Richard Friedman Dead at 79

He revolutionized how we think of male homosexuality.

NYT (“Dr. Richard Friedman, Who Debunked Homosexuality Myth, Dies at 79“):

In the 1980s, when marriage and adopting children seemed impossible dreams for gay men, the psychoanalyst Richard C. Friedman became their champion.

His 1988 book, “Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective,” showed that sexual orientation was largely biological and presented a case that helped undermine the belief held by most Freudian analysts at the time that homosexuality was a pathology that could somehow be cured.

“I felt an ethical obligation to find the reasons for anti-homosexual prejudice,” he once told an interviewer. His wife, Susan Matorin, a clinical social worker at the Weill Medical College of Cornell, put it more plainly: “Straight people had the same personality issues, and they got away with murder, but gay people were stigmatized, and he didn’t think that was right.”

Dr. Friedman’s motivation wasn’t political. “He very much felt like you followed the science, and it didn’t matter what the political backdrop was,” his son, Jeremiah, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview.

Although the American Psychiatric Association, the dominant mental health organization in the United States, changed its diagnostic manual in 1973 and stopped classifying homosexuality as an illness, psychoanalysts continued to describe homosexuality as a perversion, and many believed it could be cured.

Dr. Friedman, using studies of identical twins and theories of developmental psychology, made a scholarly rather than ideological case that biology rather than upbringing played a significant role in sexual orientation.

It was a direct challenge to popular Freudian theories and thrust him into the center of debates among the more established heavyweights of psychoanalysis. It led to a model in which analyst and patient simply assumed that homosexuality was intrinsic, said Jack Drescher, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who knew Dr. Friedman and would later offer his own critiques of Dr. Friedman’s theory as new approaches to working with gay and lesbian patients emerged.

“Given that he was a younger colleague, it was brave of him to take older experts on,” Professor Drescher said. But it was in keeping with who he was. “He had an edge and wasn’t afraid of anybody,” he said.

Two things struck me when seeing this report.

First, and most obviously, is how radically our views on this issue have changed in my lifetime. Granted that, at 54, I’m not exactly a kid, homosexuality was literally thought of as a disease by the medical community within my memory. And I was a young adult—a commissioned officer in the United States Army about to finish my master’s degree—when Friedman published his groundbreaking book.

Second is the fleeting and odd nature of fame. I’m sure that Friedman made the rounds on the various television talk shows I watched during those days but I don’t remember him. Moreover, he died on March 31 and the news just made it to the New York Times with yesterday’s edition and I just discovered it this morning.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Gender Issues, Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    This is a man who because of his research and scientific integrity changed the world. R.I.P.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    During the 70’s the cop show “Barney Miller” (think “Brooklyn 99”, not “Hawaii 5-0”) had a recurring character who came into the precinct because he was continually arrested for essentially, being flamboyantly gay. I don’t remember this being presented in any way as an in-your-face injustice, but rather as a fact of life that, I only realized later, the writers were quietly pointing out as an injustice. The precinct officers, all decent people, never questioned it.

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  3. This is a great reminder that positive social change is possible.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: A really interesting take on that here.

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  5. Teve says:

    @James Joyner: that was interesting.

    And nice mention in the article of Paul Lynde, who my avatar is based on. 😀

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    RiP.

  7. Kylopod says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a moment from All in the Family that looks very odd today, where Mike tells Gloria not to smother the baby because that might turn it homosexual. Mike was supposed to be the unabashed lefty, as a marked contrast with the bigoted, right-wing Archie. And the show dealt with anti-gay prejudice repeatedly, even coming to the brink of endorsing same-sex marriage. But it’s easy to forget that the picture of homosexuality as a disorder was once the “liberal” position—as opposed to the conservative view that it was sinful. Liberals were sympathetic to gay people and generally favored equal rights for them, but still viewed it as somewhat abnormal and deviant. As psychologists abandoned that view, so did liberals, and then conservatives began to coopt it (e.g. Dr. Laura calling it a biological error, Trent Lott comparing it to kleptomania), despite the philosophical inconsistency.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: As I’ve noted many times, Arlo Guthrie’s lefty anti-war hit “Alice’s Restaurant” used the word “faggots” unironically in 1967.

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  9. Joe says:

    I remember Loudon Wainright III having some entirely gay-bashing song in the mid ’70s that I recall we teenage boys all thought was pretty funny (though I remember nothing else about it). I certainly hope his son Rufus brought him around. We were all terrible people.

  10. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner: I’m not sure how left-wing Stephen King is, but he’s definitely a liberal, yet he’s got some views that could charitably be described as outdated. I remember reading an interview in which he discussed his childhood, and at one point he commented that he had to play football because “if you didn’t play football and you were big, it meant you were a fucking faggot, right?”

    Okay, maybe he was being “ironic.”

