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.