Bilerico Report

How homosexuality stopped being a disease

Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and Dr. H Anonymous (aka Dr. John E. Fryer) at the 1972 annual APA conference.

Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and Dr. H Anonymous (aka Dr. John E. Fryer) at the 1972 annual APA conference. [Photo: Kay Tobin Lahusen]

We had been jointly planning our tactics over the past month. I and my compatriots of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay May Day collective, friends from the Mattachine Society, and members of the newly formed Gay Activists Alliance were to gather on this bright morning during the first week of May in 1971, and carpool up Connecticut Avenue in northwest Washington, DC to the Shoreham Hotel. Also uniting with us were people from out-of-town who joined us as part of “Gay May Day” as we attempted to shut down the federal government for what we considered as an illegal and immoral invasion into Vietnam.

We parked about a block away since we didn’t want hotel security and attendees at the annual American Psychiatric Association conference to notice a rather large group of activists sporting T-shirts and placards announcing “Gay Is Good,” “Psychiatry Is the Enemy,” and “Gay Revolution.” Half the men decked themselves in stunning drag wearing elegant wigs and shimmering lamé dresses, glittering fairy dust wafting their painted faces.

A year before, activists demonstrated outside the APA conference held in San Francisco. As a result, conference organizers conceded to permit a panel to lead a discussion workshop at this year’s annual conference in DC under the title “Lifestyles of Nonpatient Homosexuals.” The panelists included Dr. Franklin Kameny, Director of Mattachine DC; Barbara Gittings, Director of the Philadelphia office of Daughters of Bilitis; and Jack Baker, first “out” U.S. student body president at the University of Minnesota.

In their capacity as official conference panelists, they were granted inside access to all proceedings, including admission to the annual Convocation of Fellows, in which all attendees were to hear U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark deliver the keynote address in the hotel’s over-the-top Regency Ballroom. Earlier in the week, some of us checked out the hotel’s layout. The day before, a comrade placed a wedge in a doorway coming from the Rock Creek Park woods into the hotel, where we gained access.

All along, the panelists were to serve as our Trojan Horses. After the convocation was called to order, and half-way through Clark’s address, our insiders opened the doors and in we poured, chanting, waving, shouting. On stage, we witnessed a stunned attorney general surrounded by similarly stunned and also upset APA officials, and seated in the front rows we noticed elderly men who wore gold medals around their necks.

When they saw us, they stood and began beating us with their medals while shouting “Get out of here. We don’t want any more people like you here!” Others yelled: “You’re sick, you’re sick you faggots, you drag queens!” Other psychiatrists stood up from their seats and attempted to push us physically from the hall. I was able to escape their grasp, and I sat locking arms with a contingent on the floor just beneath the stage.

Then Frank Kameny rushed the stage and grabbed the microphone, his booming voice cracking through the pandemonium even after the technician cut the power. “Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate,” he yelled, the anger seemingly oozing from his pores. “You may take this as a declaration of war against you!”

And this was, indeed, our intent: to declare war on the psychiatric profession for the atrocities, the colonization, the “professional” malpractice it had perpetrated over the preceding century in the name of “science,” the biological and psychological pathologizing of sexual and gender transgressive people. From the so-called “eugenics movement” of the mid-nineteenth century though the twentieth century and beyond, medical and psychological professions have often proposed and addressed, in starkly medical terms, the alleged “deficiencies” and “mental diseases” of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

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