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HONORING JOHN FRYER'S LEGACY

September 1, 2006
by MARY E. BARBER, MD
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“Dr. H. Anonymous” helped change the profession's view of homosexuality

John E. Fryer, MD, was born in Kentucky in 1938. A precocious kid who excelled in school, he began medical school at Vanderbilt University at 19. He did his internship at Ohio State and then moved to Philadelphia, where he completed his psychiatry residency and lived for the rest of his life.

As a large, flamboyant gay man, it was hard for Dr. Fryer to hide. Dr. Fryer's early years in Philadelphia were difficult because of this. He was forced to leave the University of Pennsylvania's psychiatry residency program when it was discovered that he was gay (He later completed his residency at Norristown State Hospital in Philadelphia). After his residency he lost a job when an employer found out that he was gay.

Yet Dr. Fryer was never the sort of person to be apologetic for who he was or how he presented. He went on to have a distinguished career as professor of family and community psychiatry at Temple University. Dr. Fryer had a keen interest in end-of-life care issues, and he was a founding member of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. He also served as an organist for 30 years at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Germantown, the Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived. Dr. Fryer lived his life brashly and unapologetically. Indeed, he literally carried a big (walking) stick in his later years.




After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay people began to more publicly seek their rights. One of their targets was the American Psychiatric Association (APA), because before 1973 homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. Gay activists picketed APA meetings and disrupted presentations in 1970 and 1971.

At the time, Dr. Fryer was a member of an informal network of gay psychiatrists who quietly met at APA meetings, known unofficially as the “Gay-PA.” These gay psychiatrists watched the activities of the activists and sympathetic APA officials with interest but were generally afraid to get involved.

Reacting to the protests, APA officials asked two activists, Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, to make a presentation at their 1972 annual meeting to help educate its members about homosexuality. Knowing that Dr. Fryer was gay, Gittings asked Dr. Fryer to participate in the panel (entitled “Lifestyles of Non-patient Homosexuals”) because she believed that having a gay psychiatrist would add a needed voice to the discussion.

Dr. Fryer agreed to appear, but because of his experiences with being forced to leave jobs because of his sexuality, he asked that he be disguised. Although some people identified him as gay by his appearance and mannerisms, he was not open about it. He gave his talk in an oversized tuxedo, Nixon mask, and fright wig, speaking through a voice-distorting microphone (figure 1). He was introduced as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” beginning his talk by saying, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” As simple as this statement sounds today, in 1972 it was stunning to the audience of psychiatrists, both gay and straight.


Figure 1. Activists Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny accompany Dr. H. Anonymous (John Fryer, MD) during a panel discussion about homosexuality at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. Photography: Kay Tobin Lahusen


Dr. Fryer spoke briefly and eloquently about how difficult it was to be a homosexual psychiatrist at a time in which a gay identity was considered by the profession to be a psychiatric disorder. He appealed both to his straight and gay colleagues to “grow to be comfortable with that little piece of humanity called homosexuality.” His appearance played a crucial role in prompting the psychiatric establishment to review the scientific data and remove homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. Five years later, the “Gay-PA” became an official and open group for gay psychiatrists, eventually growing into the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP), which now has more than 500 members across the United States.


Figure 2. No longer disguised as Dr. H. Anonymous, Dr. Fryer speaks after receiving the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists' Distinguished Service Award in 2002.


In 2002, AGLP recognized Dr. Fryer's contributions with its Distinguished Service Award, given in Philadelphia at the meeting marking the 30th anniversary of Dr. Fryer's historic appearance (figure 2). Following Dr. Fryer's death in 2003, AGLP worked to endow an award in his name. The first John E. Fryer Award, sponsored by AGLP and given by APA, will be presented in October at the APA's fall Institute of Psychiatric Services meeting in New York City. Fittingly, the first awardees are Gittings and Kameny, the gay rights pioneers who were copresenters on the 1972 APA panel with Dr. Fryer. Mary E. Barber, MD, is a psychiatrist practicing in New York's Hudson Valley. She is the Immediate Past-President of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists. For more information about the Fryer Award and the October APA meeting, visit

http://www.aglp.org and

http://www.psych.org.

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