Curing Psychiatry and Psychology

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Photograph of Charles Silverstein and Philip Clark at 2009 book release party for Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS at Housing Works in New York City.

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Cover of Charles Silverstein and Edmund White, The Joy of Gay Sex (New York: Crown, 1977)


Cover of Charles Silverstein, For the Ferryman: A Personal History (2012; 2nd edition, ReQueered Tales, 2022)

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Charles Silverstein and William Bory, c. 1975

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Charles Silverstein, 1992

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Charles Silverstein, 2011

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Charles Silverstein

On August 12, 2015, I crossed Central Park to an apartment building on the Upper West Side of New York City. I was there to see Dr. Charles Silverstein, psychologist and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex (Crown, 1977; revised eds., 1993 and 2006). We had met once before, at the release reading for an anthology I co-edited, Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (Alyson, 2009), which included work by Silverstein’s late partner, William Bory. This time, I had asked to interview him as part of my research for a biography about H. Lynn Womack, a gay publisher from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Womack spent time in a mental hospital and wrangled in court with psychiatrists and psychologists in a series of obscenity cases in which he was embroiled, so I was interested in learning more about debates and discussions in those fields. I knew that Silverstein, born in New York City in 1935 and a graduate of the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1959, had been a key figure in the early 1970s during the fight over the inclusion of homosexuality in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. At the time, he was a member of the Gay Activists Alliance and a graduate student at Rutgers University; he received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1974 and later became the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality and the founding director of the Institute for Human Identity and Identity House in New York City. I wanted to speak to him about the battles he witnessed and experienced in the early 1970s.


In Silverstein’s dim, cool, seventh-floor apartment, we began to talk about homophile groups of the 1950s and 1960s, which regularly invited psychiatrists and psychologists to speak to them about homosexuality. We then transitioned to more personal discussion of Silverstein’s experiences and the theories about homosexuality and LGBT people held by the era’s psychiatric and psychological professionals, some of which were chronicled in his 2012 memoir For the Ferryman. The transcript of this interview has been annotated and lightly edited for length and clarity.



Philip Clark: I was going to ask a couple of questions about you to lead into some of the more general questions about psychiatry. You came out about 1970?


Charles Silverstein: ’71 or ’72. I was definitely what you would call a late bloomer.


PC: In the years before that, had you ever had any contact with the homophile movement or with any homophile movement publications?


CS: Well, I know I went to one of those meetings of the West Side Discussion Group, which turned me off.[1] And beyond that, I had absolutely nothing. You have to remember that in those days, there wasn’t much available. There just wasn’t much available. When I was a high school student, I went to an arts school. Across the street from the high school was a public library, and I would go there during my lunch time and read books about homosexuality. Of course, all the books that I read were absolutely dreadful. They told me I’d have a life of depression, I’m going to kill myself. You know, they were the experts. So that left me feeling, it’s sort of a banal story, people of my generation thought of themselves as sinful, horrible, mentally ill, and doomed to a very lonely life. That’s all I knew.


PC: Prior to your coming out, were there any positive influences, or was the entire extent of what you heard negative?


CS: Everything I heard was negative. I didn’t know anyone who was homosexual. I knew there must have been others, because if you didn’t have others, there’d be no reason to write books about them, you see. But I didn’t know anyone who was gay. I never heard the word gay; that came later. I knew that I was a homosexual, and the worst thing about it is that for people like me and like all those who were in that generation, and a couple of generations to follow, there was no one to talk to. I did, at the age of sixteen, go see the family doctor. After all, doctors are supposed to know things. I went to him, and sort of confessed, and he told me to go to the mental health clinic at Kings County—I was in Brooklyn—and then got rid of me as soon as he could. So I made an appointment there. I’m sixteen years old, and I made an appointment. I went and it was an absolutely dreadful experience. I mean, I literally ran out in the middle of it. The people I saw there were so condescending, so insensitive to a sixteen-year-old boy who was obviously scared. I literally in the middle of it just ran out of the room and that was that.


PC: Before you visited the West Side Discussion Group, had you ever had any contact with a group of self-identified homosexuals? [CS shakes his head no.] And you said that that meeting at West Side was a turn-off. What was it about the meeting that was problematic?


