October is LGBTQ+ History Month. To celebrate, let’s turn our attention to a couple Philadelphians whose advocacy contributed greatly to the advancement of LGBTQ+ civil rights in the United States.
John E. Fryer was a psychiatrist and a faculty member of Temple University School of Medicine. He was also a homosexual. (A note on usage: Homosexual was the word Fryer and others used to self-identify. Today the term is discouraged in favor of gay and lesbian.) At the time, a homosexual psychiatrist was thought to be an oxymoron. This was because for much of the 20th Century, “homosexuality” was classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual.
Of course, Fryer and others like him knew there was nothing inherently disordered about LGBTQ+ identity. Due to their personal and professional experience, they understood better than anyone that the classification of homosexuality as a mental health disorder reflected not pathology in individuals, but deep-seated prejudice in the field and in society at large.
Although people like Fryer were ideally positioned to challenge harmful professional practices about sexuality, doing so incurred great personal risk. A psychiatrist who avowed their sexual identity risked the loss of their license and professional ruin. Because of this, LGBTQ+ psychiatrists were faced with a stark choice: conceal their identity or forfeit their careers.
Barbara Gittings was a lesbian activist with a track record for protesting unjust treatment of LGBTQ+ people. She founded the New York chapter of the lesbian civil rights organization Daughters of Bilitis, advocated for visibility of and materials about LGBTQ+ people in libraries, demonstrated against ban on LGBTQ+ federal workers, and more.
In Gittings’s view, the most pernicious obstacle to the pursuit of civil rights for LGBTQ+ people was the assumption that homosexuality is a sickness. With this in mind, she enlisted Fryer’s help to challenge the status quo. Together, they organized a session at the annual American Psychiatric Association (APA) convention titled “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals: A Dialogue”
Wearing a mask to hide his identity, Fryer made a bombshell declaration at the session: He was a psychiatrist, he was a homosexual, and there was nothing sick or disordered about him. This admission sent shockwaves throughout the convention. Soon after, the APA would go on to declassify homosexuality as a mental health disorder.
As we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month this October, let’s take a moment to recognize Barbara Gittings and John E. Fryer for their courage and contributions to the advancement of LGBTQ+ civil rights in the United States.
Author: César Mantilla (he/they) is Assistant Manager of Community-Based Services Development at the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. They have extensive professional experience in community engagement as well as with sexual and gender minorities, undocumented individuals, and people living with HIV/AIDS. César has a BA from New College of Florida and MSW from Temple University.