Dr. Charles Silverstein died this week at the age of 87.
Best known for making the presentation before the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 that led to the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s list of mental illnesses, Silverstein was also a co-author of the landmark book The Joy of Gay Sex.
More than simply a sex manual with graphic drawings — though there was plenty of that — The Joy of Gay Sex, first published in 1977, was a first-of-its-kind guidebook for every aspect of the gay experience.
“The first time I had sex with a guy was a big learning experience. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Fortunately, he did,” Dr. Silverstein recalled when I spoke to him in 2021. That night would prove to be a catalyst for him. In his 2011 memoir, For the Ferryman, he writes that it was in that moment that he decided to dedicate his life to fighting for the acceptance of gay people. He wanted future generations of gay men to be spared the pain and struggles that he faced.
The full text of my conversation with Dr. Charles Silverstein (originally recorded for the LGBTQ&A podcast) is below. It was one of his last interviews. He talks about his work with the Gay Activists Alliance, the earliest Pride marches where the gay community would greet each other by saying “Happy Birthday,” and the lasting legacy of The Joy of Gay Sex.
Jeffrey Masters: I want to talk about your role in helping to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. But first, can you talk about why it was originally classified as that? What was the evidence that seemed to back that up?
Charles Silverstein: Well, everything about sexuality is based upon the moral beliefs of a society and since homosexuality had been condemned as immoral, it just automatically was assumed that it should go into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. Everything that wasn’t basically a heterosexual, missionary position, motivated by reproduction was considered abnormal. And homosexuality, since invariably, you waste your seed, was considered ipso facto a disorder.
JM: When you were getting your Ph.D. and being taught this, did you initially believe that?
CS: I was very confused then. When I was getting my Ph.D., I was in the closet because I certainly was not going to let anyone in the program know that I was gay, because that would get me thrown out. There was a period before I got to college where I wanted to change, and I went into therapy for the purpose of changing. Obviously, it didn’t work, and it never works, but it was what most people did in those days.
JM: We now refer to that as “conversion therapy,” but back then it was just considered “therapy,” right? The only purpose was to “cure” you.
CS: Yes, to change you into someone who was quote, “normal,” meaning heterosexual, and that was my goal. All I accomplished was I had the opportunity of going to bed with some nice women who thought I was an appropriate match, but I wasn’t.
JM: And eventually, you did make this presentation before the American Psychiatric Association. Was there a big debate over who would be the one to make the presentation?
CS: Since I was a psychologist, or at least working on my Ph.D. in psychology, it was decided that I should make the professional presentation, meaning the presentation, all the research and clinical work that suggested that homosexuality was not a mental disorder. And then Jean O’Leary, who had been a nun but was no longer a nun, she left the church. She would make the presentation from the point of view of ordinary people, about discrimination in the city of New York. So it was a very well-organized presentation. We knew what everybody was going to do.
JM: And this was identified as a goal of the movement. You weren’t simply working on your own.
CS: It had been started years before. Frank Kameny gets some of the credit for that. There are a number of psychiatrists who also were pushing to have homosexuality eliminated. Like every social movement, you always stand on the shoulders of the people who came before. Frank Kameny was not a part of this. Frank was a difficult person to get along with. Everyone who knew him would tell you that. He was a fierce fighter, but he could not have worked with us, and we wouldn’t have had him helping us.
JM: Thinking about people like Frank Kameny, Jim Obergefell, Aimee Stephens: We often connect historic events with people. Was your name connected to this? Did you feel like a celebrity in the gay community?
CS: In some places, my name is connected with it, but I really do like to say these changes that occurred, are not because of any one person at any one time, but it’s really the sum total of a number of people who fought, sometimes against the enemy, sometimes with each other, because we had lots of that. There is no one person that can claim responsibility for these changes. We worked together. I was chosen to make this presentation because I knew the research, I knew the data, and I could present it well.
JM: During all this time, you were a member of the Gay Activists Alliance, an early gay organization.
CS: They were a radical organization. Let me contrast it with Frank Kameny. When Frank had demonstrations, everybody had to be a good boy and good girl. There was a dress code, men had to wear suits, women dresses, shoes had to be shined. The GAA was quite the different. We weren’t good boys, we were bad boys, and we wanted to be bad boys, and therefore, we were out there not dressed nicely, but dressed in ordinary clothes to make as much trouble as possible. What Frank and his group wanted to do was knock on the door of society and say, “Let us in. Oh, please, let us in.” What the radical movement in the early ’70s did was, not to say that we want to knock on the door, we wanted to fucking break it down, and march through and tell society, “We’re changing you. You’re going to change, and you better live with it.” It was much more aggressive, but not violent. Aggressive, but not violent. And so, what we did, we had these, what were called zaps, and a zap was a demonstration where we would go to an organization and we’d break it up, and we found that professional organizations are the biggest sissies around, and they called us sissies, but they were the real sissies. They didn’t know how to deal with us. They would be having a meeting and some of our members would get up and say, “We’re taking over,” and they would step to the side, because they didn’t know what to do, and that’s why we kept winning everywhere we went.
JM: You wrote that the members of the GAA were the strangest group of people you’d ever met. Why is that?
CS: That was at The Firehouse. See, our center was The Firehouse on Wooster Street, because it was a place that we thought of as a place of liberation, that anyone could come in. You had to walk through the door, you didn’t need a membership card, you didn’t have to pay any dues. People who were oppressed could feel self-identified and walk in. Therefore, we had some lunatics that used to walk in through the door, and that’s what I was talking… We had some very strange people that came in, and no one was ever thrown out.