medical student “perceived” Fryer was getting too close to him and complained to the administration. Fryer was subsequently terminated.

“If you were gay and not flamboyant we would keep you,” one administrator told him. “If you were flamboyant and not gay we would keep you. But since you are both gay and flamboyant, we cannot keep you.”

That administrator, Fryer notes, was actually in the front row one year earlier as Dr. Anonymous delivered his famous speech.

“He never knew I was I.”