CURED filmmakers Patrick Sammon & Bennett Singer spotlight the 1970s LGBTQ activists who removed homosexuality from psychiatry's list of mental illnesses

CURED filmmakers Patrick Sammon & Bennett Singer spotlight the 1970s LGBTQ activists who removed homosexuality from psychiatry's list of mental illnesses
CURED Filmmakers Patrick Sammon & Bennett Singer discuss the psychiatric establishment's historical stigmitization of homosexuality, the gay and lesbian activists who reclaimed their identities, and the fight for LGBTQ rights today.

Written and conducted by Tricia Sarmiento

There have been many challenges and turning points in the movement for LGBTQ rights. What led you to focus on the battle to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder?

Patrick Sammon: I got interested in telling this story after reading a film treatment that a friend of mine, Charles Francis, wrote about the life of Frank Kameny. Charles is the president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC; they’re an LGBTQ+ history organization that focuses on archive activism, and they’re also our fiscal sponsor. One of the scenes in the treatment centers on “Dr. Anonymous” at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association convention in Dallas. At this meeting, John Fryer — appearing as “Dr. Anonymous” — had to put on a mask in order to testify about what it was like to live as a gay psychiatrist. I had been familiar with the APA fight, but in reading the treatment, this story jumped off the page and I thought, “Wow, this would make a great documentary!” At the time, I was continuing distribution efforts for my first film, Codebreaker, which is a drama-documentary about the life and legacy of Alan Turing, the gay British codebreaker who was brutalized by the British government because of his sexual orientation. Bennett was a consulting producer on that project, so I recruited him to join me. 

When we started production, back in 2015, we knew this was an important story. But the more we talked to people and delved into the details, the more we came to realize how central this campaign was to the history of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. As long as we were classified as mentally ill, business and government were going to use that as an excuse to discriminate — so this had to be the first domino to fall to change that dynamic. We were surprised, quite frankly, that a documentary on this topic hadn’t been made by anyone else. We were also excited to find out that so many of the key participants were still alive. And we feel very fortunate that our film includes those first-hand participants.


Do you both have a personal connection to this issue that was a motivating factor in making the film? 

Bennett Singer: As a young person growing up, I realized I was different and wondered what to make of that and how to think of myself in the context of the broader social response to differences in sexual orientation or gender identity. I think it is very easy to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?” or “What do the experts say about this?” Certainly, as a kid growing up in the 1970s, I did go to my public library; this would have been soon after the APA changed its position. I remember finding both Gay Liberationist perspectives on this issue, proclaiming that we’re healthy and not sick, that this disease classification was unwarranted, and that it had been lifted from us. But I also remember finding earlier literature that described homosexuality as a mental illness. On a personal level, there was that question in my mind. There was a lot of isolation and silence, along with lingering questions about how to think about myself — and how to think about homosexuality as a form of identity.

P: I have always loved history. From the time I was 12 or 13, I started to read a lot. So when I came to terms with my sexual orientation and came out, my interest in history transferred into the community I had come to terms with being part of. I wanted to learn more about our history. Bennett and I have done films about other figures who are part of LGBTQ history, so this was a natural extension of those projects. And I think it interested me as well because I saw the present-day relevance of this story — particularly as we engaged with the people who achieved this victory. They’re at an advanced age, but they have a lot to teach us about our ongoing fight for equality and how to create social change. This story has resonated with me in terms of being proud of our community’s history — and also because it offers lessons from the past to inspire action in the future to help ensure that all of us are treated equally. 


What was the process of finding the film’s subjects? Was it difficult? Why did you select certain people?

B: Before we began the production process, we did a lot of reading. It seemed clear that there were certain key players or subjects who were at the center of the campaign, such as Frank Kameny. He gets credit, and deservedly so, for being the first person to recognize that the mental illness label had to be challenged and overturned. But by the time we embarked on production, he had already died. So that’s an example where we found an archival interview and other materials in which Kameny spoke about this fight and his role in it. With other people, we identified them from books, articles, and film clips. We were so happy to discover that they were alive and able to be interviewed. The very first interview we did was with Ron Gold… 

P: Right. We found Ron Gold through the LGBT Center in New York City. They gave us his information...

B: And when we reached out to him, he was enthusiastic about being interviewed — but he told us that he was not in good health and that he was in his mid-80s. He encouraged us to make it happen quickly. Before we had any grant money or production funding, we dug into our personal funds and set up an interview with him quite quickly in order to get him on the record. That was a smart decision because he was so central to the story and he died relatively soon after we talked to him. He had the sense that his time was very limited. It was very sobering and heartening to have his voice in the film — and he recognized the importance of it, in his feisty way. 

