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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 12, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 28
The joys of Dr. Silverstein - An exclusive interview with a Gay pioneer in psychiatry
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The joys of Dr. Silverstein - An exclusive interview with a Gay pioneer in psychiatry

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Dr. Charles Silverstein is a man who has seen every angle of Gay civil rights and has lived to tell about it. He came of age in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense that could lead to incarceration in jail or a mental institution, and when "cures" might entail electroshock or even a lobotomy. As a psychiatrist, Dr. Silverstein's courage led him to become a key figure in having homosexuality delisted as a mental illness from the journals of the American Psychiatric Association. After writing several acclaimed articles on sexual behavior, he went on to write the groundbreaking book The Joy of Gay Sex. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the removal of the offensive clause, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing this monumental man.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Will you please describe your family life growing up?

Dr. Charles Silverstein: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with my mother, father, and older brother. Those were days when very few people "came out." I can't even think of any time the word "homosexual" was mentioned in my family. They were the sorts of people that if you didn't mention it, it didn't exist. I don't remember being called "faggot" like some kids do, as I was a big, strong kid. I did know enough to be quiet and not say anything about it. I came out after college, when I was about 30 or 31 years old.

Andrews-Katz: At what age were you aware of your homosexuality?

Dr. Silverstein: In my early teens I was absolutely aware of it. By the age of 16, I was madly in love with some straight boy (of course), and that story now is commonplace. Someone I met at Boy Scout camp, and we were very close friends for a long time. I never had the nerve to tell him, for fear of him rebelling or rejecting me and I'd never see him again. These things did happen, but much later when I was in graduate school. I was training to be a psychiatrist and met this guy at the American Psychological Association, an associate, and we became very close friends. I had a thing for him and one day I realized I had to take the plunge and tell him. One night I did, and the son-of-a-bitch asked immediately, "Are you attracted to me?" When I said yes, he walked out. These are the experiences of someone who grew up in a generation where it was hard to be openly Gay because of the fear of being rejected. It wasn't just a fear - there was a good probability it would happen! Today it's not hard to find people and socialize, when everyone is so open.

Andrews-Katz: Since homosexuality was still counted as a mental disorder, what were some of the common homosexual "cures" being practiced at the time?

Dr. Silverstein: Most people were subjected to psychoanalysis and would go to the analyst multiple times a week, trying to find out what intro-psychotic conflict could be resolved to make that person "straight." That was the most common and most expensive. I did it [seeing an analyst] for many years. Everyone failed at it because the whole thing was wrong. The only other predominant form of "treatment" at the time was some form of aversion therapy, most commonly electro-aversion. A person was shown various slides of supposedly attractive men (all chosen by straight men, of course), and if there was arousal response (measured by an erection) to the slide of the nude man, the person would get a mild electric shock. Sometimes you hear people say it was mere torture and that the electrode was attached to the penis, but it wasn't - it was attached to the finger. [It was] based upon the "learning" theory: that a response was conditioned and that a condition could be unlearned. People went through these electric shocks and they weren't any more successful than any of the others. All these forms had in common was that they told Gay people not only that they were sick, but that they were right to feel bad about it - to feel guilty. It reinforced all those feelings of low self-worth. That attitude is what we've had to fight against, especially in the 1970s.

Andrews-Katz: How and when did you learn to accept your own homosexuality?

Dr. Silverstein: I didn't come t o it by myself. At the time the Gay Activist Alliance had just been organized in NYC. I saw an ad for them somewhere and decided to go to a dance they were holding. I knew what a dance was, and I knew where the location was, so I drove downtown to park my car by the old GAA Firehouse. I walked around and saw all these men in line. They were all cute as hell and it scared the living shit out of me. I turned around, got into my car, and drove home. It was too scary for me. But the genie was out of the bottle, so what I did next was to go to one of their meetings at the Firehouse, and then I joined a committee and started being active there. I went to dances and it was there that I met William Bory, the man who would be my lover for the next 20 years.

Andrews-Katz: How did the fight to remove the listing of homosexuality as a mental disorder begin?

