Fifty years ago today — on May 2, 1972 — a man sat at a conference table, disguised in a distorted Richard Nixon mask, a fright wig, and an oversized tuxedo, and delivered an electrifying speech to hundreds of startled onlookers. This surreal moment was an arresting piece of political theater — and an unlikely turning point in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality and dignity.
Seated next to the pioneering gay activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the man in the mask directed his remarks to an audience of psychiatrists, who were engaged in a civil war over a simple but profound question: Is homosexuality a mental illness? In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association published the first edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, homosexuality was classified as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” characterized by a failure to conform to prevailing social norms. As a result, every gay man and lesbian, no matter how well-adjusted, was branded as mentally ill. What’s more, psychiatrists viewed this “sickness” as a treatable condition. Doctors used intensive talk therapy — and, in some instances, castrations, hysterectomies, electroconvulsive treatment, and lobotomies — to “cure” homosexuals.
Gay liberation activists understood that the mental illness diagnosis had dire consequences. As the late Kay Lahusen — who took the iconic photo of Dr. Anonymous delivering his speech — told us in an interview for our PBS documentary Cured, “We could not expect our civil rights as long as we were burdened with the sickness label.” Businesses and the government used the mental illness classification to justify discrimination, and for many gay people, the diagnosis gave rise to self-loathing and shame. As Ronald Gold, another activist we interviewed, put it, “Nothing makes you sick like believing that you’re sick.”
In the aftermath of the June 1969 Stonewall rebellion, a new generation of activists targeted the APA and its mental illness diagnosis. The following spring, some of these firebrands stormed the APA’s annual meeting in San Francisco, accusing psychiatrists of engaging in barbaric and sadistic behavior and proclaiming that “there is no cure for that which is not a disease.” They also invaded the APA’s 1971 annual meeting, demanding that psychiatrists listen to gay people who insisted that they were happy, healthy, well-adjusted — and not in need of a cure.
The APA recognized that the activists were not going away. In the lead-up to its 1972 annual meeting in Dallas, the APA scheduled a panel discussion entitled “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals? A Dialogue.” Two psychiatrists and two gay activists were invited to take part in the conversation.
Upon learning of this plan, Kay Lahusen realized it would be especially powerful to have a panelist who was both gay and a psychiatrist rather than one or the other. Lahusen’s life partner and fellow activist, Barbara Gittings, who was helping organize this session, reached out to several members of the “GayPA,” an underground network of closeted gay psychiatrists, to ask if they would testify. All declined Gittings’s request, fearful that appearing on the panel would imperil their careers and reputations.
Then Gittings spoke with Dr. John Fryer, a Philadelphia psychiatrist and untenured professor at Temple University. Fryer agreed to participate in the session — on the condition that he could wear a disguise. Had he appeared without a mask, Fryer would likely have been fired from his job — as he had been once before — and had his medical license revoked. In 1972, it was unthinkable that a gay person could function effectively as a psychiatrist since gay people were deemed to be suffering from a pathological condition. Fryer got help with his disguise from his partner at the time, who was a theater major. Aside from distorting a mask of Richard Nixon beyond recognition, Fryer wore a wig with flowing black hair and donned an oversized tuxedo.
The over-the-top costume surprised the activists who orchestrated his participation in the panel discussion. “We thought he would have on a nice little mask, like the Lone Ranger,” recalled Lahusen. “But no, he was in this grotesque, big mask, with a big wig on. It looked more like Halloween than anything else. We were all very concerned about how this would go over.”
Identifying himself as “Dr. H. Anonymous” and using a voice-distorting microphone, Fryer told his stunned colleagues, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” He went on to say, “I am in disguise tonight in order that I might speak freely,” noting that many gay psychiatrists “work 20 hours daily for institutions that would literally chew us up and spit us out if they knew the truth.” He concluded by arguing that for closeted gay psychiatrists, “the greatest loss is our honest humanity.” (The audio of Fryer’s speech was thought to have been lost to history, but we discovered a recording of it at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)
Fryer’s appearance sent shock waves through the APA. Colleagues began to rethink their position on homosexuality. New allies emerged, and prejudice began to give way to acceptance as Fryer’s first-person testimony caused a growing number of APA members to question what activist Frank Kameny called the “shabby, shoddy, sleazy pseudoscience” that underlay the sickness label for homosexuality. Kameny was in a strong position to recognize “pseudoscience”: He had earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard and worked for the U.S. Army Map Service before being fired in 1957 under an executive order that called for “sexual perverts” to be purged from government jobs. APA members also took a closer look at other research, including the work of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist who demonstrated that there is no difference in the mental health of gay and straight people.
On his flight back to Philadelphia, Fryer wrote a diary entry in which he reflected on his appearance as Dr. Anonymous. “The day has passed. It has come and gone, and I am still alive. For the first time, I have identified with a force which is akin to my selfhood.” He followed this with a frank assessment: “I am a homosexual, and I am the only American psychiatrist who has stood up on a podium to let real flesh and blood tell the nation it is so…. I hope that this effort does not die.”
And indeed the effort gathered momentum. Fryer’s speech as Dr. Anonymous — coupled with intensifying debate and discussion within the APA — marked a turning point in the APA’s stance on homosexuality. In December 1973, the APA board voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM; the APA membership ratified that decision in the spring of 1974.
In assessing the significance of Fryer’s speech, Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has said, “John Fryer put his entire professional career at risk in order to stand up for what he knew to be the truth: that gay people are not mentally ill; that many gay people were, in fact, working successfully within the mental health profession; and that it was time for the APA and other professional organizations to acknowledge that their negative view of gay people was based on social prejudice, not science.”
As Minter has pointed out, the removal of homosexuality from the DSM was instrumental “in every major civil rights victory for our community, from the transformation of child custody and adoption laws to the court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.”
Fryer remained quiet about his role as the man in the mask until 1994. That year, he again appeared at the APA’s annual meeting — and came out as Dr. Anonymous. More than anything else, the act of coming out has helped advance equality for LGBTQ+ Americans in recent decades. So it is ironic and striking that one of the most momentous coming-out stories of all time involves a man putting on a mask to hide — and simultaneously reveal — his identity.
Following Fryer’s death in 2003, his friend Harry Adamson volunteered to pack up materials from Fryer’s sprawling home and donated 217 boxes to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In an interview for Cured, Adamson told us that while sorting through the psychiatrist’s belongings, he found the mask that Fryer had worn as Dr. Anonymous and tossed it in the trash, assuming it was simply a beat-up relic of an old Halloween costume.
But it was so much more than that.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of John Fryer’s historic speech, Cured will be featured in a free virtual screening, followed by a Q&A, tonight at 7:30 Eastern; registration details are here.
Bennett Singer, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, and Patrick Sammon, a D.C.-based filmmaker, are the co-directors of Cured, an award-winning PBS documentary.