P: Right! He said, “I’m 85, I don’t feel well, and I’m a recovering heroin addict. So if you want to interview me, you’d better do it fast!” He had a great sense of humor and such a big personality.

B: Yes! I think he was really happy to know that this story was being told. In other cases, the archival footage led us to the storytellers. For example, we saw the footage of Rev. Magora Kennedy on that episode of The David Susskind Show from 1971. Thank goodness they identified the speakers! There she was; she has a distinctive name. We searched for her online and we found a Stonewall veterans group that she is a part of. So we connected with her and she became one of our main storytellers. 

We asked all our storytellers to look back fifty years at their younger selves and think about their activism, the arc of their lives, and how what they did in 1970, 1971, and 1972 relates to where they are now. So we were thrilled to connect with Reverend Kennedy for that reason, and also because she’s such a heroic activist, such a fighter, such an optimistic storyteller in terms of being part of so many different movements. She has such an intersectional perspective on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and social change across an array of issues. And she had so much to offer in terms of how that process works and how, in her own life, she has seen revolutionary change in a lot of different arenas. She embodies fearlessness.

P: In general, when you interview someone, you follow the crumbs of the story and part of that is the written word and the other part of that is asking the storytellers themselves. When we interviewed people, we would ask, “Who are the other important people in this fight?” I think Ronald Gold introduced us to Charles Silverstein. Because a lot of these people knew each other, it was like a scavenger hunt. And you have phone conversations initially, and you figure out how central these voices are to the story. We had to interview people as quickly as we could. Aside from Ronald Gold, Dr. Richard Green passed away a couple of years after we interviewed him, as did Dr. Robert Campbell. And in 2021, Harry Adamson and Kay Lahusen both passed away — so as of June 2021, five of our storytellers have died. Hopefully, it will be a long time before all of them are gone, but the reality is that eventually these voices will be silenced. We feel humbled that we have their first-hand recollections of these key moments in our history.

B: In terms of persuading a person to share their story with us, the strongest example of that would be when we reached out to Richard Socraides, son of Dr. Charles Socarides. Richard hasn’t spoken much about this issue or about his relationship with his father, which is such a powerful and thought-provoking dynamic. As the gay son of someone who insisted that homosexuality is a curable mental illness, Richard faced some significant psychological challenges as a kid growing up, and we encouraged him to be part of the film and to share his insights. I am so glad that he chose to participate. There was a fair amount of back and forth, but he saw our other work and got a sense that we were trying to be fair and to understand his father’s motivations and give his father and Richard himself a voice. He saw that we wanted to give him a chance to open up and explain his position on these questions. I think the film is much richer because he decided to be a part of it.


Was it difficult getting the archival footage? What were some of the discoveries?

P: The heart of this film is the archival material. Our two archival producers, Mridu Chandra and Lewanne Jones, did amazing work. For years, they helped us locate pieces of the story. And our editor, Steve Heffner, did such a great job stitching it all together. We probably have material from about 60 archives and other sources. We also did a lot of in-person visits. Bennett and I did most of those. I think we went to a dozen or more archives in person. I know people today think everything can be found online, but that’s not true! You have to actually go to places and dig through file cabinets and dusty boxes. Not everything is digitized. 

I do want to pause and give a particular acknowledgment to the American Psychiatric Association for making their archives available to us. Some organizations want to run from their history, and the APA has been very gracious in stepping forward and opening their archives to us. The organization is about 130 years old, so when they gave us access to the archive, they did not necessarily know what we would find. It’s a real testament to them that they were willing to give us access. And we found great photos and a lot of great newspaper headlines. Bennett did a visit to the UCLA archives and we went together to the ONE Archives at USC. I went to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and some of their materials just aren’t digitized. After a day at the Smithsonian, I ended up with one image. But it was worth it.

B: After Dr. John Fryer died, his estate donated 217 boxes of material to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Some of the materials are digitized but, as you can imagine, this is a vast collection — brimming with journals, papers, family photos, patient records. Patrick and I spent close to a week there, looking through boxes. One of the boxes was labeled “Miscellaneous Audio” and it was filled with cassette tapes. We found an old tape recorder and we painstakingly went through those audio cassettes, which weren’t very clearly labeled. It turned out that one of them was the historic speech that Dr. Fryer gave at the 1972 APA convention when he was disguised as Dr. Anonymous. It’s a pivotal moment in our story. He put his whole job, his whole career, and his medical license in jeopardy by giving that speech because the idea of a mentally ill doctor actually practicing psychiatry was quite controversial. He could have been fired. And so to have a recording of him giving that speech takes the film to another level. It’s such a great example of the power of archival material to transport people to a specific time and place and to underscore the stakes and the emotional weight of that moment.


