Speech of "Dr. Henry Anonymous" [John Fryer] at the American Psychiatric Association 125th Annual Meeting, May 2, 1972
In 1972, when this speech was delivered, gay American men and women were sick. This was not just the opinion of many average Americans, who considered homosexuality disgusting and immoral, but the official viewpoint of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which considered homosexuality a mental illness. Gay rights activists believed strongly that if gay men and women were sometimes emotionally distressed as a result of their orientation, it was not because homosexuality was a disorder that needed to be treated but because of the discrimination and harassment they encountered in day-to-day life. Treating gays and lesbians as sick people who needed to be cured rather than as equal citizens whose rights needed to be respected, they believed, made the challenges already experienced by gay men and women worse. Gay rights leaders Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings accordingly held protests at annual meetings held by the APA. Working with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Kameny had protested the 1971 APA meeting by grabbing a hold of the microphone during the ceremony and yelling, "Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate. Psychiatry has waged a relentless war of extermination against us. You may take this as a declaration of war against you." The incident left a lasting impression upon the psychiatric organization: they decided that the GLF would be given time to speak at the conference in 1972.
Finally given the opportunity to present their pro–gay rights case within the very institution that deemed them mentally ill, Gittings and Kameny did not squander the opportunity. Hearkening back to the Carol Hanisch's feminist mantra that "the personal is political," Gittings and Kameny decided that presenting a figure to whom these issues were incredibly personal would promote the gay rights message most effectively. They found their flagbearer in the form of a closeted gay psychiatrist, John E. Fryer. A proud member of the APA, Fryer told Kameny and Gittings he would give a speech at the 1972 APA convention but would remain anonymous by wearing a mask and using a voice modulator. Fryer, a professor at Temple University, had not yet achieved tenure and was afraid of losing his job and his friends if his orientation was revealed. And indeed, on May 2, 1972, Fryer, cloaked as "Dr. H. Anonymous," would set the stage for the removal of homosexuality from the APA mental disorder list with just eight words: "I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist."
Ultimately, Fryer's "Dr. Anonymous" speech enacted a wave of changes in the discourse surrounding society's understanding of homosexuality. With the APA's dismissal of homosexuality as a medical disorder, arguments made for its condemnation by way of irrefutable scientific merit collapsed. So incredible was the decision to remove homosexuality from the APA mental disorder list that Barbara Gittings wrote an article in the Philadelphia Gay News with the headline, "Twenty Million Homosexuals Gain Instant Cure." Almost instantly, thousands of American homosexuals who a day before had been diagnosed with mental illness had suddenly become normal overnight. Freed from the weight of scientific stigma, the conversation on gay rights would shift away from institutional negativity and toward a discussion of individual freedoms.
Although in a mask, Fryer made a connection so personal, so immediate, that the gay rights movement was propelled forward, weaving a new narrative of public demonstrations and organizations. Politicians like Harvey Milk, elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, were able to organize a large, public political campaign just five years after Fryer's speech. "Dr. Anonymous," while not carrying the burden of gay rights alone, certainly made a more public discussion on this contentious issue possible throughout the 1970s and for years to come.
Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
Robert DiGiacomo, "'Instant Cure' Recalled," Philadelphia Gay News, May 17-23, 2002, in HSP Digital Library.
Jack Drescher and Joseph P. Merlino, American Psychiatry and Homosexuality: An Oral History (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2007).
Willhem Echevarria, "The John Fryer Papers and the Dr. Anonymous Affair," Fondly, Pennsylvania (blog), May 3, 2012, http://hsp.org/blogs/fondly-pennsylvania/the-john-fryer-papers-and-the-d....
John Fryer Papers (Collection 3465), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Finding aid