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Honoring Dr. John Fryer, A Hero for LGBT Rights

     

Last week I was honored to deliver a keynote address at the dedication ceremony for a Pennsylvania state historical marker honoring John Fryer, M.D., in Philadelphia. Dr. Fryer holds a special place in the history of the American Psychiatric Association and the LGBTQ community, but the very nature of his contribution has made it difficult for him to achieve the recognition he deserved.

Dr. Fryer was the focal point of a pivotal moment in APA history that occurred at the 1972 Annual Meeting in Dallas. A psychiatrist identified only as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” who had been stigmatized because of his sexual orientation, offered a masked protest during a session devoted to psychiatry’s relationship with homosexuality. “Dr. Anonymous” spoke on the difficulties of keeping his orientation a secret because of the bias and rejection he would otherwise encounter. Years later, “Dr. H. Anonymous” revealed himself to be Dr. John Fryer.

This moment proved critical in shining a light on an issue experienced by untold numbers of psychiatrists all over the world. At the time of Dr. Fryer’s masked protest, homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder in the DSM. Just one year after Dr. Fryer told his story, homosexuality was removed from the DSM.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this moment to the LGBTQ community. One huge immediate benefit was that opponents of LGBTQ rights could no longer refer to homosexuality as a disease. We know today, as many knew then, that there is simply no scientific evidence to support that claim. The definitive removal of homosexuality from the DSM remains a milestone for LGBTQ rights throughout the world.

It was an act of tremendous courage from one man that got psychiatry on the right path regarding our treatment of the LGBTQ community. Though he wore a mask, Dr. Fryer’s protest was not without risk. In the early 1970s, the country was riding a wave of social change that began in the 1960s. Though great strides had been made for many minority groups on many fronts, the social climate for members of the LGBTQ community was still quite inhospitable.

This was something Dr. Fryer knew firsthand. He had been forced to leave his residency at the University of Pennsylvania when it was learned that he was a homosexual. I believe that the injustice he suffered stayed with him for his entire life, and played some role in his later decision to speak out on the injustices faced by LGBTQ people. I am glad to see Dr. Fryer, who would go on to teach At Temple University, getting this recognition.

Today, the APA honors the legacy of Dr. Fryer with the John Fryer Award, given annually to an individual who has contributed to improving the mental health of sexual minorities. While we have made much progress since the 1970s, there is still much work to be done. It is my hope that future generations will draw inspiration from his accomplishments.

It’s heartening to know that in Philadelphia, there now stands a permanent monument to the life and accomplishments of John E. Fryer, M.D., a true hero of the LGBTQ Community.

     

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