Charles Silverstein, 87, Dies; Helped Destigmatize Homosexuality
In February 1973, when it was his turn to speak before an American Psychiatric Association panel on why it should stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, Charles Silverstein chose an unexpected tool for his response: humor.
“What I did,” he recalled decades later in an interview for the Rutgers Oral History Archives, “was write a parody, a satire, of all the absurd things that the American Psychiatric Association had diagnosed” — illnesses like “syphilophobia” (irrational fear of syphilis).
“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,” Dr. Silverstein told The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy in 2003. “I ended by saying to them, ‘Don’t do it anymore.’”
The testimony of Dr. Silverstein, who at the time was completing his Ph.D. work in social psychology at Rutgers University, helped persuade the psychiatric association to change the language in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders later that year. That revision, while not completely ending the profession’s pathologizing of homosexuality, was a watershed moment that led to further reassessments.
“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.
It was also the beginning of an influential career for Dr. Silverstein. He went on to write books — like “The Joy of Gay Sex,” with the novelist Edmund White, and “A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality” — served as founding editor of The Journal of Homosexuality, and worked to break down prejudices associated with being gay.
Dr. Silverstein died at 87 on Jan. 30 at his home in Manhattan. The cause was lung cancer, his executor, Aron Berlinger, said.
About the time Dr. Silverstein was giving that crucial presentation in 1973, he was also starting the Institute for Human Identity, to provide mental health services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients. In a post on the institute’s website, Tara Lombardo, its executive director, called him “a fearless fighter for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the mental health needs of our community.”
“We truly stand on his shoulders,” she wrote.
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.”
Charles Silverstein was born on April 23, 1935, in Brooklyn. His father, Sam, delivered newspapers by truck, and his mother, Ida (Berlly) Silverstein, was a homemaker.
He mainly grew up in New York, although there was a moment when he was 11 that almost made him a Californian while introducing him to discrimination. His father was offered a job in California by a former co-worker, but when the family arrived on the West Coast after a nine-day drive, they were welcomed less than hospitably.
“The other men in the shop came to the foreman and said, ‘Either you get rid of that Jew, or we go on strike,’” Dr. Silverstein recalled in an oral history recorded for The Outwords Archive in 2018. His parents received a refund of the deposit they had put down on a house, loaded the family back into the car and made the long trip back to New York.
Dr. Silverstein said he first realized that he was gay when he was a teenager, but his advocacy was still years in the future. In his early attempts at psychoanalysis, he said, he specifically asked to be “cured.”
“I was very much the kind of person who had this low self-esteem, depression and feelings of shame that I wrote about later,” he said.
He graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz with an education degree in 1959 and taught elementary school for six years in Larchmont, N.Y., before deciding to become a psychologist. He studied clinical psychology at the City University of New York for three years but failed the comprehensive exams; he ultimately earned his Ph.D. in social psychology at Rutgers in 1974.
Dr. Silverstein said he did not have his first experience with gay sex until the late 1960s, when he was in his early 30s. The experience, with a man he had met at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, soon transformed him from a closeted gay man who wanted to be “cured” into a gay activist.
“I dropped my analyst, and I joined the Gay Activists Alliance,” he said in the Outwords oral history. “That’s an organization that many people will tell you it saved their lives, and I think it did for me.”
The alliance began challenging the psychiatric profession over its views on homosexuality, and Dr. Silverstein was one of the several members who gave testimony in the 1973 session.
In 1977, he and Mr. White, who was still early in his career as a novelist, produced the first edition of “The Joy of Gay Sex,” seeking to capitalize on the popularity of “The Joy of Sex,” which was first published in 1972. “The Joy of Gay Sex,” a manual for men who have sex with men, was explicit in its language and its illustrations and ran into censorship issues, especially in Canada.
Within a few years the book seemed out of step with the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s. In 1992, Dr. Silverstein and Felice Picano published a revised edition, “The New Joy of Gay Sex,” that took into account safe-sex practices and newly relevant topics like writing wills.
In 1993, Dr. Silverstein’s partner of 20 years, William Bory, died of complications of AIDS, a painful episode that Dr. Silverstein wrote about in his memoir, “For the Ferryman: A Personal Journey” (2011). His other books include “Man to Man: Gay Couples in America” (1981) and “Gays, Lesbians and Their Therapists” (1991).
Dr. Silverstein’s marriage to Bill Bartelt ended in divorce. He is survived by a son he recently adopted, Shahrukh Khalique, and a brother, Robert.
Dr. Silverstein reissued “For the Ferryman” last year. In a preface to the new edition, he noted the progress made on the issues that concerned him, but also cautioned about complacency.
“There are still religious groups that claim they can ‘cure’ us,” he wrote. “State legislatures often vote on bills to take away our rights, and make no mistake, most Americans would like to do just that.”
Most L.G.B.T.Q. groups, he said, had become service oriented, had acquired tax-exempt status and “have to keep their noses clean and eschew politics.”
“It has led to listlessness in the L.G.B.T. movement,” he wrote. “One wonders whether to call it a movement any longer.”