    There’s also a fair amount of homophobia in his books. And some racial stereotyping too. This can get a little tricky, because you can argue he’s simply painting a portrait of the settings he writes about (particularly small towns in the mid-20th century), and in fairness he deals with racism and homophobia as topics–such as the anti-gay hate crime depicted in It (which made its way into the recent movie adaptation, but was absent from the 1990 miniseries). Still, nowadays it’s pretty hard to defend the inclusion of stuff, like, say, “the Sisters” from Shawshank Redemption, where he makes a bizarre and rather insulting connection between prison rapists and LGBT culture.

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  11. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, when Red tells Andy the “sisters” are showing attention to him, Andy says “I guess it wouldn’t help to explain I’m not homosexual.” Red replies something odd for the time when the movie was made, and still more so for the time it depicts. he says “Neither are they. You have to be human first. They don’t qualify.”

    My take is rather positive. Not that it did Andy any good.

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  12. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: I’ve seen the movie several times (it’s a favorite movie of mine) but I’ve only read the book once, several years ago, and I don’t recall that particular exchange being there. Even so, I didn’t mean to imply that King is a raging homophobe. Indeed, part of the point of many of these examples is that these are people who are relatively liberal and tolerant–and yet still hold (or held at one time) some stereotyped or mythical ideas about gay people.

    King’s fiction is generally very anti-bigotry; in fact he often uses a character’s racism or homophobia to let the reader know that the character is a villain, or at least a reactionary. And yet he still frequently falls back on old, outdated stereotypes that expose his roots as a white boomer from rural Maine.

    I get the sense King has some level of self-awareness and that he’s evolved on some of these attitudes. He’s bashfully admitted in interviews that he’s often resorted to magical negroes. (Red from Shawshank isn’t an example, since the character in the book was white. Mother Abigail and John Coffey, on the other hand….) One of King’s more recent books I read was 2011’s 11/22/63. Like a lot of his books it contains crossovers from other books, and there’s a sequence in which the protagonist, a 21st-century man named Jake, travels back in time to the 1950s and runs into two of the kids from It, Beverly and Richie. Now if you’ve read It, Richie is this class-clown type who’s always doing impressions, and one of his impressions is a “screechy pickaninny voice.” In the earlier novel, nobody comments on that, even though he does it in front of Mike, the black kid; we never find out what Mike thinks about it or if he’s offended. This despite the fact that racism is a major plot point in the novel (Henry Bowers’ murderous hatred of Mike). But in the later novel, Jake inwardly cringes when he hears Richie do the racist impression.

    I also found it interesting that in the later novel, Jake at first thinks he prefers the mid-20th century to his own time–until he travels down south and sees the reality of Jim Crow. That’s not the kind of insight you typically find in King’s earlier works, and I almost have the sense he may have rethought some of his comfortable white-boy attitudes.

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  13. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    I’ve seen the movie a number of times, but have never read the story it’s based on. In fact, I’ve never read anything by King. I brought up the quote from the movie, because it seems strikingly different from what you refer to in the book. The movie’s so good, I never felt the need to read the book.

    Anyone with a long career, in just about any field involving the public, will have had such changes of attitude in time. There are exceptions, of course.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: That was a fascinating piece, thanks for the link. I’ll have to rewatch the episode at some point.

  15. mattbernius says:

    @Kylopod:

    King’s fiction is generally very anti-bigotry; in fact he often uses a character’s racism or homophobia to let the reader know that the character is a villain, or at least a reactionary. And yet he still frequently falls back on old, outdated stereotypes that expose his roots as a white boomer from rural Maine.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t exclusive to Liberal Boomers. I know a lot of well-meaning Gen X and Gen Y/Millenial folks in very progressive organizations who are still using (subtler) stereotypes of the people they are trying to help. Just got off a call about that this morning.

    It’s unintentional, but pretty pervasive (at least in the criminal justice space). Often liberals/progressives have really BIG blindspots on these issues.

  16. de stijl says:

    We need to listen to people.

    If someone is telling you this is who I am honestly, believe them.

    Much respect and honor to Friedman for for providing the scientific background, but it was obvious for ever that some kids are super uncomfortable with dating because society really wants them to date someone they are not at all compatable with. And that is society’s problem.

    I figured that stuff out when I was 15. Matt was not into girls nor was he going to be, and that was no reason to denigrate or belittle. In fact, it was why he needed protection from bullies and friendship. Besides, he was a cool cat.

    Donna was never going to be Donna Reed.

    We were idiot teens the state deemed to young to responsibly drive a vehicle and we figured it out.

  17. de stijl says:

    Where King really screwed up was on Detta / Odetta / Susannah in The Dark Tower books.

    Some of that was ugly hard to read through.

    I am not the type that asserts only x can write x, but King should not write American black women. I get he was trying to make a point about something Boomeresque about race, but holy jeebus that was a god awful mess. And he can write women quite well. Has done so for decades.

    That Odetta / Detta attempt was just disastrously bad.