John E. Fryer, M.D.: Psychiatrist and Dr. H. Anonymous

In the 22 years I’ve lived in Clark County I had not heard the name of John Fryer.  I first read about the famed gay psy­chi­a­trist only a month ago in a col­umn by Linda Blackford in the Lexington Herald-Leader.  How could I have missed him?  In spite of a leg­endary speech to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that pro­vid­ed a tip­ping point in the his­to­ry of gay rights, I can­not find his name ever men­tioned in the local press.  Surprising, as he was a Winchester native but per­haps part­ly explained by society’s wide­spread dis­ap­proval of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty at the time.

Before get­ting to Fryer’s sto­ry, let’s explore the American scene at the time of his famous speech.  In the 1950s thou­sands of gov­ern­ment employ­ees lost their jobs for being gay.  In some states, gay men were impris­oned or com­mit­ted to men­tal insti­tu­tions where they under­went elec­troshock, lobot­o­my, or cas­tra­tion.  The long, slow process of decrim­i­nal­iz­ing same-sex behav­ior began in Illinois in 1961.  In 1968, how­ev­er, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was still list­ed as a men­tal ill­ness in APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

On May 2, 1972, Dr. Fryer slipped through a side cur­tain at the APA con­ven­tion, and appear­ing as Dr. H. Anonymous wear­ing a rub­ber joke-shop face mask, wig, and over­sized tuxe­do, announced through a voice-alter­ing micro­phone, “I am a homo­sex­u­al.  I am a psychiatrist.” 

Fellow ther­a­pists were riv­et­ed.  They were not used to hear­ing from homo­sex­u­als who felt sane and nor­mal.  Fryer esti­mat­ed that more than 100 gay psy­chi­a­trists were in atten­dance at the con­ven­tion when he told the audi­ence, “I attempt tonight to speak for many of my fel­low gay mem­bers of the A.P.A., as well as for myself.  Several of us feel that it is time that real flesh and blood stand up before you and ask to be lis­tened to and understood.” 

John Fryer in the Winchester High 1953 Shawnee Yearbook
John Fryer in the Winchester High 1953 Shawnee Yearbook

He chal­lenged the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as a men­tal ill­ness and received a stand­ing ova­tion at the end of his ten-minute speech.  You can lis­ten to a replay of the speech at

The fol­low­ing year the APA reversed its near­ly cen­tu­ry-old posi­tion, declar­ing that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was not a men­tal dis­or­der.  Fryer’s speech was cit­ed as the key fac­tor in per­suad­ing the psy­chi­atric com­mu­ni­ty to reach their deci­sion.  In fact, the pres­i­dent of the APA, Dr. Judd Marmor, con­ced­ed that the APA clas­si­fi­ca­tion of diver­gent sex­u­al pref­er­ences was due to moral val­ues “couched in ‘med­ical’ and ‘sci­en­tif­ic’ rationalizations.” 

Later that year Fryer lost anoth­er job, this one at Friends Hospital.  An admin­is­tra­tor called him into his office.  “If you were gay and not flam­boy­ant, we would keep you.  If you were flam­boy­ant and not gay, we would keep you.  But since you are both gay and flam­boy­ant, we can­not keep you.”

John Ercel Fryer (1937−2003), the son of Ercel R. Fryer and Katherine Zempter, grew up at 5 Bön Haven Avenue in Winchester.  He grad­u­at­ed from Winchester High School, received a bachelor’s degree from Transylvania University, a med­ical degree from Vanderbilt, and did his intern­ship at The Ohio State University.  He held a res­i­den­cy at the University of Pennsylvania but was forced to leave after he was iden­ti­fied as a homosexual.