CS: I don’t remember just what the meeting was. I have no idea. But there was nothing warm about it. It was like everybody there was isolated and into their own world, which I now understand, because it was a very fearful time. Those were the days when people never announced their names. They would lie about their names. There were people then, both men and women, who made up a pseudonym and kept it for years. So there wasn’t anyone to talk to. That’s where GAA was different. I was an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance.[2] It was totally different. When you walked in, people said hello. There would even sometimes be someone at the door to welcome each person. The place was warm and welcoming. I would say that GAA saved my life, and I think you would find a lot of people from those days would say the same thing. Just the idea of being activists and fighting for rights made people feel better. Made me feel better.


PC: Had you had any contact with Gay Liberation Front, or was GAA your first sort of extended experience with…?


CS: I had no contact with GLF. I joined GAA just as they were opening the Firehouse.[3]


PC: Pre-gay liberation, or pre-Stonewall, were there any movements in psychology that viewed homosexuality as non-pathological? [CS shakes his head.] None?


CS: Nope.


PC: So there may have been individuals within the psychiatric or psychological establishment, but no groups?


CS: You got someone like Evelyn Hooker who wrote her famous paper in ’58 or ’59 to show that on the test results, you couldn’t separate gays from straights. But that was confined to an academic journal. And there were a couple of people who published papers in academic journals that were not so damning, but they weren’t part of the movement and none of them were gay. They were all straight. They were nice people. But no, I can’t think of any movement. Now, I don’t know when things started out in L.A., with ONE, but if you go into history, there are various little pockets of organizations that started in the late’ 50s and ‘60s, but they were very small, very limited, and all of them died.


PC: And there was no group within, or group of thought within, psychiatry or psychology that viewed homosexuality as non-disordered?


CS: Look, I was a graduate student in psychology. No one knew I was gay. I was quite convinced that if they knew that I was gay, that they would throw me out. And a former professor of mine said, “You’re right, we would have thrown you out.”


PC: Do you know of other cases of psychiatrists or psychologists in those days who were thrown out of their schools or were otherwise subject to sanction?


CS: No one came out. In this city, there always were lots of gay psychiatrists. They were all in the closet. Over at Payne Whitney—it’s on the East Side—the whole psychology department at one point was gay, every single—or, the whole psychiatry department. Every single psychiatrist there was gay and not one of them was out. Not one. And in fact, when I started doing movement work as a psychologist, the gay psychiatrists hated me. They did not like me. They were very offended by everything I was doing because it was public and they felt as if I was blowing the whistle on them. Now obviously, I wasn’t going to out them, but they didn’t like the publicity. They were quite hostile toward me.


PC: Did that hostility take private or public forms?


CS: If I was at a party, no one would talk to me. No one would be seen talking to me. I was just too scary for them. I was on radio and television. I was in the newspapers. They wanted things kept quiet. And the reason is because if anyone knew that they were gay, they’d get fired. Let me give you an example. When I started the Institute for Human Identity, I had one psychologist who was in training at the Post-Graduate Center.[4] He was working for us, and I said to him, “I know somebody else from the Post-Graduate Center who’s gay. Would you like to meet him?” And he said no. It was too dangerous. As far as I know, there was never any movement in psychiatry or psychology to challenge the DSM description of homosexuality as being a mental disorder. Because you have to remember: at one point it was called a perversion, a paraphilia. No, no one would do it. They’d lose their job. If they were in private practice, they wouldn’t get referrals. There were some people who were operating in private practice who were gay and were seeing gay patients, but that was all very quiet, and many of them were unlicensed so that no one could do anything to them because they were unlicensed. Or if they were licensed, they were in private practice, but they didn’t get referrals through the organized networks, so they were sort of safe.


PC: So their support for homosexuality, or their difference of opinion with other psychiatrists or psychologists, was not a matter of public record?


CS: Exactly. Whatever someone thought, it might be talked about at cocktail parties, with colleagues. It’s not as if the psychiatric world was not aware of psychiatrists who were gay. I mean, the best example was Harry Stack Sullivan. Now, Sullivan was not only gay, he picked up this fourteen- or sixteen-year-old hustler from 42nd Street named Jimmie and brought him into his house and eventually adopted him.[5] Sullivan was one of America’s most famous psychiatrists, and all the other psychiatrists knew about them because he and Jimmie would appear at parties. But no one talked about it. You didn’t talk about those things then. No one talked about Cardinal Spellman.[6] You didn’t talk about those things.