The multiple people presented in the film and the history of declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness are not common knowledge among the public and not commonly taught in schools. How would you go about advocating for LGBTQ+ history to be taught?

Demonstrators gathered in Albany, New York, in 1971 to demand gay rights and to declare that "Homo Is Healthy." Credit: Richard C. Wandel Photographs, The LGBT Community Center National History Archive

P: Well, it’s encouraging that some states are starting to require the teaching of LGBTQ+ history, and I think that is important. That’s step one: states requiring their schools to teach our history in public schools. It would have been so amazing, if, as a 13- or 14-year-old, I saw our community included in the history books. If that had been the case, it certainly would have made my acceptance of myself much easier. This is a critical step. Two of our heroines in the film, Barbara Gittings and her partner, Kay Lahusen, focused a great deal of energy on libraries, on reforming the American Library Association. They understood the importance of having queer-inclusive books in the library so that when young people go there to understand themselves, they see themselves in the books. It’s crucial to include our stories in history textbooks. These are lessons that young people should be taught. I think the way to do it is to lobby state lawmakers and push them to understand the importance of doing this. California was the first state to mandate this, and four other states — New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, and Oregon — have followed suit, but there is a long way to go.

Where do you think this antipathy towards the gay community from the American Psychiatric Association derived from?

B: That’s a good question, we have a section in CURED that looks at the history of psychiatry, and it’s interesting because, as we show in the film, Sigmund Freud, who was the father of psychoanalysis, went on record as saying that homosexuality should not be considered an illness. But after he died, there was a reassessment of that relatively accepting attitude, and other psychiatrists took a much more negative view towards same-sex behavior and relationships. After World War Two, there was a strong push for conformity and “normality,” and a push for a certain normative relationship as the American family model. I think that played a major part in leading psychiatrists to come to the conclusion, as documented in the first edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published in 1952, that detailed that homosexuality was pathological. They argued that homosexuality was a threat to conformity and to the notion of one man, one woman, and their 2.5 kids with the suburban house and picket fence. The timing of the DSM’s publication is important to think about, as is the context in which homosexuality was perceived as a subversive, deviant force that had the potential to undermine American values.


How can we generate more support and understanding from the American public for the LGBTQ+ community by understanding homosexuality from a psychiatric/medical view?

P: Conversion therapy is still happening all across the country. There are still LGBTQ people, and minors in particular, who are forced to undergo so-called “treatment” to be “cured” of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So I think it's critical for the effort to ban that practice to move forward. I know it has been banned for minors in 20 states. A lot of different organizations are working at the state and federal levels to institute a ban so that minors can’t be sent to conversion therapy against their will. It’s still harming people. I think that’s an essential part of the equation. It’s also important to point out that the APA is a leading voice against conversion therapy today, which is a remarkable demonstration of the progress that the APA has made over the decades on this issue. They used to be the main oppressor when it came to the mental health of LGBTQ people, and now they're the leading advocate for inclusive situations. In fact, the APA is now headed by an openly gay man, Dr. Saul Levin. He is an openly gay psychiatrist. At the end of the day, personal stories have always had the most power to move the general public to be more supportive of equality. I think that's still the case today. It’s powerful when people share their stories about who they are and how they want to live. And I think that can be the most effective tool for continuing to make progress on this issue.

B: It’s also important to talk about the role of science. At the heart of the DSM fight was a battle between good science — verifiable and backed up by traditional standards of what constitutes solid scientific practices — and bad science or claims to “science” from people who were saying that homosexuality could be cured. But when Frank Kameny and others dug into those claims from homophobic psychiatrists, they discovered that they were not grounded in solid science. And so I think there’s a lesson here about who our experts are and what kind of foundation exists for the claims that they’re making. That kind of scrutiny is healthy. And I think facts matter — whether we are talking about “does smoking hurt you?” or “is homosexuality a natural variant of human sexuality?” or “is the climate changing?” There's a healthy process of considering the science and rigorously assessing who the experts are on these questions and what is a solid, evidence-based position that is grounded in good science.


What would you say to those who support conversion therapy and other methods that are no longer supported by the APA?

