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October 02, 2017

Philly honoring psychiatrist who challenged designation of homosexuality as mental illness

A Philadelphia psychiatrist who challenged the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness is being honored with a historical marker in the city's Gayborhood.

Equality Forum, an LGBTQ educational nonprofit, will be on hand at 13th and Locust streets at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to dedicate the marker to Dr. John Fryer, who's considered a pioneer for his remarks at an American Psychiatric Association panel more than 40 years ago.

The APA began listing homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1952. This led to gay individuals being subjected to cruel forms of "treatment," including chemical castration, electric shock therapy, mental institutionalization and lobotomy.

Beginning in the 1960s, activists Frank Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer, and Barbara Gittings began organizing a campaign against the APA's designation of homosexuality.

They barged into the APA's annual meeting in 1971 in protest and were allowed to organize a panel on a topic for the following year.

Kameny and Gittings were unable to find a gay psychiatrist to participate until they were finally able to recruit Fryer, who spoke at the panel disguised as "Dr. H. Anonymous." Wearing a mask and using a voice modulator, Fryer announced his homosexuality and decried the way he and other gay people were treated in the psychiatric community. Per a biography:

...he declared, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” He described the hardships homophobia imposed on homosexual psychiatrists and patients. “This is the greatest loss, our honest humanity,” he said, “and that loss leads all those around us to lose that little bit of their humanity as well.” The conventioneers were transfixed. Subsequently, the APA formed a panel to evaluate the basis for the DSM classification. In 1973 homosexuality was delisted as a mental illness.

Equality Forum notes that after already being forced out of one residency because of his sexuality, Fryer was taking a great risk with his job at Temple University by participating, even with the disguise.

Fryer lived in Philadelphia until his death in 2003. The APA named a civil rights award after him in 2006, and Kameny and Gittings were its first recipients.

For more information on the historical marker dedication Tuesday, click here.

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