The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Silverstein, who helped declassify homosexuality as illness, dies at 87

An activist and psychologist, he helped achieve ‘the single most important event in the history of gay liberation after the Stonewall riots’

Charles Silverstein in his office in Manhattan. (Courtesy of Charles Silverstein/ReQueered Tales)
6 min

Charles Silverstein, a psychologist who helped achieve one of the most significant victories of the gay rights movement by persuading the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, died Jan. 30 at his home in New York City. He was 87.

He had lung cancer, said his executor, Aron Berlinger.

Dr. Silverstein spent decades of his life — as an activist, a psychologist and an author — advancing the cause of gay rights. He had felt the sting of discrimination and the burden of shame as a gay man who came of age at a time when expressions of homosexuality were stigmatized if not outright illegal, and when gay people were treated not only as morally deviant but as mentally ill.

Dr. Silverstein, who felt he had no choice but to conceal his sexuality during his early professional years and into graduate school, came out as the gay rights movement gained momentum in the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969.

He was nearing completion of a doctoral degree in social psychology and had joined the Gay Activists Alliance, an advocacy group that organized high-profile protests known as “zaps,” when he was invited to speak to the APA’s nomenclature committee on the matter of homosexuality.

At the time, homosexuality was categorized as a mental disorder and “sexual deviation” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reference volume regarded as the authoritative guide to mental health diagnoses. In February 1973, Dr. Silverstein was one of several speakers who appeared before the nomenclature panel to challenge the scientific and clinical basis of that classification.

“Psychoanalysts believed that gay men were doomed to lives of depression and, eventually, suicide because of their shame,” Dr. Silverstein later told the Windy City Times, a Chicago-based LGBTQ publication. “I argued that these men were not ashamed because they were homosexual but because of what these therapists were telling them.”

Ten months later, in December 1973, the APA voted to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders. The association issued a statement declaring that the decision was “not to say that homosexuality is ‘normal,’ or that it is as desirable as heterosexuality.” But among supporters of gay rights, the vote was regarded as a landmark victory.

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“As long as we were officially sick, there was no chance that we would be officially equal,” said Charles Kaiser, an author who chronicled American gay life in the book “The Gay Metropolis.” He called the APA vote “the single most important event in the history of gay liberation after the Stonewall riots” and described Dr. Silverstein as “one of the handful of people most important in bringing the change about.”

In his private psychology practice in New York and in his writings, Dr. Silverstein sought to help gay people live without shame, which he likened to a “toxin in the body.” He and author Edmund White wrote the 1977 volume “The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Lifestyle.”

The book included graphic images and language and was, by Dr. Silverstein’s account, “impounded in Canada, shredded in France and burned in England.” Even in stores where the book was sold, copies only were available upon request so they were not displayed to the public.

It nonetheless became a foundational work in gay literature. Subsequent versions, co-authored by Dr. Silverstein and Felice Picano, were released in 1992 and 2003.

“The first time I had sex with a guy was a big learning experience,” Dr. Silverstein told the publication the Advocate in 2021. “I didn’t know what … I was doing. Fortunately, he did.” His book and all his activism, he said, was his way of helping younger generations avoid some of the difficulties he had faced.

Dr. Silverstein was born in Brooklyn on April 23, 1935. His father drove a newspaper delivery truck, and his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Silverstein, whose family was Jewish, recalled encountering antisemitism as well as homophobia and described his childhood as “not something I would want to relive.”

“I was not good in sports, and that, of course, is a black mark on a boy. I think that also within me were some characteristics that would later come out, in terms of being gay,” he said in a 2019 oral history with Rutgers University. “I just know that I was different than the other kids, and I wasn’t sure why.”

He studied education at the State University of New York at New Paltz before becoming an elementary school teacher in Larchmont, N.Y. He recalled being afraid of revealing his sexuality for fear that he would be fired, and remained in the closet as he began his psychology studies at Rutgers.

“There was a period before I got to college where I wanted to change, and I went into therapy for the purpose of changing,” he told the Advocate. “Obviously, it didn’t work, and it never works, but it was what most people did in those days.”

Dr. Silverstein was the founder of a New York-based counseling center, the Identity House, and the Institute for Human Identity, which describes itself as “the nation’s first and longest-running provider or LGBTQ+-affirming psychotherapy.”

“The amount of damage that has been done by the psychological and psychiatry professions to help people change — I see it every day at my practice,” Dr. Silverstein told the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide in 2012. “I think aversion therapy is a form of torture. I think that psychiatrists of that period enjoyed setting up a sado-masochist relationship between them and their patients.”

Dr. Silverstein was the author or editor of books including “A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality” (1977), “Man to Man: Gay Couples in America” (1981), “Gays, Lesbians and Their Therapists” (1991), “The Initial Psychotherapy Interview: A Gay Man Seeks Treatment” (2011) and the memoir “For the Ferryman: A Personal History” (2011).

His longtime partner William Bory died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Dr. Silverstein’s subsequent marriage to Bill Bartelt ended in divorce. Survivors include a son he adopted last year, Shahrukh Khalique of New York City, and a brother.

In 2011, Dr. Silverstein received the American Psychological Foundation’s gold medal for lifetime achievement. He found fulfillment, he said, as gay rights evolved in recent years to include the freedom of gay couples to marry and build families.

“I’m glad that younger generations are more free,” he said. “That’s what we were fighting for.”