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May 02, 2016

Forty-four years ago, this Temple psychiatry professor anonymously paved the way for gay rights

New play attempts to show the man behind the mask

The Arts LGBT
John Fryer Handout Art/New York Public Library

Temple University psychiatry professor John Fryer delivers his speech, in which he admits to being gay, among his peers at an APA conference in 1972. Because he wore a disguise during the speech, he became known in history as 'Dr. Henry Anonymous.'

"I am a homosexual, I am a psychiatrist."

These are the words that would forever cement John Fryer as "Dr. Henry Anonymous," the mysterious masked man who, whether or not he realized it at the time, would create a gay-rights snowball that continues to roll in 2016. 

In May 1972, Fryer, then a medical psychiatry professor at Temple University, was called upon by the openly gay Dr. Frank Karmeny — fired from his job as a government astronomer about a decade prior — and Philadelphia-native activist Barbara Gittings to speak to an audience of his peers at the American Psychiatric Association's convention in Dallas. 

The convention, entitled "Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual," was a response to recent calls to remove homosexuality from the association's DSM, a manual of disorders used by medical professionals across the country. 

When asked by Gittings to deliver a speech to the convention that acknowledged his sexual orientation and his profession as a psychiatrist, Fryer agreed — but with terms. Because he was untenured and risked being fired, he would be open about it but only anonymously, shielded by a rubber mask purchased from a joke shop, a frizzy black wig, a tuxedo and a distorted microphone.

After he delivered a brief speech countering the idea that one "cannot be healthy and homosexual," the room was left quiet and in awe. Following additional protests, the association soon moved toward eliminating homosexuality from the list of disorders. The decision was ratified by April 1974 and, significantly, made it difficult for states to continue to criminalize homosexuality on the basis of deviance. 

Still, it wasn't until nearly 20 years later that Fryer publicly opened up about his identity, at an APA meeting held in Philadelphia. (He did eventually get tenure at Temple.) As a result of that initial anonymity, he's been something of a footnote in history. 

Which is where New York playwright Ain Gordon found his intrigue.

While most history buffs dig into the meat of a textbook, Gordon is the guy whose eyes go right to the margins. Gordon, who has a record of reimagining historical stories, received funding from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to partner with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for productions that explore "individual liberty versus national acceptance." 

He discovered 217 archived boxes at the historical society that had belonged to Fryer (coincidentally, just as he'd discovered Fryer's story through an article about Gittings). Zealously, Gordon combed through boxes. In some, he found only old utility bills. But in another, he hit paydirt: a manuscript of Fryer's 1972 speech.

Gordon: There was no reason to know he once risked everything to form the life he continued to lead, but he did ... The history of the man behind the mask was more famous than the man in it.

He knew he had a story to tell.

"I began to think about people, groups, communities who need to move under deep cover for a long period of time before they gain the power to step into the light," Gordon told PhillyVoice. "How do we historify a time in which they necessarily left no trace?”

Fryer, he felt, represented that idea — both in what he did and how he continued to live his life. He would go on to have an accomplished career researching addiction and grief, but lived a curiously ordinary and under-the-radar life after his big moment in 1972. He was an organist and choirmaster at a local Episcopalian church, Gordon said, never held a long-term relationship, made little fuss about his 1972 speech and resided in a Germantown house until he died in 2003. Which all, ultimately, led him to this question — and challenge — for Gordon's play: Who was the man behind the mask?

"There was no reason to know he once risked everything to form the life he continued to lead, but he did," Gordon remarked.

"The history of the man behind the mask was more famous than the man in it."

In his play, "217 Boxes," which premieres May 5 at the Painted Bride theater, Gordon focuses on three characters who consistently spring up in the boxes' documents. Together, surrounded by the archival boxes dispersed over the stage, they piece together the puzzle of who Fryer was. The play culminates in a reenactment of his landmark speech. 

“I’m hoping people will come and learn about him and where the LGBT movement was at that point," Gordon said. "Who was doing it, what was it called, what was actually possible and what they were up against.

"And I think [this play] is, in some ways, a tribute to him and his bravery. It’s a theatrical performance — I am having my own theatrical fun. But I hope in the end I am offering a tribute."

"217 Boxes" runs May 5-7 at 8 p.m. at the Painted Bride. The project is part of Pick Up Performance's ongoing "An Artist Embedded" series.