“Stop it! You’re making me sick!”: Moving documentary spotlights the pivotal battle to declassify homosexuality as illness

By Julianne Hill and Hermes Falcon

Urban Health Media Project

As recently as 1973, homosexuality was considered a “sexual deviancy” and gay people were classified as mentally ill by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). 

The LGBTQ+ community and its allies have activists such as Barbara Gittings and DC’s own Dr. Frank Kameny to thank for the change that year, a new documentary shows. 

The film, “Cured,” tells the inspiring story of the brave individuals who successfully used tactics ranging from protests to medical research and data to convince the powerful APA to remove the stigmatizing label from its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” considered the bible of mental and brain diseases and disorders. The documentary premieres Oct. 11 on WETA and other PBS stations. 

The smart and tenacious activists — who knew being considered “sick” meant they were considered “less than” — also knew eliminating the DSM entry was their best chance at equality. Their fight is considered one of the most important in gay liberation history. 

“All these things were not going to change at all, and opportunities were not going to become manifest until this one key was unlocked,” lesbian activist Eva Freund said at a panel discussion of DC-area experts and activists after a Sept. 28 virtual screening. “The key for us at that time certainly was this APA definition, and so that is when the idea took hold.” 

The film, produced by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer, will broadcast for the first time on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on National Coming Out Day. It documents the historic battles fought for the LGBTQ+ community to take steps on the path to equality, and it could become mandatory viewing for LGBTQ+ youth. 

Psychiatrist Stuart Sotsky, an APA fellow and a panelist at the recent screening, highlighted the importance of the change to the DSM. 

“It took a long time, and I think the ‘73 decision was a key element in helping people decide to come out,” said Sotsky.

The “sexual deviancy” label was incredibly damaging, experts say. 

According to psychiatric literature of the time, “gay people are universally nasty, pathetic, psychotic, manipulative, superficial, unable to form real relationships,” said psychiatrist Richard Pillard, who speaks in the film about the consequences of those mischaracterizations on his own development when he was growing up. “As a young, gay person, that was devastating.” 

Through new interviews and archival footage, viewers see the horrors of attempts to “cure” gayness, which included lobotomies, electroshock therapy, castration for gay men and hysterectomies for lesbians. Viewers are also reminded how commonly families ostricized their gay children.

All of this makes the film sometimes hard to watch. But mostly, the documentary is inspiring, encouraging the next generation to continue to protest against injustice. 

“The idea of street activism — and what I call internal politics or the creation of organizational change — is immensely important,” said Freund. “Whenever there is change, especially social change, there is going to be intense pushback from those who are losing power.”

Reflection of the times

The 1960s were a time of revolution, with loud and proud protests for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War.

Despite the quick pace of cultural change, sodomy and even identifying as a homosexual were still illegal throughout the U.S. LGBTQ+ people faced the risk of losing jobs, homes, and being physically abused or imprisoned if outed. Conversion therapy was common. 

“When I was in junior year, the word got out that I was a lesbian,” the Rev. Magora Kennedy, an LGBTQ+ community activist, says in the film. “My mother was very upset with what she heard. Her thought was that this was not normal and if I didn’t consent to get married, I would go to Utica — that was the mental institution.” 

Now in her 80s, she married at age 14 and had five children. 

Rick Stokes, a survivor of conversion therapy, speaks in the film of the frightening experience. 

“You would wait maybe an hour or two for your turn. With utter terror, the clock would go … and you knew when your turn was coming,” he says. “Each time you hope against hope that it wasn’t your turn yet.”

The improper and inaccurate studies conducted by psychiatrists and their professional association fueled these prejudices, all in a quest to “cure” homosexuality. 

“When I was 16, I knew that I was gay. I couldn’t tell my family, I couldn’t tell religious leaders,” Charles Silverstein, a psychologist and former teacher, says in the film. “If it was exposed, you’d bring shame upon your entire family. The word meant you were mentally ill.” 

Silverstein, now in his 80s, visited a psychiatrist three times a week for seven years in hopes of becoming heterosexual so he could keep his job as a fifth-grade teacher. He went on to earn his doctorate in social psychology in 1974. 

Conversion therapy had no effect on him, he said.

Change begins

Studies from renowned psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey found that homosexuality was common and not a disease. Homosexuality was “nothing to be ashamed of,” Freud said in a 1935 letter. 

So the 1969 police raid of Stonewall, a New York gay bar and safe haven, occurred at a ripe moment for sparking riots as the gay community pushed back against intolerance, advocates say in the film. 

“We were on fire — something was unleashed in us,” says Don Kilhefner, a gay rights activist. “It was no longer acceptance; it was self-acceptance. And, in that difference comes revolution.” 

It became clear that the DSM, so often used as a justification for discrimination, needed to change — and that the APA needed to change from the inside. Someone had to give a voice to the gay community.

In 1970, members of the gay rights movement protested inside an APA conference in Los Angeles. The response was swift: the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT teams were called, and many people were “inches away from being arrested,” said Kilhefner. 

Masked hero

Two years later, Gittings encouraged Dr. John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist who kept his sexuality a secret in fear of losing his job, to speak at the 1972 APA conference in Dallas. Fryer agreed — but only if he could wear a mask and use a voice modifier. The footage of his speech is a dramatic moment in the film.

“It is time that real flesh and blood stand up before this organization and ask to be listened to and understood,” says Fryer, seen wearing a clown mask and wig covering his entire head as a symbol of all who were closeted. “We are taking an even bigger risk, however, in not living fully our humanity. … This is the greatest loss, our honest humanity.”

The audio of this pivotal speech in the film — the first time the recording has been heard in a broadcast — is nothing short of remarkable. It offers insight to the importance of the cause and gives the film added gravitas. 

The speech sparked a change. Other professionals stood up, using science to show the purported data about homosexuality was inherently flawed and biased because it had been collected only from those who were seeing psychiatrists. 

“If our judgment about the mental health of heterosexuals were based only on those whom we see in our clinical practices, we would have to conclude that all heterosexuals are also mentally ill,” Dr. Judd Marmor, who became APA president in 1974, says in a clip featured in the film. 

APA members voted in 1973 to remove homosexuality from the DSM, marking a huge victory for activists and the gay community at large.

“Through all of this, we didn’t want kids growing up feeling bad about themselves,” Silverstein tells the filmmakers. “And I think we all felt that: That we were doing it for younger generations, not just for ourselves.”

“Cured” airs locally at 10 p.m. Oct. 11 on WETA and at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WHUT. After its broadcast premiere, the film will be available to stream for free on the PBS app and website for 30 days. The documentary will be rebroadcast a few more times over the next three years and eventually released on streaming platforms.

Julianne Hill is managing editor of the Urban Health Media Project. Hermes Falcon, a college freshman, is a UHMP intern. Also contributing to this report were UHMP founder Jayne O’Donnell, assistant editor Adrian Gibbons, digital editor Pooja Singh, intern Yesenia Barrios, DC visual journalist Jojo Brew, and Dillon Lives, a pseudonym for a DC area high school student.

Published in the DC Line