Charles Silverstein


My plan for this episode had been to talk about the infamous Marquis de Sade, a figure who has somewhat been lost to history and might only be known in connection to the words sadism and sadist, which are derived from his name in reference to the books he wrote. He was not a nice man. I find these figures fascinating, particularly because of the sanguine stain they leave on history.

But as I was preparing my list of references, I heard about the death of Dr. Charles Silverstein and immediately had to pivot. I would never, ever compare the two men, but they do have one thing in common - their most famous books were also their most controversial. Banned, burned, lauded, and reviled. But the mark Dr. Silverstein left on history has a far broader reach, and it's one I fear we lose sight of as parts of the world (the US, Canada, the UK) fall into another iteration of the Satanic Panic.

Episode: File 0091: The Gay Gods of Anchorage pt. 3

Release Date: Feb 24 2023

Researched and presented by Halli

"If you just step us back a few paces and look at the history of our movement, it's a very short history. There were things that happened before the 1960s, but really, what we call the LGBTQ community is really only about a half century old. So, we can look at this and we can think, Well, my goodness, the lives of the people we now call the LGBTQ have really been transformed in the last 50 years.

We've gone from a criminal class to largely accepted in most of the Western world, marriage equality, protection from any forms of discrimination, much less violence, no longer considered mentally ill. Our lives have really been transformed...One can only imagine how dramatically our lives will be transformed in the next 50." - Cleve Jones, AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist

In order to truly place Dr. Silverstein rightfully in the annals of history, we need to understand why what he did for decades was so important. As I discovered in my own research around homosexuality and gender expression around the turn of the century, it was noted by researcher and author George Chauncy in Gay New York that, for the most part, large cities like New York around the turn of the 20th century had a roaring queer culture, even if it was largely kept to certain areas, streets, or even clubs. In New York City, there was a world of "highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing" gay neighborhood enclaves, "widely publicized dances, and other social events, along with a host of commercial establishments where gay men gathered". Indifference or curiosity was largely the response to the NYC gay world for much of the pre-World War II half-century. Not all places or people were accepting, but NYC did much to earn its spot as the gay capital of the US.

Dr. Silverstein was born in 1935 in Brooklyn, so he saw the beginning of what became deep-rooted discrimination, largely fueled by religious furor after the war, as counter-culture raged against "American ideals" of family, God, and country during the post-war boom.

After World War II, the world shifted, and "discrimination and anti-gay laws were the norm in the United States. Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and before 1961, every state criminalized sodomy."

"The laws were used to justify sweeps of suspected gay bars and public parks, and LGBTQ people risked public humiliation, job loss, and even criminal prosecution for their homosexuality."

Dr. Silverstein was in the middle of his education at The City University of New York, working in clinical psychology when the late 1960s and early 1970s culture clashes came to a head.

Out of this, gay and lesbian groups began to emerge...[m]any of these started as attempts to show that gay people were "orderly, contributing members of society" and the protests were done in business attire and were quiet affairs." Dr. Silverstein was at Rutgers during this time, where he joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in 1972. He also led student protests against the Vietnam War.

"On February 8, 1973, Dr. Silverstein made a presentation to the Nomenclature Committee of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In December 1973, the APA changed the diagnosis of homosexuality in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II). It was later in DSM-III-R in 1987 that homosexuality was completely removed as a mental disorder."

"In a 2003 interview he said, 'I threw back at them their diagnoses over the decades and how funny it all sounds now, and pointed out that their fun had hurt a lot of people.' That same year, Silverstein came out as gay to his mother."

"'A.P.A.'s 1973 diagnostic revision was the beginning of the end of organized medicine's official participation in the social stigmatization of homosexuality,' Dr. Jack Drescher wrote in the journal Behavioral Sciences in 2015."

This was just the beginning for Dr. Silverstein, whose career would explode in 1977. He had already achieved so much, and this was on top of earning his PhD in social psychology from Rutgers and opening a private psychology practice, and writing multiple essays and papers that were widely published in journals and anthologies. But in 1977, he and Edmund White co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex. It was a 207 page book that served as a "how-to guide" for gay men, including chapters on "blowjobs, cruising and dirty talk, a gay Kama Sutra with suggested sex positions like 'the crab' and a culture guide with non-sexual chapters on the realities of coming out, gay politics, racism, and more". It was sex-positive in every way. Silverstein later wrote in his memoir that he and White wanted the book to "have a wider focus than just sex, that it should also advise the reader about life in the gay community and the majority of passages in the finished book were of a nonsexual nature". While not in line with a lot of modern ideals on therapy, I do find it interesting that Silverstein was White's therapist when Crown, the publisher, offered him the job as co-writer. White later said, "The need to pay my rent exceeded my need for therapy."

At a time when gay people were beaten, arrested, locked away, and murdered for being who they were, The Joy of Gay Sex was a scandal waiting to explode. But Silverstein and White didn't see it that way - they saw it as necessary, and inevitable. If they didn't write it, someone else surely would, and perhaps they wouldn't have the same education or intent.

"Silverstein told the LGBTQ&A podcast in 2021, 'When Ed and I first sat down to talk about the book and we made a list of the entries, it was quite clear that a majority of the entries were not about sex, it was about community and it was about relating to each other. While most people think of all the dirty pictures, what we always thought our greatest contribution was, is trying to write something that we would've wanted when we were kids, and that would be something more than just sex. That would be about community.'"

The book was seized by customs agents around the world, burned, and banned. But it went on to be translated into five languages and revised in 1993 and again in 2006. I want to note the 1993 edition, in the horrific wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis, was edited by Silverstein and Felice Picano to add in safe-sex practices and newly relevant topics like writing wills. 1993 was a terrible year for Silverstein personally, as his partner, William Bory, died of AIDS complications.

