Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s riveting feature documentary Cured, which opens the fall season of PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday October 11th, examines the fascinating chapter in queer history that saw gay liberation activists successfully overturn the US psychiatric profession’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. Using archive photographs and video footage, recently discovered audio recordings, as well as new interviews from those who lived through it, Cured presents a tightly paced chronicle of events, and although it provides plenty of context, it never loses focus.
The opening section paints a bleak picture of mainstream society’s perception of homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Homophobic attitudes were partly fuelled and legitimised by the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) placement of homosexuality at the top of their list of “sexual deviations” as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in 1952, with the publication of its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM ). The classification reflected the belief among psychiatrists that being gay was something that could and should be “cured”. In an unsettling sequence several horrifying contemporary “treatments” for homosexuality are examined, such as electric shock therapy, aversion therapy, and lobotomies.
With the convergence of the medical profession, government and church all demonising homosexuality, Rev. Magora Kennedy recalls her mother giving her an ultimatum in the 1950s when she found out that she was a lesbian at the age of 14: get married, or be sent to a psychiatric hospital. In 1953 President Eisenhower effectively declared gays and lesbians unfit for work with his Executive Order banning homosexuals from federal employment. This resulted in the likes of Harvard educated scientist Dr. Frank Kameny being fired from his position in 1957, ironically thereby helping to create one of gay liberation’s most effective activists who would play a key role in the fight against the APA. Teachers found to be homosexual were also among those to be fired, and parents would have their children removed from them if known to be gay.
Despite this hostile environment, the risk of being fired from their jobs, ostracised by their families and worse, brave queer activists organised and took to the streets in the mid-60s to picket and demonstrate, and as Cured details, this was in an atmosphere of the civil rights, women’s and anti-war movements. The gay men’s rights group the Mattachine Society had been founded in 1950, followed by the national lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), in 1955. It was at a DOB meeting that activist and photographer Kay Lahusen—one of Cured’s recurring present day interview contributors—recalls meeting her partner of 46 years, Barbara Gittings, another key figure in pressuring the APA.
In compelling detail, Cured unfurls how activists went from infiltrating the 1970 APA convention, where they heckled leading psychiatrists, to opening a dialogue with the organisation, before their eventual victory in getting the mental disorder classification removed. Along the way there was a dramatic speech given by a gay psychiatrist, Dr. John Fryer, who, unable to come out at work for risk of being fired, agreed to appear at the 1972 APA convention under the condition that he be able to wear a mask, use a voice-altering microphone and be referred to as Dr. H. Anonymous. As Kay Lahusen recalls it was unclear whether this stunt would do more harm than good to their cause. The following year activist Ron Gold, who died shortly after being interviewed for Cured, made a presentation titled ‘Stop it you’re making me sick!’, addressing the psychiatrists directly. “The worst thing about your diagnosis is that gay people themselves believe it”, we hear an impassioned Gold telling the convention. “Nothing makes you sick like believing you are sick.”
Along the way we’re introduced to Dr. Charles Socarides, who devoted his career to “curing” homosexuals and ironically dedicated one of his books on the subject, The Overt Homosexual, to his son Richard, who later came out and went on to become an advisor on LGBTQ issues to President Bill Clinton. Richard recalls embracing and exploring his own homosexuality upstairs while his father was downstairs “treating” gay patients.
Despite the removal of homosexuality from the DSM in 1973, the LGBTQ community continued to be stigmatised by the psychiatric profession. Controversially, in 1980 Gender Identity Disorder (GID) was added to the DSM, and later replaced by the term Gender Dysphoria in 2013. Although present day conversion therapy has been discredited by the medical profession, it continues to be legal for adults in all fifty states and the majority of states for minors, as the idea persists in some quarters that LGBTQ people can be “cured”.
Cured, which won awards at Frameline and NewFest during its festival run, is an important work detailing a significant and mostly overlooked chapter in the fight for LGBTQ rights that deserves its place alongside other seminal documentaries such as How to Survive a Plague, The Celluloid Closet, Before Stonewall and The Times of Harvey Milk. During a time of sustained Black Lives Matter protests, it also serves as a heartening tale of the results that activism can produce and it’s a fitting tribute to those who fought for gay liberation and defined themselves, and their gay brothers and sisters, as happy, healthy individuals. It’s hard not to be deeply moved and shed tears of appreciation for the queer heroes who came before us as the end credits roll and the beautiful song co-written and performed by TUCKER, The Other Side of the Rainbow, plays out.
By James Kleinmann