John Fryer in the 1957 Transylvania University yearbook
John Fryer in the 1957 Transylvania University yearbook

Fryer joined the med­ical fac­ul­ty of Temple University in Philadelphia in 1967.  There he became a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and of fam­i­ly prac­tice and com­mu­ni­ty med­i­cine.  He built a spe­cial­ty in bereave­ment coun­sel­ing and helped pio­neer the hos­pice move­ment.  He also treat­ed alco­holics and drug addicts.  Later in his career, he began treat­ing gay men with AIDS who were dying.

Few sources report any details of Fryer’s ear­ly life in Winchester.  Fortunately, we have a brief mem­oir by his sis­ter, Kathy Fryer Helmbock.  She recalled her par­ents bring­ing John home: “He was big, 10 pounds, 11 ounces.  Dr. [Harvey] Henry at Clark County Hospital deliv­ered him.  John had a long scar on his fore­head from the forceps.”

She con­tin­ued, “John was a hap­py baby [and] sel­dom cried unless he was hun­gry.  When he was three and I was eight, we played school.  When he was five, he was allowed to enter school at the sec­ond-grade lev­el.”  He would grad­u­ate from Winchester High at age 15 and enter med school at 19.  “I did not know John was gay.  In fact, I did not know the word homo­sex­u­al or what it meant.”

“John was accept­ed at Vanderbilt and left for Nashville.  Again, a lot of hard work that all med stu­dents endure.  My strongest mem­o­ry of that time was a Siamese cat he brought to our par­ents.  It had been used in exper­i­ments and was sched­uled to be killed.  John named it Zen Buddha.  My folks reluc­tant­ly took it in.”

Fryer playing the organ at a Philadelphia church, c1970
Fryer play­ing the organ at a Philadelphia church, c1970

“John’s real love was the pipe organ.  He first stud­ied piano with Miss Ellen Bush on Boone Avenue then organ with Mrs. [Ruth] Stallings while still in grade school.  He want­ed to play the organ at our church, First Christian, but the elder­ly organ­ist [Hazel Walker] was not about to let ‘that lit­tle Fryer boy’ mess with her stops. Two blocks down Hickman Street, a small Episcopal church wel­comed him with open arms.”

Throughout his edu­ca­tion and lat­er life Fryer man­aged to play the organ—at Transylvania, Vanderbilt, and Columbus. In Philadelphia, he searched out and found Episcopal church­es in need of an organist.

“John joined the fac­ul­ty at the Temple Medical School and had a very ten­u­ous time until he got tenure in 1978.  Afterward, he was more open about his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and the Dr. H. Anonymous event that he lat­er said was ‘prob­a­bly the cen­tral event of my career.’”

“John retired from Temple in 2000.  In 2002, when the APA held its annu­al meet­ing in Philadelphia, John was hon­ored at a din­ner rec­og­niz­ing the anniver­sary [of his speech].  I was not too sur­prised to get a call in late February 2003 from a doc­tor at Jefferson [Hospital]” announc­ing that John had died. He had just turned 65. 

John Fryer’s boyhood home, #5 Bon Haven Avenue
John Fryer’s boy­hood home, #5 Bön Haven Avenue

Decades would pass before gay rights his­to­ri­ans ful­ly under­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of the Dr. Anonymous speech, that it had “a Stonewall riots kind of impor­tance.” John Fryer’s papers are now archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  In 2018 Ain Gordon’s play inspired by those papers, 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous, held its pre­mière at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City and debuted at Transylvania the fol­low­ing year. 

Philadelphia erect­ed a his­tor­i­cal mark­er in Dr. Fryer’s hon­or and list­ed his home on the Historic Register.  In 2022 the city cel­e­brat­ed the 50th anniver­sary of the Dr. Anonymous speech and declared May 2 John Fryer Day.

The 2022 tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary, “Cured,” revealed how a small group of activists brought about a major shift in the move­ment for LGBTQ equal­i­ty and dig­ni­ty.  Dr. John Fryer plays a piv­otal role in the high­ly acclaimed film.

Thanks to Susan Hubbard and Rev. Jerry Johns for iden­ti­fy­ing the Christian Church organist.

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