John Fryer

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 22 March 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:662

The “masked, gay, anonymous psychiatrist” who helped to get homosexuality declassified as a mental illness

John Fryer was a huge man in size and reputation. In a speech described by gay activists as a “watershed moment” in the history of gay liberation, Fryer addressed the 1972 convention of the American Psychiatric Association in Dallas, Texas, wearing an enormous wig, a rubber head mask, and an oversized tuxedo, and using a voice distorting microphone. He stunned the standing room only audience of his colleagues, saying: “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”

At the time of Fryer's speech, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual listed homosexuality as a mental illness; electric-shock aversion therapy was still prescribed for gay men and lesbians, and if their sexuality was discovered it often meant job loss.

Fryer, introduced as “Dr H Anonymous,” delivered his own form of shock therapy to the psychiatric world when he told the audience that gay psychiatrists were forced to deal with “nigger syndromes”—facing bigotry similar to black people. He said he could not reveal who he was for fear of losing his job and medical licence.

Frank Kameny, a Harvard astronomer who had been fired from his job with the US Army Maps Service because he was gay, appeared with Fryer on the platform at the American Psychiatric Association's Dallas convention. He had never seen Fryer and knew him only as the “masked, gay, anonymous, psychiatrist.” Kameny said that Fryer's speech had a “profound impact” on what many gay men and lesbians were attempting to do collectively—to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual's list of mental illnesses.

In 1973, the year following Fryer's speech, the American Psychiatric Association's board of trustees voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses—leading one newspaper to announce, “Homosexuals gain instant cure.” Barbara Gittings, a gay rights activist who had convinced Fryer to speak at the 1972 convention, said that he had helped to bring about the change: “His speech shook up psychiatry. He was the right person at the right time.”

Katherine Fryer Helmbock, Fryer's sister, said, “To people who knew John, this was only one of the many things he did, but changing DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] was a momentous thing. This label, mental illness, was one of the bases for treating gay people badly. This took away a huge cudgel used against gay people for so many years.”

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Fryer, who was forced out of his third year of residency at the University of Pennsylvania when it was discovered that he was gay, had insisted on delivering his Dallas speech in disguise not only through fear for his job. It was also “a bit of calculated theatre,” said Barbara Gittings. Flamboyant and outspoken, Fryer often used a bit of theatre to good effect. At a 1974 meeting of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement, a group that he had founded, Fryer wore dashikis—vividly patterned African shirts—and kept order by banging a ceramic cow bell.

Fryer, who described himself as a Kentucky “farm boy,” could be gruff and even combative at times. “He was bright, visionary, and unafraid to speak his mind,” said Mary Barber, president of the American Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists. “It may be that very gruffness, that lack of fear, that allowed him to step up to the plate at a time when no other psychiatrist would.”

Dame Cicely Saunders, president and founder of St Christopher's Hospice in London, and a lifelong friend of Fryer's, said, “He was a fascinating and very stimulating person—sometimes as much by what you disagreed with him about as what you agreed with.” Dame Cicely had first met Fryer in 1970 when she spoke at Yale during a visiting lectureship. They remained in close touch and in 1980-1, at Dame Cicely's invitation, Fryer took a year-long sabbatical from his post as professor of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia to help restructure the education department at St Christopher's. “He was very definite about our priorities. He wanted to teach the teachers that death is a time of great potential and that we should give the patient as much control as possible,” Dame Cicely said.

During his famous 1972 speech, Fryer spoke directly to the “more than a hundred [gay] psychiatrists” he claimed were registered at the convention, urging them to find ways to help change the attitudes of both heterosexual and homosexual patients towards homosexuality. He warned them that it would be risky, but added, “We are taking an even bigger risk, however, not accepting fully our own humanity, with all the lessons it has to teach all the other humans around us and ourselves. This is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.”

He was being treated for diabetes and pulmonary sarcoidosis at the time of his death.

John Fryer, former professor of psychiatry Temple University, Philadelphia, United States (b Winchester, Kentucky, 1937; q Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1962), died from gastrointestinal bleeding on 21 February 2003. Embedded Image

[Jeanne Lenzer]

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