PC: Since you mention closeted psychiatrists, were you ever involved with, or do you know anything about, the Gay-PA, the underground group of gay psychiatrists?


CS: Sure. Yeah. Well, you have to remember, there are two different APAs and my APA is the psychologists and that APA was psychiatrists.


PC: And the Gay-PA was connected to the psychiatrists?


CS: Psychiatrists, yes. When that started, I don’t know. I have no idea. I have never attended a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, so I don’t know when that started. It was certainly going on in the early ‘70s. How much earlier than that, I don’t know.


PC: It was just something I’d read a slight bit about and wondered if you knew anything more.


CS: No. They would not have invited me to one of their parties. For any number of reasons. One of which was just that I was a psychologist.


PC: Were the theories that were held about homosexuality ever based on reproducible scientific data, or were they more connected to social opinion?


CS: No, it was connected to psychoanalytic thought. All the opinions about the illness theory of homosexuality have to do with psychoanalysis, starting with Freud, although Freud was not as damning as a lot of the people that came after him. There were a variety of theories about the origin of homosexuality, mainly centering upon a resolution of the Oedipus complex, and then in homosexuality, it was a faulty resolution. Instead of identifying with the father, the boy came to identify with the mother. And there was what was called the phobic theory of homosexuality, started with Rado up at Columbia.[7] The phobic theory is best described as the vagina dentata theory. The vagina as an all-absorbing sort of thing, and that the boy is afraid to have sex with a girl because he will become castrated. All the theories were based upon psychoanalytic thought. There might be some variation, but it was all about psychoanalysis. It had nothing to do with what we now talk about as being science, and that is some kind of data that is reproducible.


PC: Were the psychoanalysts seen during that time period as being scientific?


CS: No. Not by the scientific community.


PC: I meant more in the general sense, in the sense of popular discourse. Did it have the weight of science?


CS: I don’t think people thought of it as science, but as medicine. These were psychiatrists. They were all medical doctors, and there were these theories, some of which were patently absurd, but that didn’t make any difference. People didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what science is in those days. They were authorities. And the authority said that [homosexuality] is abnormal. You know, these were still the days of [the belief that] homosexuals are recruited, and that some of them become homosexual by being molested in childhood. It was a very unsophisticated time. The trouble being that a lot of gay men and women suffered enormously because of it. By the way, I really do have to say that not for a moment do I believe that homosexuality was removed from DSM because of scientific information. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. It was all politics.


PC: Did the psychiatrists, did the behavioral theorists, believe that they were doing good with the therapies?


CS: Absolutely. You meant the behaviorists. Now, the behaviorists of course were different than the psychoanalysts. They come a little bit later, and they did believe in scientific techniques and evidence. Their point of view was different than psychoanalysis in that they believed that learning theory could explain behavior. If someone was homosexual, it’s because in some way he had learned that kind of behavior, and if a person can learn something, they can unlearn it, right? The predominant technique that they used at the time was aversion therapy, a rather simpleminded idea. There are three different forms of aversion therapy, but the most common was electrical aversion. That’s where they put a strain gauge on your dick and an electrode on a finger and they showed you slides of what they thought of as sexy men.


PC: Is that synonymous with electroshock?


CS: Exactly. Calling it electric shock is…it’s aversion, electrical aversion therapy. I mean, electric shock, people have the idea of some can on their head and they get electrocuted and stuff. At any event, you see a slide, and if you start to get aroused, they give you a shock, which is punishment, and the term they used was that if you continued to do that you can extinguish the inappropriate response by classical conditioning. So it was a conditioning theory. I have whole books that were based on electrical aversion therapy, and they had mountains of data. But none of them sat down and said,Why are these people here in the first place? Why are they patients in the first place?” Of course, how many people did they change? Probably none. But they kept publishing papers and writing books, and there are a lot of very famous people who did that kind of work. Some of whom changed their attitudes quite a bit afterwards. I knew a few of them, and afterwards, they sort of recanted and said, “All we’ve done is harm people.” But not all of them. In any event, you get the psychoanalytic thought first, and then the behaviorist movement, which is a rebellion against psychoanalysis because psychoanalysis was so unscientific and was just based upon unprovable theory. Not just unproven theory, but unprovable. Then the behaviorists came in and used different kinds of techniques with reproducible data, but never asked why these people are here in the first place to be cured. What is there to be cured of?


