Doctor who challenged LGBTQ psychiatric diagnosis 50 years ago honored in Philadelphia

The historical marker that honors Dr. John Fryer at 13th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The historical marker that honors Dr. John Fryer at 13th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A new historical marker in Philadelphia commemorates the bold stand of Dr. John Fryer took to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community.

A half-century ago, Fryer testified before the American Psychiatric Association using the pseudonym “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” In that testimony, he argued against APA guidelines which 50 years ago treated homosexuality as a mental illness.

The anniversary was marked in Philadelphia with a blue historic marker being erected at 13th and Locust, the heart of the city’s LGBTQ community.

Dr. Saul Levin, who currently heads the APA said his career would never have occurred if it were not for Fryer’s work.

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Dr. Saul Levin, the CEO and Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association, said he owed his career to Dr. John Fryer, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Fryer’s denouncement of homosexuality as a mental illness in Philadelphia on May 2, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The fact they took it out within two years, I don’t think I’ve seen my association move that fast in the 178 years my organization has been in existence. It went fast and all because one man stood up,” said Levin.

Philadelphia activist Malcolm Lazin described the steps Fryer took to speak out at a time including wearing a mask, a wig, and using a voice modulator to complete his anonymous persona. Despite the circumstances, he was able to convince the panel on homosexuality that electroshock therapy wasn’t the way to cure what wasn’t a disease at all.

Artifacts and documents from the life of Dr. John Fryer, aka ‘Dr. Anonymous’, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who spoke out against treating homosexuality as a mental illness, are on display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to celebrate 50 years since Fryer admitted made his speech at the convention of the American Psychiatric Association on May 2, 1972. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lazin spoke on how Fryer put his career on the line to make his case. “You were considered to be insane, you were considered to be a criminal threat and you were unemployable,” he said.

Fryer was able to convince the panel that “the disease is not homosexuality, the disease is homophobia,” Lazin explained. “It’s homophobia that’s having a pernicious impact on the LGBTQ community.”

Some of Fryer’s students from decades ago came to the marker unveiling, including Dr. Karen Kelly. Kelly said she lived with Fryer as a student when he rented out rooms, and never knew he took the brave step before the APA before he let it slip out in a very understated way.

“He told me about it over dinner one night,” according to Kelly, “in a very nonchalant manner, telling me a story even though it was such a monumental thing for him to do.”

A diary entry made by Dr. John Fryer the day after he gave his speech at the convention of the American Psychiatric Association on May 2, 1972, written in his own hand, on display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kelly spoke of why Fryer donned the mask and altered his voice before testifying. “The reason he was anonymous was he had already lost several prestigious positions in his career because of being gay and had it come out that he had done this, he probably would have lost his job at that time.”

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Dr. Paul Kettle called Fryer his mentor and said Fryer never spoke about his landmark presentation in the classroom, or even privately to most. Kettle said Fryer would be “amused at all the fuss” now.

The first paragraph of the speech Dr. John Fryer gave at the convention of the American Psychiatric Association on May 2, 1972, written in his own hand. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In addition to the historical marker in the city, an application has been made to put Fryer’s home on the National Registry of historic places.

The Historical Society of Philadelphia has curated Fryer’s documents which are available to be viewed in person or online.

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