Mental Illness Label for Gays
Isay, who was a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and faculty member at Columbia University, also authored several books, among them “Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love” (2006), “Becoming Gay” (1997), and “Being Homosexual” (1989).
Along his path to changing the way the psychoanalytic profession viewed homosexuality, Isay was attacked by his peers. Troubled by his own sexuality, Isay underwent ten years of therapy, after which he accepted that he was homosexual. Although he remained closeted for a time, he assisted gay patients in accepting their sexual orientation, instead of promoting a “cure” by way of therapy. He published articles promoting homosexuality as normal, not an illness or defect of development.
When Isay acknowledged his homosexuality at professional gatherings, he was attacked by his colleagues, who stopped referring patients and suggested the he needed more therapy himself. Nevertheless, over the course of fifteen years Dr. Isay championed the premise that the medical field based its views on ideology, not evidence.
Even though the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disease in 1973, many members of the American Psychoanalytic Association (the oldest professional group for analysts in the United States and one of the most influential) continued to regard it as an illness. In 1992 Isay threatened to sue that association, ultimately forcing them not to discriminate in training, hiring or promoting gay psychoanalysts. Isay’s stubbornness paid off. By 1997, in a major turnaround, the American Psychoanalytic Association became the first national mental health organization to support gay marriage.
During the course of his illustrious career Isay also served as vice president of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association and as a member of the board of the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBT youth in Manhattan.
Steven Sampson, a patient who became a friend, wrote after Isay’s death, “I think Richard was sort of a ‘bridge’ person, providing a bridge between different worlds that don’t always communicate. He was married with children, yet he was gay and had a long-term committed relationship with a man, in an environment in which long-term relationships were rare.”
From Andy Humm for Gay City News: Tobias Picker, the composer and a patient of Isay’s, wrote in an e-mail, “Richard said that fear of death came from feeling unloved. He knew he was completely loved by his husband, Gordon, and his family, and it was easy to see that he felt that love utterly and completely. He knew he was much beloved by his patients too. Not long ago, he told me...that he had no fear of death –– that he never gave it a thought.” Picker added, “For those who didn’t know him, his writings leave behind a lasting legacy of love.” Both his sons said that Isay’s favorite literary figure was Ferdinand the Bull from the Munro Leaf children’s book, the gentle beast who preferred flowers to bullfights. Richard Isay, famous for the fights he took on and won, was a lover at heart.
In addition to his sons and husband, at the time of his death Isay was survived by his former wife, a brother, and four grandchildren, one of whom served as best man when Isay and Gordon Harrell were married in the living room of Isay’s son Josh. Dr. Isay is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, along with other gay luminaries Leonard Bernstein, Fred Ebb (of Kander and Ebb) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (see blog posts in sidebar).
New York Times (Denise Grady)
Gay City News (Andy Humm)
Headline photograph: Ozier Muhammad (NYT)