LGBTQ+ community marks 50th anniversary of historic 'Dr. Anonymous' speech

"He literally started to open the closet door," said Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Tuesday, May 3, 2022
How Dr. Anonymous' speech changed history for LGBTQ+ community
On this day 50 years ago, one Philadelphia man's address to the American Psychiatric Association laid the foundation in the fight for gay rights.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It's one of history's most pivotal speeches that, chances are, you've never heard of.

On this day 50 years ago, one Philadelphia man's address to the American Psychiatric Association laid the foundation in the fight for gay rights.

"He literally started to open the closet door," said Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin.

On Monday, there was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. John Fryer's historic speech at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on May 2, 1972.

At the time, the APA classified homosexuality as a mental illness.

"It was treated in the following ways: chemical castration, electric shock therapy, mental institutionalization and lobotomies," said Lazin.

Fryer spoke out publicly, which could have cost him dearly.

"If you were a homosexual, your license would be revoked," said Lazin of psychiatrists at the time.

That's the reason Dr. Fryer wore a mask and used a voice distorter in his speech.

He also used the moniker "Dr. Anonymous," which he held onto for two more decades as his identity remained concealed until the 1990s.

Today, his identity is not only known but celebrated.

A crowd gathered to honor Fryer and his historic speech at the site of a historic marker dedicated to the late psychiatrist. It's located at 13th and Locust streets, which is across from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Fryer's hand-written speech is on display. His words convinced the APA to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness.

"There was no data. It was psychoanalytic philosophy that had become essentially the art of the day," said Dr. Saul Levin, who is the first gay man to be CEO and Medical Director of the APA.

This exhibit at the historical society shows how relevant some of those issues still are for LGBTQ+ rights.

"April 1977. It was about Florida," said Historical Society of Pennsylvania Library Director Dr. Lee Arnold while pointing to a publication in a glass-covered case drawing a parallel to Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, which bans discussions of sexual orientation in the classrooms of younger children.

"And now here in 2022, we're also speaking about Florida," said Arnold.

Lazin says Fryer's speech 50 years ago is inspiration for LGBTQ+ groups to continue their fight.

"He's really an American civil rights icon for everyone," said Lazin.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a free exhibit featuring some of Fryer's personal documents on display. The exhibit, titled "Anonymous No More: John Fryer, Psychiatry, and the Fight for LGBT Equality," is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday.