Alfred Freedman; led effort to reclassify homosexuality

By William Grimes
New York Times / April 22, 2011

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NEW YORK — Dr. Alfred M. Freedman, a psychiatrist and social reformer who led the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 when, overturning a century-old policy, it declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 94.

The cause was complications of surgery to treat a fractured hip, his son Dan said.

In 1972, with pressure mounting from gay rights groups and from an increasing number of psychiatrists to destigmatize homosexuality, Dr. Freedman was elected president of the association, which he later described as a conservative “old boys’ club.’’ Its 20,000 members were deeply divided about its policy on homosexuality, which its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II classified as a “sexual deviation’’ in the same class as fetishism, voyeurism, pedophilia, and exhibitionism.

Well known as the chairman of the department of psychiatry at New York Medical College and a proponent of community-oriented psychiatric and social services, Dr. Freedman was approached by a group of young reformers, the Committee of Concerned Psychiatrists, who persuaded him to run as a petition candidate for the presidency of the psychiatric association.

Dr. Freedman, much to his surprise, won what may have been the first contested election in the organization’s history, by three votes out of more than 9,000 cast. Immediately on taking office, he threw his support behind a resolution, drafted by Robert L. Spitzer of Columbia University, to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

On Dec. 15, 1973, the board of trustees, many of them newly elected younger psychiatrists, voted 13 to 0, with two abstentions, in favor of the resolution, which stated that “by itself, homosexuality does not meet the criteria for being a psychiatric disorder.’’

It went on: “We will no longer insist on a label of sickness for individuals who insist that they are well and demonstrate no generalized impairment in social effectiveness.’’

The board stopped short of declaring homosexuality “a normal variant of human sexuality,’’ as the association’s task force on nomenclature had recommended.

The recently formed National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) hailed the resolution as “the greatest gay victory,’’ one that removed “the cornerstone of oppression for one-tenth of our population.’’

Among other things, the resolution helped reassure gay men and women in need of treatment for mental problems that doctors would not have any authorization to try to change their sexual orientation or to identify homosexuality as the root cause of their difficulties.

An equally important companion resolution condemned discrimination against gays in such areas as housing and employment. In addition, it called on local, state, and federal lawmakers to pass legislation guaranteeing gay citizens the same protections as other Americans, and to repeal all criminal statutes penalizing sex between consenting adults.

The resolution served as a model for professional and religious organizations that took similar positions in the years to come.

“It was a huge victory for a movement that in 1973 was young, small, very underfunded, and had not yet had this kind of political validation,’’ said Sue Hyde, who organizes the annual conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In a 2007 interview, Dr. Freedman said, “I felt at the time that that decision was the most important thing we accomplished.’’

In addition to his son Dan, he leaves his wife, Marcia; another son, Paul; and three grandchildren.