‘Cured’ shows how homosexuality was suppressed as a mental disorder
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association made the historic decision to remove homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. He classified same-sex attraction as a “sociopathic personality disorder” in his first edition, published in 1952.
In the documentary “Cured,” filmmakers Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer provide insight into the declassification movement and the pioneering activists who took on the formidable American Psychiatric Association and won.
“Being considered a sociopath is a pretty intense burden to be branded,” Singer says.
The mission of the activists was not only to overturn the official diagnosis, but also to create a meaningful dialogue with grassroots members of the association that would challenge deep-rooted prejudices and transform minds.
“Cured” will make its broadcast debut on PBS’s Independent Lens on Monday – National Coming Out Day. The film will also be available on the PBS Video app from Tuesday through November 9.
Until 1973, the mental institution declared homosexuality to be a condition that needed to be cured. In addition to intensive talk therapy, LGBTQ people received painful and brutal treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, aversion therapy, and, in extreme cases, castration and lobotomies.
Fearing these “cures” and the widespread stigma, many gay men and lesbians were afraid to be themselves.
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Adding insult to injury, the American Psychiatric Association’s “scientific” diagnosis has often been used to justify discrimination and persecution against gay men and lesbians.
The “Cured” documentary also provides vital historical context for the ongoing debate over conversion therapy, a harmful practice that aims to cure gender identity or sexual orientation through psychological or faith-based interventions, sometimes referred to as “Pray the Gay Away”.
Although conversion therapy has been discredited by the American Psychiatric Association and other major medical organizations, it is still legal for minors in 30 states.
Stephen Canals (“Pose”) chose the documentary as the basis for “81 Words,” a limited series on FX.
In an interview with Q Voice News, Singer, who co-produced and co-directed “Cured,” talks about the gay and lesbian pioneers featured in the film and their quest to have homosexuality downgraded as a mental disorder.
Here are some excerpts.
Movement to eradicate homosexuality as a mental disorder
“I had the general feeling that something had changed in 1973 and that there had been a turning point, but I didn’t know what happened, what it meant or how it happened,” says Singer. “Patrick, my co-director and co-producer, had the idea that this was an untold story.
“This is a pivotal moment in the modern LGBTQ movement. This story deserved a closer look to really understand what happened and why it mattered,” he says. “The clock was ticking because that so many of the participants and activists at the heart of the story were of advanced age.Of the 15 people we interviewed, five of our storytellers died.
“It really highlights to a large extent that essential history is easily lost if it’s not documented.”
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Idea for making the movie
In pushing for declassification, activists had to appeal to the sensitivities of members of the American Psychiatric Association. The activists knew that the APA members would need to be persuaded by one of their own. In 1972, at the annual conference of the APA, for the first time, a round table on homosexuality was moderated by gay men and lesbians. The panel had Barbara Gittings; Frank Kameny; and a gay psychiatrist, Dr. John Fryer, who testified on behalf of the declassification campaign. Given the risk of public identification as a gay psychiatrist, Fryer introduced himself as “Dr. Henry Anonymous” and disguised his identity by wearing a mask and using a microphone with a voice distorter.
“The initial spark (for ‘Cured’) was Dr Henry Anonymous speaking on the (American Psychiatric Association) panel in 1972 in Dallas. It was a truly startling moment when a psychiatrist donned a misshapen mask, wig and an oversized tux,” Singer said. “It was the most surreal coming out story you could imagine.
“In order to reveal his true self, Dr John Fryer had to conceal his identity and call himself Dr Anonymous. If he had done so openly, he would have been fired and his medical license revoked.
Talk to psychiatrists
“Gay people very smartly wanted to engage in conversation and dialogue with psychiatrists and psychologists and make the point that as gay people they didn’t feel sick or needed healing or treatment to change” , said Singer. “It was fundamental for the movement. They didn’t see psychiatrists because they didn’t think they needed help. There had been no history of interaction.
“It gave grassroots members a chance to reflect on the issue. If people say they are happy and well adjusted, should we say they are sick and need to change?
During these discussions, activists pressed the American Psychiatric Association to examine the evidence and data, urging psychiatrists to move beyond what activist Frank Kameny called “shabby, shoddy pseudoscience.” and sordid disguised as science” that underpinned the disease label of homosexuality.
“Frank is at the center of the story,” Singer says. “Frank was a scientist, an astronomer who got his Ph.D. from Harvard. He was fired in the 1950s as part of this federal government’s gay purge. He was an accidental militant.
“Frank said science was key to this conversation. Frank had a strong personality,” Singer laughs. “He was ultimately respected despite his personal style. As a strategist and activist, he had devised a set of effective arguments for scientists and the general public.
“Barbara was such an essential activist who deserves tremendous credit for the outcome of the story,” Singer said. “She was the perfect counterpart and collaborator of Frank Kameny, who alienated people. Barbara had the opposite personality. She had an endearing style. She could make people laugh and engage with them. She was another force to be reckoned with in the LGBTQ movement for equal rights.
“Barbara had a voice of reason,” Singer says. “She brought a lot of heart and soul to the movement. She succeeded in getting people to rethink their opposition and prejudices. She humanized the problem.
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“Kay was Barbara’s partner, but she was more introverted. She was happy to take a camera,” Singer says. “A lot of what’s in the film is a direct result of Kay Lahusen. She had a smart instinct and realized this was an important moment that needed to be documented, and I’m going to take pictures. The John Fryer Stage and the many steps are examples.
“Kay was always collaborating behind the scenes with Barbara. It was his idea that Dr. Fryer be part of the roundtable in 1972, Could You Find A Gay Psychiatrist? Barbara and Kay were an incredible team.
Impact of removing the mental disorder label
“Once the label was removed, it opened the doors for a whole host of other civil rights advancements in legislation,” Singer says. “The federal government has begun to rethink its harmful policies toward gay people.
“There is a direct line to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the legalization of same-sex marriage. There was a recasting of homosexuals as healthy, productive citizens who deserved rights and dignity.