PC: Did they believe that the electrical aversion therapy, or the other aversion therapies, were actually changing their patients’ orientation? Or did they believe that they were simply helping them extinguish homosexual behavior?


CS: Well, good question. Their goal was to extinguish the homosexual behavior and then assume that the person would then learn heterosexual, or what they called “normal” heterosexual behavior. Did this happen? No, of course it didn’t happen. It doesn’t have to. You just have to write papers about it and get grants for doing it. Did they think they were doing good? Sure.


PC: Did they ever explain how they believe people, after being averted from homosexual behavior, would be brought to heterosexual behavior? Or was it [believed it would] just happen naturally. No explanations?


CS: They didn’t. I can’t think of anyone who wrote about that, and probably the reason why is because they knew it didn’t happen. After all, we aren’t talking about stupid people. They’re all pretty smart. But they didn’t change anything. Besides this, the nature of studies, you don’t do follow-ups. Maybe you can get someone to stop having a hard-on to a picture, but what happens a year later, two years later? You see, there are no follow-ups of these people, so they didn’t know. And I’m not sure they cared.


PC: So they were smart people, yet never questioned…


CS: …the very foundation of why is a person coming in and saying please cure my homosexuality. When I finally did find an analyst to help me, I went in with the express purpose of changing my sexual orientation, and that wasn’t unusual. People would come in and ask to be made normal. So that from the point of view of all these practitioners, all they’re doing is trying to help the patient in the patient’s own goal, which is to be made normal.


PC: So they never questioned either (A) the goal, or (B) whether the techniques they were using were actually achieving the requested result?


CS: Right. Needless to say, some of those people attacked me, because I said, “Don’t do that. Let’s make you happy about the way you are.” The argument they constantly made was how cruel I was being, because people would come in and be extraordinarily unhappy about being gay, horribly depressed. There were people in those days who committed suicide because they were so depressed about being gay. So many were married with children. There were people who were arrested by the police. There was entrapment in those days. In certain periods, the police would release the names and addresses of people who had been arrested to the newspapers. Employers would fire them. So a lot of these guys who were trying to cure homosexuality would say that someone like me was horrible because I want to doom these men to a life of depression and possibly suicide. Of course, my answer was that we’ve got to change society, but there’s no reason to continue to punish them.


PC: How much of the resistance to removing homosexuality from the DSM came because some psychiatrists’ practices were based on seeing gay men who wanted to be changed? If you remove homosexuality from the DSM and say it’s no longer a mental disorder, then you’re no longer going to get those patients coming in to speak with you or to work with you.


CS: One of our goals—“our” being those of us that worked on removing homosexuality from DSM—was unquestionably to hurt the psychoanalysts in the pocketbook. If we could get gay people not to see psychoanalysts anymore, we would hurt their income, and we wanted to do that. We were very explicit about that. What we wanted to do was to help the income of a different group of psychologists and psychiatrists and social workers who are going to treat gay people decently. So we had an economic interest in doing that. That’s one of the reasons that I started Identity House and I started the Institute for Human Identity, to have a place where gay people could go where they could get non-oppressive treatment.[8] And there were other centers in other parts of the country—there was one in Seattle, there was one in L.A., there was one in Boston, there was one in Philadelphia. Some of these are still around, and it’s where gay people could go and get decent psychotherapy. All of these centers, of course, had very little money. It was all part of a movement to get people away from seeing these oppressive psychoanalysts and going to people who would treat them decently and deal with the actual problems that gay people had living, and not the fake ones of “what’s the cause and how do we cure it?”


PC: Obviously—and this is something you talk about quite a bit in For the Ferryman —gay liberation activists were key figures in getting the APA to remove homosexuality from the DSM.[9] Were there any additional factors—socially or within the APA—beyond the pressure of those activists that caused such a relatively fast deletion of homosexuality from the DSM? The first gay liberation protests that I’m aware of that were directly approaching the psychiatrists were in 1968, and then in 1973, it’s removed from the DSM. That seems to me like a relatively tight time period, a short period of time. Were there any factors beyond the pressure of those activists and their direct actions that caused that?