P: The fact is that conversion therapy is still harming a lot of people. The collateral damage is extreme: suicides, destroyed lives, broken marriages. Conversion therapy has had a devastating impact for decades. To Bennett's point, there isn't any evidence that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed. There is evidence of people's lives being severely harmed by conversion therapy. So I think if we follow the science here, then there can only be only one conclusion: that this practice doesn't work and it's harmful. Aside from looking to the experts, I would encourage people who still advocate for conversion therapy to talk to people who have been through conversion therapy. We've had that opportunity as part of our outreach campaign to hear various stories. It's heartbreaking. So as a matter of human compassion, I would hope that people can understand how harmful, destructive, and misguided conversion therapy is.

B: There’s also the issue about the premise: Is there a problem that needs to be “cured” or “repaired” when we're talking about sexual orientation or gender identity? I think media portrayals and personal stories and honest conversations about stigma and shame and overcoming those oppressive forces — as our storytellers did in CURED — can have such a positive impact on this conversation. Because at the heart of conversion therapy is a false premise that there's a problem to be fixed. If you look at the conclusion from the APA and every other medical organization, you’ll see that there's a spectrum of sexual orientation and that homosexuality is a natural variation on that spectrum. Gender identity, similarly, has a healthy and natural set of variations. Thinking about the issue in that context is important, as well.


With the new administration, LGBTQ+ rights and legal protections may change. What do you hope to see for the future of this fight with a new president and new officials? Do you believe much will change?

P: Well, I think things are already changing. The Supreme Court decision last summer was so significant. You had the most conservative justice write one of the most significant decisions, which just shows that there is bipartisan support for certain aspects of LGBTQ rights. I think the last piece is the Equality Act and I am hopeful that there can be a middle ground related to religious liberty and LGBTQ equality. I don't think it's a one or a zero; I think there can be a compromise. It's clear that an overwhelming majority of the American public doesn't think LGBTQ people should face discrimination or isolation, so I would hope that our political leaders follow where the country is. I think the new administration is pushing a lot on this issue and, hopefully, they’ll make progress in the months and years ahead.

B: I agree! The Bostock decision was such a turning point and it was heartening and affirming to see Justice Gorsuch lead the way in affirming the rights of LGBTQ Americans to be covered by existing civil rights protections. That was huge. The momentum to pass the Equality Act seems to be growing, and I think that's the next step. It’s achievable during this administration.


Would you elaborate on Justice Gorsuch and the Equality Act?

P: Justice Gorsuch was a Trump appointee, and he's thought to be in the mold of Clarence Thomas as an originalist. I think a lot of people were surprised when he was the author of the opinion in the Bostock decision. That was transformative. I spent several years living in Tennessee, working as a reporter, and I know some of my friends there were scared of being fired from their jobs for being LGBTQ. So the Supreme Court decision in the Bostock case makes that illegal. It's groundbreaking. Marriage equality was important, but there are many people in our community who aren't married or choose not to get married. But discrimination in the workplace is something that affects our entire community. In terms of the daily lives of LGBTQ people, that decision was so historic and significant. The fact that it wasn't 5-4 but was a 6-3 decision gives it even more weight. And opponents of the decision have a harder time articulating their opposition to it when someone that they advocated for wrote the decision and based his argument on conservative principles.

B: I’d like to share this quote from Justice Gorsuch. “It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” He was using the existing civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex to extend that argument. In one way, it is a very literal and “conservative” reading of the law, but it had an unexpected and radical impact because people were surprised that Gorsuch joined the more liberal members of the Court. It was a major moment. I feel like the question is, “When will America get to a point where we have national protections against discrimination?” and that's at the heart of what the Equality Act will put into law. There are state-by-state laws and there are certain national protections, including marriage equality, but beyond that, there are not broader protections that would become legislated, mandated, and fixed across the country if the Equality Act becomes law.

P: Right! Particularly around public accommodations and housing discrimination. Those are two of the elements in the Equality Act, which is a wide-ranging piece of legislation. It's meant to fill in the gaps that aren’t covered in particular places and haven't been covered by previous court decisions.

B: The surprising reality is that in many states, it's legal for a landlord to say, “I discovered that you, as my tenants, are gay or lesbian or trans and therefore I’m evicting you.” It seems shocking, but it's actually because certain states and federal legislation don’t see LGBTQ people as a protected class. Therefore, on issues like public accommodations and housing, there are these gaps that have really serious consequences


How would you like educators to use CURED as a teaching tool?

P: Even though the story is about history, the film’s lessons are very relevant today. This film lays out a road map about how social change is created, not just for LGBTQ people, but across various social change movements. The people in this film succeeded in coming up with a blueprint for change. To dive more deeply into that, you can look at the mix of insiders and outsiders who were part of this fight. You had the angry rock-throwing activists in the streets, but then you also had the people maneuvering from inside the APA to bring about this change. They needed each other. They didn't necessarily like each other, they may not have respected each other, but both groups had essential roles to play. If you had one without the other, it would have taken a lot longer for this change to come about. That's a lesson about how to create social change. You need people in different roles who can use their tools and skills within their area of expertise to focus on what they're best at, in terms of being a rabble-rouser from the outside or being a changemaker from the inside.

