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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Charles Silverstein on gay rights and psychology
BOOKS Extended for the online version of Windy City Times
by Joe Franco
2011-10-12

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Dr. Charles Silverstein is well known for his activism in the struggle for gay rights, including his 1973 historic presentation before the "Nomenclature Committee" of the American Psychiatric Association ( APA ) , which led to the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM ) .

He founded two gay and lesbian counseling centers in New York, Identity House and the Institute for Human Identity. He was also the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality and is best known for the groundbreaking The Joy of Gay Sex ( with Edmund White ) , and The New Joy of Gay Sex ( with Felice Picano ) . On Oct. 13, 2011, Silverstein will be adding a new volume to his personal bibliography—For The Ferryman: A Personal History.

Recently, Windy City Times had the opportunity to interview Silverstein about his life and his work.

Windy City Times: So why psychology?

Dr. Charles Silverstein: Well you know, I had been an elementary school teacher prior to coming to psychology. I liked what I did; in fact, my Larchmont kids are holding a reunion for me. Still, teaching was not satisfying a certain intellectual part of me. I enjoyed working closely with people so psychology seemed fitting.

WCT: In 1973 you convinced the Nomenclature Committee of the APA to remove "homosexuality as a mental illness from the DSM. How did that come about?

CS: The psychological community had always labeled homosexuality as a perversion and a derivation from the so-called "norm." These men considered it an illness and, therefore, curable. It was an illness because it violated the social norms of the day.

WCT: Was the medical community relying on any objective scientific evidence that homosexuality was actually an illness that could be cured?

CS: As far as I am aware, no. Psychoanalysts believed that gay men were doomed to lives of depression and, eventually, suicide because of their shame. I argued that these men were not ashamed because they were homosexual but because of what these therapists were telling them.

WCT: What about these new groups that are using therapy to "cure" homosexuality?

CS: This isn't therapy at all you see. Exodus International and other groups like them use what they believe to be the power of prayer. "If you pray hard enough to Jesus you will no longer be gay. He will make you straight." Even though the APA has thoroughly discredited such a notion, men and women are still being harmed the same way they were when homosexuality was thought of as a disease.

WCT: Do you think that the removal of homosexuality as a disease from the DSM had any far-reaching impact or was quoted as a basis for the overturning of the Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick and other anti-sodomy court cases and laws?

CS: You bring up a very valid and important point. There is a substantial relationship between the medical community and their diagnoses and the legal community. When psychology declares a certain disorder or mental issue a disease, the legal community picks that up and makes that behavior a crime. In Britain now is the Spanner case. A group of S&M men would gather to have sex and videotape their encounters. Nearly all of the sadism was theatrical and not real but it was still videotaped. The sadists were arrested and prosecuted since an individual cannot consent to damage. Since S&M was declared a mental disorder, it encouraged such prosecutions like that in Spanner.

WCT: You frequently mention a psychologist in your latest book: Dr. Charles Socarides.

CS: Ah, yes. He believed that homosexuals were doomed to their lives of depression and suicide. He even wanted to set up concentration camps for homosexuals. He was able to get on a number of television and radio programs since producers needed to get "the other side of the argument". He was quite outrageous but he got the airtime. Dr. Socarides' son [ Richard ] was gay and everyone knew that. After his son came out he was asked if it changed his opinion on homosexuality and he responded, "It doesn't change my opinion one bit."

WCT: You noted in your book that the "radical gay" group you belonged to—the Gay Activists Alliance ( GAA ) —had a number of members with colorful antis and who were considered damaged and whom society rejected. Do you think that, as gays become more "mainstream," the ideals of GAA are overlooked?

CS: Things were different then. There was a certain symbiotic relationship between the radical gay movement and more moderate gays. You see, the radical gays help low-level jobs and didn't have anything to lose. The more moderate gays—the doctors and lawyers and what have you—could all lose their licenses on a charge of "moral turpitude" because they were gay. As the radical gays fought for equality, it made the moderate gays' lives just a little easier.

WCT: I'm not sure if you were aware, but there has been a great deal of violence here in Boystown. The struggle appears to be between individuals who are frequently labeled "outsiders" and the regular denizens of the neighborhood.

CS: I hadn't heard about any of this but it should not be surprising. You see, back in the '70s, the young, radical gays didn't have mortgages. Again, they had nothing to lose by their antics. Now, the gays have gone in, gotten mortgages, fixed up their neighborhoods and restored these places. Anything, whether that be behavior or people, that appears to or actually cuts the value of that vested interest is going to be rejected.

WCT: How did the goals of the GAA differ from the goals of our contemporary gay-rights groups?

In the 1970s we wanted only a handful of things. We wanted an end to the sodomy laws. We wanted rights to employment and housing. We wanted an end to a New York state law that made it illegal to serve a homosexual a drink. This led to a "gay mafia," with bribery to the police to overlook the service of liquor to gays. It was just enormous corruption.

We also wanted an end to entrapment by police in places like public restrooms or alleyways—all of which we won. I recall attending a gay pride march in the '70s; of course, these were more demonstrations than they were what we see today down Fifth Avenue or Halsted. I overheard a woman tell her husband, "I didn't know there were so many of them."

WCT: How would the GAA look at the idea of same-sex marriage?

CS: There was never even a thought to it. As the saying went at that time, we didn't want to "ape heterosexual society." We never even dreamed that straight society would consider gay marriage.

The gay movement started with radical instigations. It is inevitable that any social movement will eventually move to the center. Eventually, no one will care if you're gay or straight. The disadvantage to this is we lose our uniqueness. When I as co-authoring The Joy of Gay Sex, my partner, William, was very much against it: "We don't want straight people knowing what we do in bed."


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