CS: The important event was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War doesn’t get enough consideration. The Vietnam War was very important because there was a student movement that fought against the war and won. Of course, we got our asses kicked also, but there was a student movement and it was a pretty important student movement. It closed down universities all over the country. The important thing about it is that you had all these people who were in college—and that’s when I was in graduate school. I was at Rutgers at the time, and I led the student revolt in New Jersey. Out of that, we believed that we had helped end the Vietnam War and brought down the president, Johnson. Right or wrong, that’s what we believed. And the importance is that you had a generation of young people who had fought against something and won, and we knew how to fight. Right after the Vietnam War, you have the women’s movement that starts, the Black [Power] movement, and the gay movement. In all of these movements, you have people who were students at the time of the Vietnam War and who would get together to be able to fight. The gay movement wasn’t isolated from this change that went on in society where those who had been students during the period of the Vietnam War became activists. That’s a very important part of the story, so that the people that came after the Vietnam War were not like those that came before. The ones that came before were very quiet, “don’t disturb the system.” The ones that came afterwards were “fuck the system.” When Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings picketed in Philadelphia and in Washington, they did so in suits. Men wore suits, shoes shined, white shirt and tie. Women not allowed to wear high heels; they had to wear flats. Not allowed to wear skirts; they had to wear dresses. And their approach was that “gee, we’re just like you, please don’t discriminate against us.” The gay movement was hair—a lot of hair, I have pictures from those days, a lot of hair, a lot!—hair, jeans, t-shirts, locking arms. It was “there’s something fucking wrong with society, and we’re not going to change, you are.” Totally different attitude. And it was that stridency that caused the change. Broke up meetings. Some of the people who voted for the APA change said, “I’m tired of going to psychiatric meetings and having these guys break us up.” I participated in some of those.


PC: So “let’s shut the activists up and be able to go back to our sedate meetings” was a factor in some people’s votes when it came to the DSM? [CS nods.] So you see the militancy, the direct action militancy of the gay activists, as being the force?


CS: Very important. Extremely important. Also, while virtually no psychiatrist stood up for gay people at the time, it doesn’t mean there weren’t any psychiatrists who knew that DSM was wrong, and when we started fomenting as much trouble as we possibly could, they had some people that they could align themselves with. They could say, “Well, maybe we’re not right in saying that they’re all sick, maybe only some of them are sick.” Like in Boston, you had someone like Richard Pillard, who at the time, in the early ‘70s, was openly gay, and when we were proposing that DSM drop homosexuality, he was the head of the Boston district psychiatrists, and they supported the idea that homosexuality should be removed.[10] That was a brave act on his part, and important for the APA, so that what happens is that when our movement started, we got help from some psychiatrists from within. The other person was Judd Marmor, a friend of Evelyn Hooker. I should say that there was one man on the nomenclature committee who was openly gay. I mean, even my mother would have recognized it. He later became president of APA, and everybody had to know he was gay. But he wouldn’t say so. I always used to wonder what these guys did who were gay. He had a lover he had been living with for twenty years, and when they heard all these other psychiatrists talking about how sick fags were, I always used to wonder, “What did they think, what did they feel?” I know they didn’t say anything, but how do you do that? I never got an answer. I posed that question to a couple of them, and I never got answers. It would be like my being with a group of gentiles and they talk about kikes. How could I shut up? Even if I did, how would I feel by not saying something? I never could figure that out.


PC: Well, apparently they didn’t have an answer, if you asked some of them.


CS: They did not have. “Well, you know, it’s a different time.” But I always thought they had to take some price, that they had to pay a price for being silent.


PC: What you started to talk about actually feeds very nicely into another question I was going to ask: whether there were key figures inside the psychiatric establishment who most contributed to the change in the DSM? Obviously, the gay activists like Kameny, or the D.C. GLF members, or the people who interrupted in San Francisco, all of that is from outside the establishment. I was wondering what sorts of people or individuals inside contributed.