Dr. Silverstein: It had been going on for a number of years - we certainly didn't organize it. Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were politicking for the removal of the homosexual clause and had been fairly unsuccessful. We had a fluke. We had a zap [a demonstration] planned at the AABT [Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy], and Robert Spitzer was in the audience. Bob said, "Why don't you make a presentation before the committee?" Since he was a research psychiatrist at Columbia University and not invested in psychoanalytic theory, he could look past any issues. He eventually did suffer for it, because afterwards a colleague wondered if he were Gay (guilt by association was common) - and Bob is not Gay. So, it took bravery on behalf of the straight psychologists and psychiatrists to take a stand. By and large, the Gay psychiatrists/psychologists were not helpful - they preferred we shut up and that wasn't something we were going to do. They were afraid we would blow their cover because they were [successfully] operating in a heterosexual world and had clients, and no one knew they were Gay. They were terrified they would be kicked out or not get patients.

Andrews-Katz: What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the declassification established?

Dr. Silverstein: The psychoanalysts. They were a group of psychoanalysts who made their careers on "curing" homosexuals. Of course, their leaders were Charles Socarides (whose son is Gay), Lionel Ovesey, and Irving Bieber, and this trio published many books and papers about how sick we [Gay people] are. When they heard that we had made this presentation before the psychiatrists and removing the passage was under consideration, they were up in arms, raising petitions and making all sorts of threats. When the Board of Trustees announced that homosexuality was being removed, they were actually able to get enough signatures on a petition to have a vote of the entire membership on the subject. The membership did vote, and the people who supported the removal of the clause won.

You have to remember that what we were doing was not just changing the passage, but we were hitting people in the pocketbook. We wanted to do that. We were appalled that there were a group of people whose income was dependent on hurting Gay people, and that was how we wanted to utilize our services. If the APA was going to vote that homosexuality was no longer a disorder, then there was no longer a reason to seek out a cure. That would hit them where it hurt, and they were furious at us. I'm glad we shut them up!

Andrews-Katz: In 1977 you and Edmund White wrote The Joy of Gay Sex. Why the need for such a book and how difficult was it to get published?

Dr. Silverstein: They actually came to us. The publishers first published The Joy of Sex and they made a fortune out of that. Somehow they got the idea to try and repeat it with the same style of alphabetic organization for Gay people. They wanted to do one for Gay men and one for Lesbians. I was asked to write it partially because there weren't many openly Gay professionals at the time. I needed a co-author, someone who is a better writer than me, and by chance they picked Ed White. Ed was a young, promising novelist who was also a patient of mine at the time (I can talk about it now, as he has talked about it publicly). I had to shock him with the idea - they didn't tell him who the other author was going to be. We obviously knew each other pretty well and lived only a few blocks away. It was easy for us to meet up and it was a perfect collaboration.

Andrews-Katz: In 1993, you and Felice Picano wrote an updated version entitled The New Joy of Gay Sex. What was the reason for the update?

Dr. Silverstein: We were asked to do it. Ed was busy at the time and I don't think he was interested, since he was mainly a novelist. I searched for a co-writer who I thought I could get along with and settled on Felice. We wrote a revision and the next revision afterwards.

Andrews-Katz: In your book For the Ferryman you describe the sense of desperation and frustration that was brought on by AIDS. What were some of the "miracle cures" offered?

Dr. Silverstein: When the disease first hit, it was very much a matter of searching for anything that would work. I sort of attack some of these people offering miracle cures, as some of them were out-and-out scams, and some were so wrong, causing more harm than good. We said at the beginning of the epidemic that there was no reason to seek out a cure because there was no treatment available, and no one was doing anything about it. No one knew if ARC (AIDS-related complex) was separate or just an early stage of AIDS. There was this hope that the disease wouldn't progress, and of course it did. The illness and dying at the time was outrageous.

I know that younger guys today think that barebacking is fun, but they wouldn't if they saw the illnesses of the people who got the HIV virus earlier. The degrees of KS (Kaposi's sarcoma) purplish lesions all over the body. The discrimination against the people who were hospitalized was extraordinary. They rejected clients who were suspected of having AIDS as if it were the bubonic plague. If 911 were called there were people who refused to come to a house or to touch a person, even if wearing gloves. Only certain funeral homes would accept people who died of AIDS. It was an all-around plague that everyone suffered from.

