The late Richard Isay: Who cured psychiatry of gay ‘cures’

We pay tribute to Dr Richard A Isay, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who turned his profession away gay 'cure' therapy and towards a positive approach to helping gays, who died last week

The late Richard Isay: Who cured psychiatry of gay ‘cures’
01 July 2012

Psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and LGBT rights advocate Dr Richard A Isay lost his battle with cancer and died on 28 June 2012 in New York City.

He was a remarkable and brave man who was largely responsible for reforming psychotherapy.

Before, psychoanalysis and psychiatry were commonly engaged in misguided and dangerous attempts to ‘cure’ gayness. Now true professionals only intervene to help gays accept themselves, develop mature sexuality and have positive, loving relationships. Indeed, while rogue therapists continue this dark art of ‘conversion therapy’, it is now against professional guidance and there are calls for those who try to ‘cure’ lesbians, gays and bisexuals to be banned from practice.

In his book, Becoming Gay, he dedicated an autobiographical chapter which told his story. As a young man he started his medical training, specialising in psychiatry and training in psychoanalysis which he hoped would ‘cure’ him of his own homosexuality which was then widely accepted as a pathological disorder. In the early 1970s he realized he would not be cured, despite over 10 years of psychoanalysis, by this time however he was married with two children.

He continued his marriage, staying in the closet, while helping his gay patients accept themselves and began to write and present about homosexuality as a normal development in psychoanalytic journals and meetings. Isay met his life-long partner, Gordon Harrell, an artist 20 years younger, in 1979. He came out to his wife less than a year later, in 1980, with whom he continued to live for the ‘sake of the children’.

He still worked in a field which thought of homosexuality as a pathology and did not allow gays into training on these grounds. In 1983, Isay, then chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s program committee, organized a panel called New Perspectives on Homosexuality, he challenged the notion that homosexuality was always pathological instead arguing it was a normal variant of human sexuality.

He also called upon psychoanalysis to treat gays and lesbians without attempting to change their sexualities, as well as arguing they should be accepted to training within the profession. He followed suit by publishing several papers challenging homophobic views within psychoanalysis.

Finally in 1989 he published his book Being Homosexual which claimed that there is a natural basis for homosexuality at birth and this gradually develops, in a perfectly healthy way, into mature lesbian, gay and bisexual adulthood.

He also revised psychoanalytic theories and practise to help gay men come out and achieve a mature integration of their sexuality with their personal identity. Isay argued that a closeted life is psychologically unhealthy and damaging.

This became a breakthrough in affirmative therapy and offered an invaluable compassionate understanding of gay identity and sexuality. In a sense, it turned the idea of gay therapy around – therapy’s goal is to make the person able to accept and empower them to love themselves for who they are. According to The Advocate, his book Being Homosexual was ‘one of the earliest works to argue that homosexuality is an inborn identity… Helping gays use the power of psychoanalysis… to love and accept themselves.’

By 1989 his children reached adulthood and Isay divorced his wife and settled with Harrell.

His views were still seen as ‘controversial’ and gays and lesbians were not admitted to psychoanalytic training programs. But in 1992, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Isay threatened to sue the American Psychoanalytic Association for its discriminatory policy.

This lead the association to end discrimination and embark on an educational program that reformed the profession. The breakthrough was then slowly copied elsewhere around the world, including a few years later in UK’s psychoanalytic associations.

Meanwhile Isay continued his focus on treatment of gay men and a non-pathological view of homosexuality and gay identity in his books Becoming Gay (1996) and later, Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love (2006).

He was a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a faculty member of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

Isay and Harrell were married in 2011, at the home of Isay’s son Josh.

He will be cherished and remembered as a brave man who was one of the most important figures in changing homophobic psychotherapeutic approaches into affirmative and healing to gay men.

He will also surely be lovingly remembered by his husband Gordon Harrell, sons David and Joshua Isay, former wife Jane Franzblau, and four grandchildren. Rest in peace Richard Isay.

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