In the middle of all of the uproar around the book, Dr. Silverstein also started the Institute for Human Identity, to "provide mental health services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender clients".

"Reflecting on Dr. Silverstein's impact, Dr. Drescher, a gay psychiatrist who has spoken out against conversion therapy, said by email: 'Although I was not yet in medical school when Charles was already advocating for me, I can say without hesitation that my own career in psychiatry and psychoanalysis would not have been possible without his contributions. Many of us owe him a deep debt of gratitude - but Charles's generosity was such that he never acted like anyone owed him anything.'"

Silverstein's career also included:

  • Founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality

  • Member of the APA and being made a Fellow in 1987

  • Member of Division 44 of the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues

  • Frequent lecturer on state and national levels

  • Author of eight books and many professional papers and essays

  • Multiple awards from the APA

Silverstein was also incredibly outspoken against conversion therapy, particularly aversion therapy - being exposed to a stimulus while pairing it with discomfort. It's low-grade torture. Silverstein agreed with this:

"In 1995, he discussed the prospect of a cure for homosexuality to The New York Times, saying: 'At most, it allows a person to develop some kind of relationship with a woman that most of the time will end badly. Even if it doesn't, the gay man invariably feels like a failure.'"

"In 2012, he told The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide that 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... 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.'"

Silverstein's outspokenness against conversion and aversion therapy had been going on for decades. In 1972, he was a grad student and attended a workshop at a behavioral therapy convention where the topic was his much-hated aversion therapy; at this workshop, they were discussing giving gay men electric shocks and other stimuli to "cure" their homosexuality.

Silverstein was there not to learn, but to disrupt, and in fact, shut the entire workshop down.

"As a leading psychologist took the podium, Silverstein hurried to the front of the room and introduced himself as a gay activist.

'We're going to interrupt your presentation,' he told the speaker. 'We'll give you 10 minutes to speak, and then we're taking over.' He made good on his promise, prompting chaos in the presentation room as angry protesters and participants began to debate the issue."

This was called zapping, a form of protest gay liberation activists started in the 1970s. I thought it was important to include this information, as it may be something we can learn from in our current struggles against people who think books with gay and queer characters are somehow linked to pedophilia.

From National Geographic:

"The tactic was deceptively simple. It involved sudden, loud, brief action. If it interrupted business or an event, all the better. Designed to instigate media coverage and disrupt the status quo, zaps were theatrical, boisterous, and impossible to ignore. Organized on short notice, zaps were a way to confront discrimination directly and remind the public of the existence of the LGBTQ movement and the possibility of pride in a marginalized identity.

In Silverstein's case, it was effective; one attendee later invited him to give a presentation to influential psychologists. Silverstein's activism helped prompt the eventual removal of homosexuality as a medical disorder diagnosis."

Zapping could involve heckling, pies to the face, shouts, papering appearances and speeches with literature, and generally making life uncomfortable for anyone speaking against the sheer existence of gay and queer people.

Also from National Geographic:
The most effective zaps involved embarrassing public figures over specific injustices.

"One of the most memorable took place during a broadcast of the CBS Evening News in December 1973. In front of a live audience of 60 million viewers, Mark Allan Segal, a member of a small group called the Gay Raiders and an accomplished zapper, jumped in front of the camera and held up a sign that said "Gays Protest CBS Prejudice." He was protesting major networks' depiction of LGBTQ people and the way their coverage ignored things like gay pride parades and equality legislation.

It worked: Not only did the network begin covering LGBTQ issues, but Cronkite befriended Segal and began to report on the struggles and successes of the movement.

Another noteworthy zap took place in 1977, when activist Tom Higgins hit singer and anti-gay rights campaigner Anita Bryant in the face with a strawberry-rhubarb pie during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryant responded by kneeling in prayer and asking God to deliver Higgins from his "deviancy"; a satisfied Higgins told a Gay Community News correspondent that 'There is nothing more humiliating than getting a pie in your face.'

This legacy of zapping lived on into the 1980s, even if pies to the face faded away and were replaced with groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which did a series of powerfully disruptive demonstrations inspired by zapping tactics. Sit-ins, die-ins, raucous protests were huge parts of the ACT UP movement, where participants were cajoling city, state, and national leaders for not doing more to help the gay/queer communities while AIDS ravaged their friends and loved ones.

From The Smithsonian Magazine: 

At a 'Stop the Church' die-in at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, ACT-UP's shock troops screamed 'you bigot, you're killing us!' and 'you have blood on your hands!' at Cardinal John O'Connor. They threw condoms into the air and refused to leave. ACT-UP was responsible for infiltrating the Republican National Women's Club in drag, shutting down FDA offices, and chaining themselves to pharmaceutical company headquarters."

Silverstein was a huge part of the gay rights liberation movement, and his work deserves to be enshrined, learned from, and expanded upon. "Silverstein died at his home in Manhattan on January 30, 2023, at age 87. According to his executor Aron Berlinger, Silverstein had been diagnosed with lung cancer."

I'll end with this quote from Silverstein's friend, Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes, in response to an interview from the CBC:
Do you think younger generations in the community know him well enough?

"I don't know.... Recently, there had been two documentaries out in maybe the last four or five years that looked at different aspects of the gay rights movement, and he was in them. I certainly shared them with classes that I've taught so that young people would see these people who did the work 50 years ago.

I think in a lot of the movements, young people don't realize how recent it is and how tenuous some of the rights that were won actually are."

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