Dr. Richard A. Isay, a psychiatrist who fought to change the mental-health profession’s view of homosexuality as a disease, died on Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 77.
“He changed the way the psychoanalytic world viewed the subject of homosexuality,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, author of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man, told the New York Times. “He was a pioneer, a very brave man. He was attacked by psychoanalysts. He took a lot of flak.”
Isay didn’t come out himself until he was 40, by which time he had married and raised two sons. Isay had apparently bought into mainstream psychiatry’s belief that homosexuality was a form of arrested development and went into therapy for a decade hoping to be “cured.”
At the time openly gay professionals were barred from training as analysts at institutions accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association.
It was when Isay, still closeted, started treating gay patients, helping them accept rather than change their orientation, that he began writing about the idea that homosexuality was normal.
Dr. Isay continued to present his ideas at professional meetings, where he acknowledged that he was gay. Not only did some of his heterosexual colleagues attack his ideas, but they also stopped referring patients to him and suggested that he might need more therapy himself.
“I think he was hurt very badly by many colleagues,” Dr. Drescher said.
Isay recalled that when he led a panel called New Perspectives on Homosexuality at an APA convention, “several analysts walked out.”
He came out to his wife in 1980 and remained married for another nine years, but continued to try “reasoning, badgering and other forms of persuasion” to get the profession to stop thinking of gays and lesbians as ill. Eventually in 1992, with the backing of the ACLU, Isay got the American Psychoanalytic Association to change its policy and promise not to discriminate against LGBT analysts and patients.
Even allies admit Isay could be “shrill” in his defense of homosexuality, but as colleague and friend Dr. Richard Friedman told the Times, “You have to have passion to do what he did. He pushed the field to do what it should have done, and he did not stop. We’re all richer for it.”
In addition to his family, Isay is survived by his husband, Gordon Harrell, whom he met in 1979. The couple were married in Isay’s son’s house in 2011. If you want to learn more about Isay and his work, check out some of his books, including Being Homosexual, Becoming Gay and Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love.
Photo: University of Rochester