CS: Well, Dick Pillard is an important one, Judd Marmor is another. Judd Marmor’s straight, but he had a very liberal view about homosexuality, and he wrote an important book that he had Hooker write a paper for and that came out. What’s it called? The Homosexual something. Everything was the word The Homosexual in those days, but I forget the name of the book.[11] In psychology, there were more.


PC: Who were some of those people? You, obviously.


CS: In the American Psychological Association, probably Gerry Davison—Dave-i-son, not Davidson—Gerry was psychology prof at Stony Book, and I went to one of his presentations at AABT, that was the behavior therapists’ association.[12] We schmoozed afterwards, and the next year he was elected president of the association. This was the most important behaviorists’ organization in the world, and his presidential address was about the changing of sexual orientation and that he came out against it on moral grounds, not scientific ones. He said even if we could figure out a way of changing sexual orientation, that it was immoral. Not that he thought there was any way of changing sexual orientation, but he said that’s irrelevant. It’s an immoral thing to do with people. He and I worked together to stamp out aversion therapy.


PC: I don’t know if I need to ask anymore whether you’d characterize the removal as a scientific or a social decision.


CS: Well, I didn’t say it was either. I said it was political. It was about politics. All of this is about politics.


PC: Can you expand on that?


CS: A group of guys get around in a room, and they’re going to make a list. Say you want one thing on the list and I want another thing on the list: how do we decide? It’s a vote of hands. As soon as you have a vote of hands, it’s political. Now, you can claim that, oh, science is on your side, theory is on your side, God is on your side. It doesn’t make any difference. As soon as we take a vote, it’s a political process. And then the question is: how can you influence people so that they vote in the way that you want? The recent DSM is a good example of that. In the sexual disorders section, there was something that used to be called Gender Identity Disorder. Well, in the new handbook, DSM-V, it’s called Gender Identity Dysphoria.[13] Now, who gives a shit about dysphoria or disorder? Well, it makes a difference to some people. And the difference is, there are transgender people who would like to have transgender operations, and they would like medical insurance to pay for it. Well, if they don’t have a diagnosis in DSM, then insurance companies won’t pay for it. At the same time, you don’t want to call it a disorder, because that implies that they’re abnormal. So what the committee decided to do is to take out the word “disorder” and put in “dysphoria.” That way, there would still be a number—which is when you make out insurance forms, you put in the number. There’s a number so they can get medical insurance, but they wouldn’t be called sick. And that’s a political process. Now, we can say that the guys who got around and did this, they were being compassionate toward some transgender people. And I understand that. I think that’s a good idea. But that’s not about science. It’s about how you please different camps at the same time, and that’s a political process.


PC: Did the removal cause any immediate changes in psychiatric practice, or did things continue on much in the same vein?


CS: You have to understand that in ’73, they did not remove homosexuality. This is a common conception. What they did is, they had to go by steps. And they had to go by steps because there were too many people who were committed to the idea of homosexuality as a disease. They make their money from it; they publish their books about it. And the APA, their APA, had to negotiate this. They had all these psychoanalysts whose balls were in a knot over this idea of removing homosexuality. I’ve got a dozen books up there that were written by these guys. You know, people like [Charles] Socarides and [Lawrence] Hatterer and [Irving] Bieber and those guys. So what they did is, they said, well, there were two kinds of homosexuals. Some of them are happy homosexuals, and some of them are unhappy homosexuals. What we need to do is to divide it, that the happy homosexuals are not sick, and they were called “ego-syntonic.” But the unhappy homosexuals were the ones that were sick, and they needed treatment, and they were called “ego-alien.” So in ’73, what happened is that they decided if you were happy about being gay, you were fine. If you weren’t, you still needed treatment. Of course, this is an absurd proposition conceptually, since it’s perfectly obvious if someone is unhappy about something, why don’t you go about making them happy about it? Make them shift over to the happy homosexual side? But they couldn’t do that because they had to have compromises with different forces in the APA who were very upset about this idea. So in ’73, they made that division, and later on, another edition, they just dropped it completely. But at first, there were still unhappy homosexuals who had to be treated, so then some psychiatrist on Park Avenue would have justification for treating someone to change their sexual orientation because he’s an “ego-alien” homosexual. The publicity about the change was enormous. It made all the newspapers, TV, radio. It was a media event and it had immediate consequences. First of all, there were a lot of people who were probably in therapy at the time to change their sexual orientation who had to stop and wonder, “Now the psychiatrists are saying I’m not sick; why am I seeing Dr. So-and-So?” I don’t know how long it took before it pretty well stopped virtually all treatment of homosexuals for sexual orientation change. I suspect that it’s different in different parts of the country. In a place like New York, it would have an immediate effect. You go down to Mississippi and Alabama and places like that, even the Southwest, it took much longer for that to happen. But it did stop within a few years.


