John E. Fryer

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John E. Fryer
John Fryer in disguise as 'Dr. H. Anonymous'.jpg
as "Dr. H. Anonymous" in 1975
Born(1937-11-07)November 7, 1937
DiedFebruary 21, 2003(2003-02-21) (aged 65)
Alma materVanderbilt University
Known forHis role in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
AwardsDistinguished Service Award from the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists
Scientific career
InstitutionsTemple University

John Ercel Fryer, M.D. (November 7, 1937 – February 21, 2003)[1] was an American psychiatrist and gay rights activist best known for his anonymous speech at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual conference where he appeared in disguise and under the name Dr. Henry Anonymous. This event has been cited as a key factor in the decision to de-list homosexuality as a mental illness from the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The APA's "John E. Fryer, M.D., Award" is named in his honor.[2]

Early life[edit]

Fryer was born in Winchester, Kentucky to Ercel Ray Fryer and Katherine Zempter Fryer.[1][3] He was in the second grade of his elementary school at 5 years old,[4] graduated from high school at 15, and at 19 earned a bachelor's degree from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he became a member of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity.[5] He received his medical degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1962[5] and did his medical internship at Ohio State University.[6][4] He began his psychiatric residency at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, but left – on the advice of a psychoanalyst – due to the depression caused by having to hide his homosexuality; he later described Menninger as having "a lot of homophobia".[4] He moved to Philadelphia, where he held a residency at the University of Pennsylvania,[7] but was forced to leave because of his homosexuality; he completed his residency in 1967 at Norristown State Hospital.[8][4]

Around the mid-1960s, Fryer began to receive referrals from Alfred A. Gross,[9] the Executive Secretary of the George W. Henry Foundation – co-founded by Gross and Henry in 1948[9] to help those "who by reason of sexual deviation are in trouble with themselves, the law or society"[7] – to treat homosexual men who had run afoul of the law, and to testify on their behalf in court cases.[9]

Fryer joined the medical faculty of Philadelphia's Temple University in 1967. As of January 1969, he was an instructor in psychiatry there.[10] He worked in the community health center in North Philadelphia, and became active in the Health Care and Human Values Task Force, using a $5,000 grant to that organization to create a group he called "Ars Moriendi" to deal with matter concerning the professional reaction to death and dying. This later became the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement.[4]

1972 speech[edit]

John E Fryer MD Historical Marker on 13th at Locust Sts Philadelphia PA

At a time when homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness, a sociopathic personality disturbance according to the second edition of the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II), published in 1968,[11] Fryer was the first gay American psychiatrist to speak publicly about his sexuality. In 1970, a protest at an APA event in San Francisco on aversion therapy, the message of which, according to lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, was "Stop talking about us and starting talking with us",[11] earned gay and lesbian activists a voice in the association. The next year at the 1971 convention in Washington, Gittings organized a panel discussion on "Lifestyles of Non-patient Homosexuals",[12] which was chaired by gay Harvard University astronomer Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, who had previously lost a job with the federal government due to his homosexuality.

In a planned protest, members of the APA's Gay Liberation and the Radical Caucus seized the microphone. Kameny denounced the APA's "oppression" of homosexuals by psychiatry, calling it "the enemy incarnate".[11] This was part of Kameny's long-standing protest about the diagnosis of homosexuality, a fight that he had been waging since at least 1964, when he appeared on television to declare that being gay was "not a disease, a pathology, a sickness, a malfunction or a disorder of any sort". Kameny wrote in Psychiatric News: "[W]e object to the sickness theory of homosexuality tenaciously held with utter disregard for the disastrous consequences of this theory to the homosexual, based as it is on poor science."[13][14]

This protest led to a session the next year, at the association's 1972 annual meeting, on homosexuality and mental illness. Entitled "Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual?; A Dialogue" it included Kameny and Gittings on the panel. Gittings' partner, Kay Lahusen, had noted that the panel had on it homosexuals who were not psychiatrists, and psychiatrists who were not homosexuals, but no homosexual psychiatrists, so Gittings set out to find one who would be willing to be a panel member. After numerous contacts, she was unable to find a gay psychiatrist who would speak, so she decided that she would read letters from gay psychiatrists without revealing their names.[4] She then contacted Fryer, and convinced him to appear.[15][4] Fryer later said that the recent death of his father was one factor in his decision to accept the invitation, but his experiences at losing positions because of his homosexuality meant that he did so only after Gittings suggested that he could be disguised.[4]