Andrews-Katz: I've heard many people say "Gay life was more fun when it was illicit." What part of Gay life was compromised - if any - on the road to equality?

Dr. Silverstein: I don't think any of that was compromised on the road to equality. There are different issues and I don't think it had an effect. The people who believed in civil rights and freedom continue to believe it. The bigots just have another reason to hate us and there certainly are enough bigots out there.

Andrews-Katz: What is the greatest change you've observed in the Gay liberation movement?

Dr. Silverstein: The current movement for marriage equality is something we never anticipated. We had (in New York) a zap about Gay marriage where guys came into the county office carrying two cakes, one with two males and the other with two females. No one took us seriously and what we were searching for then was publicity. We knew that the clerk would call the police, and the newspapers would follow the police. Publicity was the name of the game. No one thought we should promote Gay marriage, as it wasn't conceivable. What we were fighting for was to not be called (or thought of) as sick, and for our civil rights, and to not let employers fire Gay people for being Gay, to not being allowed to kick someone out of their house because they are Gay.

We were also after more basic rights like [repealing] the sodomy laws. Young guys today don't realize that not long ago, many of the things they're interested in doing were against the law and many people went to jail for it. We were for more basic rights than for marriage equality.

Also, there was a left-wing ideology that we didn't want to mimic heterosexual values. And "heterosexual values" included people being married in a monogamous relationship. It went against the Gay ideology at the time, and against the middle-class straight values, wanting more open relationships. Which was probably explained by our being young and horny - I don't think there was anything more to it than that.

Andrews-Katz: In your opinion, who are the movers and shakers of today's Gay rights movement?

Dr. Silverstein: I hesitate to answer because I'm not sure there is a Gay movement [today] in quite the same sense. The 1970s were a time of radical Gay politics, and it was a rather sophisticated game that we were playing. What happens in social movements is that the more moderate people are outraged because of the tactics of radicals, but in the end what happens is that society always moves towards the center. While we were radicals, society changed its values, but moved towards the center, not towards us. It always happens that way. An example is when Martin Luther King first started, he looked like a radical - until Malcolm X and the Black Muslims came onto the scene, and then everyone looked at King as a moderate, when in actuality he didn't change his opinions at all! The same thing happens in all movements.

Today the [assimilation] gender has taken over, where Gay people want to be assimilated into heterosexual society. Gay Liberation doesn't want to be like them; we want to be different and to celebrate those differences. Not only would we not have conceived of [marriage equality], but also we would have been appalled by it. We have now clearly won the battle to be as unhappy as straight people. There were two groups that fought most for Gay marriage, in my understanding: the Gay movement and divorce attorneys.

The other thing that has changed (definitely for the good) is the Transgender movement. Years ago they were just "trannys" and a lot of them were prostitutes on the streets. Certainly, a few famous ones were known in New York. But what has happened in the last 10 years is the extent to which the Transgendered have come out of the closet. There is an enormous amount of government funding and clinical research for Transgendered people. I think that is very positive - certainly there are more Trans people than we ever dreamed.

Andrews-Katz: If you could pass on a piece of wisdom to today's LGBT youth, what would it be?

Dr. Silverstein: My first thought is for them to think about safe sex, but that doesn't seem to work. It worked for a while - when people were dying. It doesn't work today because there is a whole generation that has grown up with it, and for them AIDS is a matter of history and not very interesting. The problem is that I don't want to sound like someone's father. I have patients who are facing these things, and it is mostly about safe sex and people who are not following the guidelines. They are suffering because of it in many ways. It's not just kids, though. I'm seeing more people in their 30s and 40s whose activities are going to get them in trouble.

Dr. Charles Silverstein was born in 1935 and is the author of eight books and several essays, winning awards from the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Foundation. His books include. The Joy of Gay Sex and all subsequent updates, and For the Ferryman: A Personal History, chronicling his life and the landmark events of the Gay Pride movement.

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