PC: As a follow-up, what do you see as the long-term ramifications of the APA removing homosexuality, when it did finally remove both forms of alleged disorder?


CS: Well, there was no justification for a person to agree to change sexual orientation. I can’t give you exact dates, but at a certain point, both APAs came out with statements—this is much later, though—that it was morally wrong and professionally wrong for a practitioner to agree to change sexual orientation.


PC: Did the Socarides and the Biebers of the world continue to argue that it should be added back in, or did they fade relatively quickly?


CS: Socarides was the leading person to shoot his mouth off about that constantly. I think Hatterer had already died, or Bieber had died, one of them.[14] But Socarides was the one who led the charge against it, and immediately after the deletion, he was the one that demanded a vote by the membership whether to support the change, and he lost that. He kept on this until the day he died. Now, ironically, as you may know, his son, Richard, was gay. We knew that at the time. If you go to a gay bar, someone’s going to notice you eventually. We knew it. We had no idea whether he [Charles] did. We never used it against him, of course. That would have been against our beliefs at the time. I don’t actually know Richard Socarides. I know about him. I think until the day [Charles] Socarides died, he never gave up the idea that being homosexual was a pathology. I’ll tell you a funny story about Socarides. Maybe I told this in the book; I don’t remember. Socarides taught a course in sexual behavior, of all things, at Albert Einstein [College of Medicine]. Did I tell this in the book?


PC: Is this the one where he takes his students out to dinner and tells them that he can spot homosexuality [finger snap] just like that?


CS: Yeah. Yeah, right, and they go out dancing in a gay bar together. And I got it from one of the guys who was there. Shows you how much [Socarides] knew.


PC: Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you think I should hear, based on the kinds of things we’ve been talking about?


CS: Well, if you ask about what are the consequences of the change, and there were a lot, one of them—I cannot quote the case—the famous sodomy case?


PC: Lawrence v. Texas, the one that got it overturned? Or was it Bowers v. Hardwick, the one that didn’t get it overturned?


CS: Yes, Lawrence.


PC: Lawrence v. Texas.


CS: If it were not for that [the removal of homosexuality from the DSM], that case would not have been overturned. Because psychiatrists could not appear as expert witnesses to say that homosexuality was a pathology. And getting rid of the sodomy laws was an enormous positive step for the gay world, enormous, because that’s where they got us.


PC: So you’d agree with Frank Kameny’s idea that he had in the ‘60s, that if you could get the idea of homosexuality as a mental disorder overturned, then that would be the gate that would open up all these future decisions?


CS: Now, since you mention Kameny: we had no relationship with him. I don’t know how much you know about Frank Kameny.


PC: I knew him a little bit at the very end of his life. I know a pretty decent amount.


CS: He was impossible. Thoroughly, absolutely impossible. Frank Kameny was a more extreme form of Larry Kramer. If Frank had an idea, he was right and everyone else was wrong, and he would demand everybody else has to change their mind, and when they wouldn’t, he would attack them. Eventually, Frank got thrown out of every organization he ever was part of, because he was impossible. There’s only one person I know who could get along with him, and that was Barbara Gittings. Did you ever know Barbara?


PC: No, I didn’t.


CS: Barbara was a remarkable woman. She had this capacity to form an emotional bridge with another person, and she could do it constantly. I mean, she could do it with people who were thoroughly unreasonable, like Frank. And she could work with him. No one else could. No one. He was impossible. The day that the APA held a press conference to announce the change in D.C., I was down there, as a bunch of others were, and we all went out to lunch afterwards, and Frank was with us. We were at a gay restaurant. The manager of the restaurant at one point was about to throw us out, because Frank wouldn’t sit down and wouldn’t stop pounding the table, shouting at me that I have to denounce Cardinal Spellman. And I would say to him, “Frank, Cardinal Spellman has been dead for a decade.” “I don’t care!” And he would bang the table and bang the table until the owner came over and said, “If you don’t stop, you all have to leave.” And that was Frank. So there was no way he could cooperate with the movement of the ‘70s, because he was back in the ‘60s. He couldn’t have because it meant working with other people and he couldn’t do that. He was not part of that. I mean, he yelled and picketed and did things like that, and he certainly has made his contribution at a time when other people were too frightened to do so. He invented “Gay Is Good.” [15] There’s no question about that. But the events we’re talking about now had nothing to do with him.