Listed only as "Dr. H. Anonymous", later expanded to "Dr. Henry Anonymous", Fryer appeared on stage wearing a rubber joke shop face mask – which was sometimes described as a mask of Richard M. Nixon, but which was probably altered from its original state[7] – a wig, and a baggy tuxedo and spoke through a microphone that distorted his voice.[Notes 1] In 2002, Dr. Jack Drescher, then the head of the APA's Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Issues pointed out "[t]he irony ... that an openly homosexual psychiatrist had to wear a mask to protect his career. So the fact that someone would get up on stage, even in disguise, at the risk of professional denunciation or loss of job, it was not a small thing. Even in disguise, it was a very, very brave thing to do."[12]

At the time of his speaking, Fryer was on the faculty of Temple University, but did not have the security of tenure, so was in real danger of losing his position if he had been identified – he had already lost a residency at the University of Pennsylvania,[15][14] and was later forced to leave a position on the staff of Friends Hospital because of his flamboyance; ironically the administrator who told him, "If you were gay and not flamboyant, we would keep you. If you were flamboyant and not gay we would keep you. But since you are both gay and flamboyant, we cannot keep you" was, according to Fryer, in the front row at his 1972 appearance as Dr. Anonymous, never realizing that Anonymous was Fryer.[4][6][11]

Fryer's speech began: "I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist",[16] and went on to describe the lives of the many gay psychiatrists in the APA who had to hide their sexuality from their colleagues for fear of discrimination, and from fellow homosexuals owing to the disdain in which the psychiatric profession was held among the gay community. Fryer's speech also suggested ways in which gay psychiatrists could subtly and "creatively" challenge prejudice in their profession without disclosing their sexuality, and help gay patients adjust to a society that considered their sexual preferences a sign of psychopathology. There were reportedly more than 100 gay psychiatrists at the convention.[13][4][Notes 2]

At least one other panelist agreed with Fryer and Kameny that the stance of the psychiatric establishment toward homosexuality was wrong. The APA's vice president at the time and later president, Dr. Judd Marmor, said: "I must concede that psychiatry is prejudiced as has been charged. Psychiatric mores reflect the predominant social mores of the culture." He later wrote: "In a democratic society we recognize the rights of such individuals to have widely divergent religious preferences, as long as they do not attempt to force their beliefs on others who do not share them. Our attitudes toward divergent sexual preferences, however, are quite different, obviously because moral values – couched in 'medical' and 'scientific' rationalizations – are involved."[14]

Also appearing on the panel were Dr. Kent Robinson, from Shepherd Pratt Psychiatric Hospital, and Robert Seidenberg.[4]

After the panel discussion, Fryer appeared for two hours on a local radio talk show as Dr. Anonymous with his voice disguised, broadcast, Fryer later said, from one of the gay bars in the area.[4] Although some of his colleagues knew who he was, at the time of his speech and later, Fryer did not formally acknowledge having been Dr. Anonymous until the APA's 1994 convention in Philadelphia.[13][7][14]

Homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, a year after Fryer's speech[Notes 3] – leading the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin to print the headline "Homosexuals gain instant cure"[15][12] – and Fryer's speech has been cited as a key factor in persuading the psychiatric community to reach this decision.[20] Gittings later said of it: "His speech shook up psychiatry. He was the right person at the right time."[15] Fryer himself later wrote in 1985, in the newsletter of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, that it was "something that had to be done" and "the central event in my career. ... I had been thrown out of a residency because I was gay. I lost a job because I was gay. ... It had to be said, but I couldn't do it as me. ... I was not yet full time on the [Temple] faculty. I am now tenured, and tenured by a chairman who knows I'm gay. That's how things have changed."[5][12]

Ironically, since the removal of homosexuality from the DSM, APA meetings have been disrupted by "ex-gay" activists seeking to have homosexuality classified as a mental disorder again. According to Drescher: "Every year, we get a group of people who ... ask for homosexuality to be put back in the manual. ... They're, interestingly, the only group who does it. Every other group wants their diagnoses taken out; they want theirs back in."[12]

Later life and death[edit]

Fryer became a professor at Temple, both of psychiatry, and of family and community medicine. He specialized in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction as well as in death and bereavement.[12][11] Later in his career, he began treating gay men with AIDS who were dying, seeing them in his home office rather than in his practice at Temple, for reasons of patient confidentiality.[7] He was involved in setting up Physicians in Transition, Temple's Family Life Development Center, the APA's International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement and the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force. In 1980, at the behest of Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of London's St Christopher's Hospice, he took a sabbatical from Temple and helped to restructure the hospice's education department.[15] He retired from Temple in 2000.[5]

In 2002, it was reported that Fryer had accepted a position at a hospital in the Northern Territory of Australia,[12] but he never took up that post.

