From the Newsletter | When Psychiatry Made Being Gay OK

By | Dec 15, 2023
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Fifty years ago, the Washington Post declared: “Doctors Rule Homosexuals Not Abnormal.” 

Today, December 15, marks the anniversary of the American Psychiatric Association’s board of trustees vote to remove homosexuality from the profession’s diagnostic manual of mental disorders. Many newspapers carried the story on their front pages the following day in 1973 with headlines similar to the Post’s. The gay press took more of a “no-duh” approach; “The Earth is Round!” one outlet declared.

Only with the passage of time did the decision’s true impact become apparent. The APA’s definition of homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder” had for decades served as the structural engineering beneath the persecution of homosexuals, who today we identify as LGBTQ. But in the wake of the APA decision, the superstructure began to crack and tumble. Gay people would no longer be fired from jobs, denied security clearances or face prosecution for sodomy.

The president of the APA that day in 1973 was Dr. Alfred M. Freedman, my father. He chaired the closed-door board meeting and emerged to announce the board had voted almost unanimously (there were two abstentions) for the resolution to delete homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the DSM, as it is still called today.

In the story I wrote for Moment’s November/December issue on the APA decision, “Keepers of the Diagnostic Keys,” I said that my father was in many ways an “accidental APA president.” When young progressive psychiatrists urged him to run, he demurred. They asked him several times before he finally agreed. He won by three votes. It wasn’t in his nature to promote himself, to aggressively pursue power. But once handed the ball, he was happy to run with it.

Taking homosexuality out of the DSM was not his idea. It was just one item on a laundry list of goals he and his fellow progressives hoped to accomplish. But the incipient gay rights movement effectively targeted the APA, employing 1960s-style guerrilla tactics to convince psychiatrists that homosexuals were not mentally ill. So whether it liked it or not, the APA had to grapple with its definition.

The young psychiatric insurgency picked my father because he was part of the psychiatric establishment. But they also knew he eschewed private practice (and the riches it offered) in favor of community mental health and drug-addiction treatment for underserved minorities.

What they might not have known is that my father had a long history of commitment to left-wing causes dating back to his college days at Cornell in the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The popular song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was a favorite. When my mother, Marcia Kohl Freedman, met him on a Miami-bound train during World War II, he was a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps—and a Marxist. “One thing that fascinated me was his left-wing politics,” my mother wrote in a short memoir seven years before her death in 2011 (the same year my father died). “We spent the first few months of our marriage (in 1943) discussing some basic Marxist concepts.”

Communism and Communist Party activity were sensitive topics when I was growing up—and in many ways still are. And truthfully I don’t know the full extent of my parents’ involvement. But I can say it was part of an honest search for equality and social justice amid the economic seesaw of capitalism, segregation of races, and discrimination against Jews. (Dad’s long infatuation with the Soviet Union had been going downhill for years, but came to an end in the 1970s when he led a delegation of psychiatrists to Moscow to investigate political dissidents forced into mental hospitals.)

At home, our family life was engaging but pretty much routine. Dad, and later on, Mom, went to work and came home for dinner at 6 p.m. sharp. Table talk was often focused on news of the day, civil rights, Vietnam and so on. The most important and long-lasting thing, however, is that Dad did not view his children through a psychoanalytic lens. “The fact that Dad was not overly Freudian affected our childhood in a positive way,” says my brother Paul, now a history professor at Yale and author of several books, including Ten Restaurants that Changed America. “Mom and Dad, whatever their defects as parents, were not looking at us for signs of suffering from any sort of psychiatric complex.”

Our parents were not synagogue-goers. But Yiddishkeit was a constant, with both parents feeding us a regular diet of expressions and jokes. My father’s one-on-one conversations with his mother (who arrived alone around 1904 as a teenager from what is now Belarus) were almost entirely in Yiddish. We celebrated Passover at my grandmother’s house in Albany. The smells of chopped onions, chopped liver, dill and chicken schmalz were pleasantly overwhelming. But my brother and I knew nothing about other Jewish holidays or the Torah. Our bar mitzvahs were nominal, with my parents telling us the primary purpose was pleasing Grandma.

Despite family support for civil rights, our attitudes toward gay people were fairly standard—a bit of a shock in retrospect. For example, my mother strenuously objected to my going with a friend to see a 1960s-vintage Dracula movie at a Times Square theater. She was a little vague on why it was a problem, but it had something to do with what if I had to go to the men’s room at the theater? (My friend’s aging emigre uncle agreed to escort us.)

As my father’s health declined and he turned his attention to what he had achieved in his life, the 1973 decision on homosexuality loomed larger and larger. He never claimed any credit other than as the closer who helped bring it to fruition. Indeed, his obituary in The New York Times noted he was president of the APA “in 1973 when, overturning a century-old policy, it declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness.” Had he still been alive, he would have been flattered to read that.

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