B:  Lots of themes from the film will work well in various disciplines. Certainly, it’s a fascinating case study about allies and how people outside the LGBTQ+ community ended up being so instrumental in making this transformative change. I think about the story of Dr. Richard Green, whose mentor told him not to publish a paper he wrote that questioned the evidence for the mental illness label. Dr. Green went ahead and published it anyway and faced some pushback, but he became an ally. He went on the record to say that the science didn't justify this label that was harming LGBTQ people. He put himself out there and took a stand and made a difference. I think that lesson about who speaks up at a given moment and who remains a bystander — how people take risks and become participants in the process of social change — is certainly a crucial takeaway.

P: Bennett alluded to it earlier, but there’s this push and pull between science and politics. We asked most of the participants that question: Did the APA make this change by responding to science or politics? Politics — meaning a changing country and also pressure from the outside — or was this a move to convince the APA that the science didn't justify the mental illness label? In terms of educators, the same thing is happening on many public-policy issues. There is an ongoing push and pull between science and politics. I think this film can be instructive about that question and the interplay between those forces. And sometimes, political tactics can be useful in shining a spotlight on the underlying scientific facts of a given issue.

B:  It's also fascinating how pop culture and media portrayals of gay people were shifting at the time this debate was happening. All in the Family, which was a huge cultural touchstone in the early 1970s, had episodes showing gay characters in a positive light, which was radical and unprecedented. I think it played a role in reshaping people's opinions about something that had been stigmatized and misunderstood. There's a lot to think about, a lot of jumping-off points in the film. That process of how images and representations of a given social group affect political change, the social fabric of the country, and people’s perceptions of themselves are very central to the story. If, as a group, LGBTQ people were hearing for decades “You are sick,” then it's not surprising that many people in that group wondered if they were sick. What's miraculous is that enough people, like Frank Kameny and Reverend Magora Kennedy and Don Kilhefner and Barbara Gittings, pushed back against those experts and said, “Well, I don't agree that I'm sick. You're telling me that I'm sick, but I don't feel sick and I want to challenge that. And let’s engage in dialogue to unpack some of this.” That’s another big theme in the film — bringing one’s authentic self to the table and engaging in conversations and dialogue about one’s role in society.


What would you like the audience to take away from this movie?

P: The first thing I want people to take away is admiration for the heroes and heroines who achieved this victory and the recognition that this outcome wasn’t inevitable. When these activists got started in the late 1960s and early ’70s, probably 95 percent of psychiatrists thought that homosexuality was a mental illness. When you look at those daunting odds, it's remarkable how quickly this victory was achieved. It would have been easy for the activists to get discouraged, but they didn’t. They decided they were going to fight and they didn't care how long it took. I think there's a lesson there. Hopefully, their tenacity can inspire people today, not just to create social change but also to face any difficulty in our lives. To be able to stand up in the face of long odds and fight is inspiring, so I hope people get that. Even more fundamentally, this film demonstrates that change is possible. Social change can produce progress and results that reverberate and last for good and usher in a better future. When you look at the injustices in our society today, we have to remember that it is possible to bring about systemic change — especially when determined groups of individuals join forces.


Anything else you would like to add?

P: With our prior films, Bennett and I have had remarkable experiences doing screenings at colleges and universities. We've seen how these stories about LGBTQ history can inspire and create incredible dialogue. We know from our experience with other films the power that documentaries have to educate people — and I think CURED has that same power. We're excited to join with educators and present this film as a tool for building awareness and inspiring change.

B: Thanks so much for a great conversation! One final note: CURED has been optioned as the basis for a scripted series, which is being written and developed by Steven Canals, who co-created Pose. I’m excited about taking these characters and this storyline and turning it into a six- or eight-part series for FX, which is the intention, and reaching a broader audience. It’s another way of honoring these heroes and celebrating their activism and thinking about the profound change that came about as a result of their bravery and courage. Patrick and I are thrilled to be collaborating on the adaptation. I think it will be amazing to get into the soul of the activists’ personalities in a scripted series — what was John Fryer thinking as he put on that mask? How did Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen feel as they took part in those early picket lines? What kind of discussions did the closeted psychiatrists have who were part of the “Gay PA”? The possibilities are really exciting. Stay tuned!