Fryer was also a musician, playing the organ. For thirty years he was the choirmaster of St. Peter's Church in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia where he lived;[3][5] he also played the organ for Temple University graduations.[7]

Fryer was being treated for diabetes and pulmonary sarcoidosis, and eventually died from gastrointestinal bleeding and aspiration pneumonia in 2003.[21][13]

Awards and honors[edit]

Fryer received a "Distinguished Alumnus" award from Vanderbilt University in 2002, and in that same year was awarded a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP), now the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists.[5][12] After his death, the AGLP, along with the American Psychiatric Association, endowed the APA's "John E. Fryer, M.D., Award" in his memory, to honor a person whose work has contributed to the mental health of sexual minorities, and includes both a lecture at the Fall conference of the ALGP and an honorarium.[2][22][8] The first two recipients of the award were Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny.[6]

Fryer's papers are archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in over 200 boxes, and are available to the public.[7] Some documents have been digitized and are available online.[23][24]

On October 3, 2017, a historic marker was unveiled in Philadelphia's "Gayborhood", across the street from the Historical Society.[25][26] It reads:

Temple professor and psychiatrist Fryer, disguised as "Dr. Anonymous," spoke against the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as a mental illness at the APA's 1972 annual meeting. Fryer's testimony convinced the APA to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, ending treatments such as chemical castration, electric shock therapy, and lobotomy and paving the way for advances in LGBT civil rights.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 2017[27][28]

In popular culture[edit]

In May 2016, a play by Ain Gordon, 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous – based on Gordon's research as an "embedded artist" at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), where Fryer's papers are archived – premiered at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. The play explores Fryer and the circumstances around his 1972 appearance at the APA convention through monologues by three people who knew him: Alfred A. Gross, the Executive Director of the New York City-based George W. Henry Foundation, a social charity which helped homosexual men who had gotten into trouble with the law; Katherine M. Luder, Fryer's long-time secretary; and Fryer's father, Ercel Ray Fryer.[29][30][31][32][33] Gordon's entire project – including video of all the public events prior to the presentation of the play, the play's script and video of a performance – will be added to the Fryer archive at HSP.[34] In May 2018, the play was revived by the Equality Forum for two weeks of performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, to coincide with the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting,[35] and again in Lexington, Kentucky in May 2019.[36]

In June 2020, it was announced that Steven Canals would write and develop for the FX TV channel 81 Words, a miniseries which would focus on the campaign to get the APA to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual. The miniseries will be based on "81 Words", the This American Life episode by Alix Spiegel, and Cured a documentary by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer which is scheduled to premiere at the virtual Los Angeles Outfest in August 2020.[37][38]

Cured was the first runner-up for the 2020 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, having been chosen from over 150 finalists. The film is scheduled to be shown on PBS.[39]

See also[edit]


Informational notes

  1. ^ Fryer was assisted in creating his disguise by his then-boyfriend, who was a drama major.[4][11] Not only fear of repercussions led to the theatricality of Fryer's disguised appearance: he later chaired a meeting of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement in 1974 wearing loudly patterned dashikis and using a ceramic cow bell to keep order; he had a propensity for theatricality.[15]
  2. ^ There are some discrepancies between Fryer's handwritten manuscript for the speech, which is in the Fryer collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania,[17] and the text as it has been published in various places.[4][18] For instance, in the manuscript, Fryer writes that there are over 200 gay psychiatrists registered for the APA convention, while the published text claims only 100. Similarly, the manuscript says "[W]e should have clearly in our minds our own particular understanding of what it is to be a healthy homosexual in a world which sees that appellation as an impossible anachronism", while the published version corrects "anachronism" to "oxymoron". It is unclear if these changes were made in the process of converting the manuscript to the typescript Fryer read from at the 1972 meeting, or if they were the result of post-event editing of the text before it was published.
  3. ^ However, the designation homosexuality with sexual orientation disturbance remained in the Manual until finally removed in 1987.[19]


