Introduction by John D'Emilio: Zapping the NY Academy of Medicine

April 6, 1976:  A major demonstration at the New York Academy of Medicine on upper Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.  That evening, the Academy was the setting for a panel on the “Psychodynamics of Male Homosexuality,” with Irving Bieber, Charles Socarides, and Lionel Ovesey, three of the most vocal proponents of the view that homosexuality was an indicator of mental illness.  Demonstrators chanting and holding signs filled the sidewalks outside the building while several dozen demonstrators staged a sit-in in the lobby.  Meanwhile, a group of eight gay men found a back entrance to the building and made their way to the meeting hall where the event was to take place.  Within minutes after it started, they disrupted the proceedings and brought the panel to an abrupt end.  Happily, I had the good fortune to be one of the eight who infiltrated the event and shut it down.

Activists in the U.S. had been addressing the sickness theory of homosexuality virtually from the beginning of an organized LGBT movement.  In the early 1950s, members of the Mattachine Society in California made contact with Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist, and helped launch her research which challenged the conclusions of doctors who supported the claim of illness.  In the 1960s, homophile activists like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings challenged the authority of doctors to pass judgment on the mental health of gay men and lesbians, and they forthrightly declared that it was not an illness or defect or pathology.  Later, in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and the spread of a militant gay liberation movement, activists invaded the annual conferences of the American Medical Association and other professional organizations and disrupted panels of so-called “experts.”  

Finally, in December 1973, the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association voted to eliminate homosexuality from the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  After proponents of the sickness theory, like Charles Socarides, forced a referendum on the issue, in April 1974 the membership confirmed the decision of the trustees.  It was one of the early signal victories of the LGBT movement.

In some ways, therefore, the panel that night in 1976 at the New York Academy of Medicine could be seen as an effort of the old guard not to give up.  It was old news and, one might say, of no consequence.  Yet, at the same time, it was a challenge to activists.  Could we let this panel proceed without a response?  Would we let this gathering of professionals keep the claims of sickness alive?

In 1975-76, I was a graduate student in history at Columbia, in the early stages of research on a dissertation about pre-Stonewall activism.  I was also a member of the Gay Socialist Action Project.  GSAP was a Marxist study group of eight gay men who also organized some community educational events and participated in a variety of activist initiatives.  Most of us had met each other through the Gay Academic Union in New York, and we were among the more radical and militant participants who left the organization after a group of conservative gay men seemed to take it over in 1975.

That fall, my dissertation adviser, William Leuchtenburg, had informed me that a new faculty seminar was beginning at Columbia and its focus was homosexuality.  Graduate students were occasionally invited to join such groups, and Leuchtenburg encouraged me to attend and said he would recommend me.  I was about the only non-faculty member who attended and I can remember sitting there mostly silent and intimidated by such high status academics (at this distance in time, the only member that I recall was Steven Marcus, an extremely well-regarded literary scholar who at that point was turning his attention to the culture of psychoanalysis).  At one meeting, the moderator announced that there would be a panel of psychoanalysts speaking on homosexuality at the New York Academy of Medicine.  He mentioned the names of the panelists, and he encouraged us all to attend.

At the next weekly meeting of my study group, I naturally brought this up, and we immediately began discussing possible courses of action.  We decided to inform the Gay Activists Alliance, which had a greater capacity than we did to organize a big demonstration, as well as the gay student group at Columbia.  Meanwhile, we began to discuss what we might do.  The plan we put together involved our attending the event, all dressed in jacket and tie so that we would blend in with the audience of professionals, and scattering ourselves through the audience.  Jonathan Ned Katz, a member of the group who was in the final stages of readying Gay American History for publication, volunteered to write a manifesto denouncing the record of medical science on homosexuality.  We would each have a copy of it with us.  We would sit quietly in the audience until the first homophobic comment was made by a panelist, at which point one of us would blow a whistle and then, in a pre-arranged order, we would each jump up from our seats and read a short segment of the manifesto.  When one of us was silenced, the next one of us, sitting in another part of the lecture hall, would rise and continue the reading.

That night we met a short way from the Academy of Medicine and proceeded to the entrance.  The GAA demonstrators were there in force, picketing outside with signs, shouting slogans, and distributing flyers explaining their action (the flyer is the first document contained in this exhibit).  Meanwhile, the eight of us went into the building.  But the street demonstration had brought out police and security guards in full force, and the security guards were enforcing a policy that no one except members of the Academy and their guests would be allowed into the elevators that took people to the site of the lecture.  As the crowd in the lobby grew thicker, Jonathan Ned Katz suddenly began shouting “This is a civil rights demonstration!  This is a civil rights demonstration! Sit down on the floor! Sit down on the floor!  Sit down on the floor and don’t leave!”  Now, in order to reach the elevator, attendees were having to climb over the large group who had sat down.  Periodically Jonathan would repeat, “This is a civil rights demonstration!”

The sit-in was exciting and the energy in the lobby was vibrant, but it was not the action that Jonathan, I, and the other GSAP members had planned.  How were we going to get upstairs?  There didn’t seem to be a way through the guards and on to the elevator.  And then I saw one of our members, Robert Benton, squeezing through the demonstrators to reach each of us and whispering in our ears.  Apparently Robert, while the sit-in was going on, had gone outside and found a back entrance to the building that was unlocked and led to a staircase that in turn would take us to the floor where the panel was convening.  So each of us got up and tried to leave as calmly and unobtrusively as possible, until we were all gathered outside the back of the building.  We ran up the stairs as quickly as we could, quieted down as we entered the hallway, and made our way into the lecture hall.  Fortunately, the event had not yet started, and so we scattered ourselves through the room as planned, and waited for it to begin.

Lionel Ovesey was the opening speaker and it did not take long for something homophobic to spill out of his mouth.  Once it did, a whistle blew, and members of GSAP began rising up from their seats, one at a time, to read the manifesto that Katz had prepared (it is the second document in the exhibit).  I can’t remember at this distance in time how many of us were able to speak from our seats (I know that I didn’t), but very soon the moderator of the panel, Dr. Herbert Hendin, pounded a gavel from the front of the room and announced that the event was over.  We had succeeded in our mission.

That year, I was also doing a bi-weekly “gay news” report on a WBAI radio show that a friend, Neil Alan Marks, hosted.  So, not only did I get to participate in the “zap” of the psychiatrists, but two weeks later I had the opportunity to write up and read over the airwaves a report on the action.  I guess you would call it advocacy journalism (my report is the third and final document in the exhibit).