PC: I just brought him up as having been one of the people in the homophile movement who was sort of early on the case of, “We need to get this overturned. We need to get this particular decision changed in order to allow other changes to happen.”


CS: Exactly. He was right about that. But there’s no way that he could have done it. The nomenclature committee [of the APA] would never have invited a person like Kameny to make a presentation in front of them. He would have gotten up there, called them a bunch of names, screamed at them. You know, you’re the people that hold the power, you’re not going to put up with that shit. But our approach was completely different.


PC: So the activists who got up in the faces of the psychiatrists at the various annual APA meetings and sort of yelled and screamed…?


CS: No, no, no. No, they yelled and screamed. I’m talking about those of us who appeared before the nomenclature committee.


PC: So they kind of got the ball rolling, but then the actual decisions that led to the removal were a different kind of tactic.


CS: Totally different. It’s the difference between playing the concepts of dissent and dialogue. And when you create dissent and when you create dialogue. Dissent is always very helpful to get the opposition in the mood, but then you have to know when to stop and sit down privately and get into a conversation. Frank was very good with the dissent part. Dialogue was absolutely impossible. He couldn’t do it. When I made my presentation before the nomenclature committee, I played in their ballpark. I talked about diagnoses.




Dr. Charles Silverstein passed away on January 30, 2023, at the age of 87.


Philip Clark is the co-editor of three books, mostly recently Invisible History: The Collected Poems of Walta Borawski (The Library of Homosexual Congress, 2022), winner of the 2023 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. He is completing a biography of H. Lynn Womack, a gay Washington D.C. publisher and First Amendment pioneer.



For additional texts about the history of homosexuality and its relationship to psychiatry/psychology, see the following


Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (Basic, 1981).


Duberman, Martin. Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (Dutton, 1991).


Minton, Henry L. Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America (University of Chicago Press, 2002).


Rosario, Vernon R. Homosexuality and Science: A Guide to the Debates (ABC-CLIO, 2002).


Silverstein, Charles. For the Ferryman: A Personal History (Chelsea Station, 2011; 2nd ed., ReQueered Tales, 2022).


Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (University of Chicago Press, 1999).



[1] An outgrowth of the Mattachine Society in New York in the 1950s, the West Side Discussion Group continued into the 1980s.

[2] A group begun in late 1969 by former members of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance lasted in New York City until 1981.

[3] A gay community center established by GAA, the GAA Firehouse was in use from 1971 to 1974.

[4] Silverstein founded the Institute for Human Identity, “the nation’s first and longest-running provider of LGBTQ+-affirmative psychotherapy” in 1973. It continues to this day.

[5] Sullivan and James Inscoe lived together for over 20 years, until Sullivan’s death in 1949.

[6] Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, the sixth Archbishop of New York, was long-rumored to be homosexual.

[7] Sandor Rado, a Hungarian psychoanalyst who studied under Sigmund Freud.

[8] Identity House is a walk-in counseling center that Silverstein co-founded in 1971. For the Institute for Human Identity, see note 4.

[9] Originally published by Chelsea Station Editions in 2012, For the Ferryman has been released in an updated second edition by ReQueered Tales in 2022.

[10] Pillard is believed to be the first openly gay psychiatrist in the United States.

[11] The book is Sexual Inversion: The Multiple Roots of Homosexuality (Basic Books, 1965), edited by Judd Marmor.

[12] The Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapies.

[13] See the entry for “Gender Dysphoria” in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), pp. 451-59.

[14] Irving Bieber died in 1991, while Charles Socarides was still advancing sickness theories about homosexuality.

[15] “Gay Is Good” is the slogan advanced by Kameny and adopted at the 1968 convention for the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO).