Raising the curtain on life of Dr. Anonymous, Philly gay rights pioneer

Playwright Ain Gordon recreates the 217 boxes of the John Fryer archive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Playwright Ain Gordon recreates the 217 boxes of the John Fryer archive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

A new play opens this week at Philadelphia’s Painted Bride in Old City, about Dr. Anonymous, the psychiatrist who delivered a speech in 1972 arguing against treating homosexuality as a mental disease.

Dr. Anonymous wore a rubber mask to hide his true identity while giving his speech because he was gay. His identity became known about 10 years after the fact; he was Dr. John Fryer, a professor of psychiatry at Temple University. He died in 2003.

To this day he still holds his mysteries.

His papers are stored in 217 boxes at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which commissioned the New York playwright Ain Gordon to go through all of them to find material for a play, “The 217 Boxes of Dr. Anonymous.”

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“The boxes are not his self-portrait,” said Gordon, who quickly discovered the papers are not sorted in any particular order. “They are not intentional. He was not intending to tell you who he was through the boxes. But we now treat them as that. What does that mean?”

Gordon tends toward histories that are hidden, real-life stories that are messy and covert. In the play, Fryer never appears onstage. Instead, three people who knew him well — another gay rights activist, his longtime secretary, and his father — tell sometimes conflicting stories about the man.

His father, Ercel Ray Fryer of Lexington, Kentucky, died just before Fryer would give his infamous speech at the 1972 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Dallas. In the play, his father appears to recite the speech he could not have heard in life.

“‘I am — like many of you — a member of the APA and I am proud of that membership,'” said Fryer Sr., as played by Ken Marks, in the play. 

He often stops himself to deliver asides.

“I’m sorry, have you ever worn a rubber mask? The kind that John has on? Sweat build up, runs down your mouth and eyes. Dallas, right? Dallas, Texas. It’s May. It’s a windowless ballroom with no air conditioning,” he says. “My son is a big man, doesn’t take to heat.”

“The mask is more famous than the man in it,” said Gordon. There is a photo of Fryer making the speech, wearing an altered Richard Nixon mask, a wig, and an oversized tuxedo. The ensemble looks remarkably similar to the monstrous character in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“We talk about the risk Dr. Fryer took to put on that mask,” said Gordon. “The risk is not visible looking at the picture. How can that risk be tangible to us now?”

Outside of people involved in the history of gay rights activism, Dr, John Fryer is not known very well, and that’s how he wanted it. Aside from his one history-changing moment in 1972, he lived a relatively quiet life in his Germantown Victorian.

Gordon spent months trying to get a sense of a man from his papers, some of which were revealing — such as letters to his parents — and some were mundane as gardening receipts. He found no evidence of a long-term partner in Fryer’s life, but a deep passion for gospel music and home maintenance.

“He was a bit of an Anglophile,” said Gordon. “Lots of Victorian furniture in a old-school gay style that is hard to find now. Round glasses and a dashiki, on a Victorian settee.”

In the play, Fryer’s taste is described as “high swish.”

Gordon was restricted from some of the boxes in the Fryer archive at HSP.  Fryer saw patients in his home, and those patient files are sealed. Gordon suspects that at the height of the AIDS crisis, Gordon was counseling gay men trying to cope with dying, probably free of charge.

“Part of what’s attractive to me about him is that he didn’t seek glory,” said Gordon. “To do something dramatic and then go back to your private life and not seek to be remembered, is dramatic to me.”

Gordon said Fryer was actually a boisterous personality, physically large and theatrical in taste, but kept a low profile publicly. That was likely learned, as few gay men lived out in the open in mid-20th century America.

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