  1. ^ a b Birth certificate in the John E. Fryer archive at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Box 38
  2. ^ a b Moran, Mark (November 3, 2006) "Activists Forced Psychiatrists To Look Behind Closet Door" Psychiatric News
  3. ^ a b "Dr John Ercel Fryer" at Find-a-Grave
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Scasta, David L. (2003) "John E. Fryer, MD, and the Dr. H. Anonymous Episode" in Drescher, Jack and Merlino, Joseph P. (eds.) (2012) American Psychiatry and Homosexuality: An Oral History Routledge. pp.15-28 ISBN 9781136859939; originally published in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy 6(4):73-84
  5. ^ a b c d e f Pray, Rusty (February 26, 2003) "John E. Fryer, 65, psychiatrist" (obituary) The Philadelphia Inquirer
  6. ^ a b c Barber, Mary E. (September 1, 2006) "Honoring John Fryer's Legacy" Behavioral Healthcare
  7. ^ a b c d e f g John Fryer papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  8. ^ a b Staff (December 18, 2013) "American Psychiatric Foundation Helps Endow Fryer Award" Psychiatric News
  9. ^ a b c "Profile: Dr Alfred A. Gross" Religious Archives Network
  10. ^ Stokes, Marion (producer) (January 26, 1969) "Input - #18 - The Anatomy of Life - Part 5 - 'Puppet or Person?'" (video) WCAU-TV Philadelphia
  11. ^ a b c d e f Ambrosino, Brandon (December 26, 2015) "The Nixon-Masked Man Who Helped End Homosexuality as a Disease" The Daily Beast
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h DiGiacomo, Robert (2002) "Dr. H. Anonymous; 'Instant cure' recalled; Being gay was an illness 30 years ago" Philadelphia Gay News; reprinted in the AGLP Newsletter (August 2002)
  13. ^ a b c d Clendinen, Dudley (March 5, 2003) "Dr. John Fryer, 65, Psychiatrist Who Said in 1972 He Was Gay" (obituary) The New York Times
  14. ^ a b c d Levin, Aaron (April 28, 2016) "Masked Man Challenged Psychiatrists’ Views on Homosexuality" Psychiatric News
  15. ^ a b c d e f Lenzer, Jeanna (March 22, 2003) "John Fryer" British Medical Journal
  16. ^ Fryer, John E. (May 2, 1972) "Speech of "Dr. Henry Anonymous" [John Fryer] at the American Psychiatric Association 125th Annual Meeting, May 2, 1972" Historical Society of Pennsylvania website
  17. ^ "Item: Speech of "Dr. Henry Anonymous" [John Fryer] at the American Psychiatric Association 125th Annual Meeting" Historical Society of Pennsylvania website
  18. ^ Fryer, John E. (May 2, 1972) ("Dr. H. Anonymous speaks" AGLP Newsletter (August 2002)
  19. ^ Thompson, Summer R. (June 7, 2021) "Bridging the LGBTQI Gap in Care: Why Psychiatrists Need To Do More To Treat These At-Risk Communities" Psychiatric Times
  20. ^ Scasta D. L. (2003) "John E. Fryer, MD, and the Dr. H. Anonymous Episode" Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy Volume:6 Issue:4 pp.73–84.
  21. ^ Staff (March 08, 2003) "Dr. John E. Fryer, 65; Trailblazing Psychiatrist in Gay Rights Movement" Los Angeles Times
  22. ^ "AGLP Awards". Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  23. ^ "John Fryer papers [3465]" Historical Society of Pennsylvania website
  24. ^ Coletta, Jen (ndg) "Forty years after APA decision, 'Dr. Anonymous' letter [sic] continues to educate" The Gay History Project website
  25. ^ De Groot, Kristen (Associated Press) (October 2, 2017) "Psychiatrist, gay rights trailblazer honored in Philadelphia" SFGate
  26. ^ Von Bergen, Jane M. (October 1, 2017) "Honoring a gay psychiatrist credited with getting homosexuality declassified as an illness" The Philadelphia Inquirer
  27. ^ Text on historic marker
  28. ^ Crimmins, Peter (October 3, 2017). "Philly honors history of LGBT community: Dr. Anonymous, AIDS Library commemorated". Newsworks. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  29. ^ "An Artist Embedded" Historical Society of Pennsylvania website
  30. ^ Staff (April 25, 2016) "Ain Gordon World Premiere Set for Painted Bride Arts Center" Broadway World Philadelphia
  31. ^ Derakhshani, Tirdad (May 5, 2016) "'217 Boxes' at the Painted Bride: A courageous mystery man who changed history" The Philadelphia Inquirer
  32. ^ Crimmins, Peter (May 4, 2016) "Raising the curtain on life of Dr. Anonymous, Philly gay rights pioneer" Archived 2016-05-11 at the Wayback Machine Newsworks
  33. ^ Panzer, Lisa (May 10, 2016) "217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous (HSP/PUPCos/Painted Bride): Archival gold" Findie
  34. ^ Personal correspondence with Ain Gordon (May 11, 2016)
  35. ^ 217 Boxes website
  36. ^ Staff "Obie Award winner Ain Gordon’s ‘217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous’ makes Kentucky debut at Transylvania University" 1780 - Transylvania University
  37. ^ Zonkel, Philip (July 21, 2020) Q Voice News
  38. ^ Moore, Matt (August 2020) "New documentary explores how America declassified homosexuality as a mental illness" Gay Times
  39. ^ Staff (April 1, 2021) "Multi-Award Winning Film “Cured” on BOONE DOCS Series April 18 Film Illuminates Hidden Chapter in the Struggle for LGBT Civil Rights" High Country Press

External links[edit]