Nov 21, 2018

UnErased: Dr. Davison and the Gay Cure

Today on Radiolab, we're playing part of a series that Jad worked on called UnErased: The history of conversion therapy in America.

The episode we're playing today, the third in the series, is one of the rarest stories of all: a man who publicly experiences a profound change of heart. This is a profile of one of the gods of psychotherapy, who through a reckoning with his own work (oddly enough in the pages of Playboy magazine), becomes the first domino to fall in science’s ultimate disowning of the “gay cure.”

UnErased is a series with Focus Features, Stitcher and Limina House in conjunction with the feature film, BOY ERASED. Special thanks go out to the folks at Anonymous Content for their support of UnErased. 

If you want to hear the whole series, you can find UnErased in all the usual podcast places. 
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ROBERT KRULWICH: Woken from a long and desperate slumber, Robert Krulwich opens his left eye then his right, alerted to the presence of Jad Abumrad


JAD ABUMRAD: Hey Robert, over here


ROBERT KRULWICH: How you doing? OK. That’s you.


JAD ABUMRAD: I have a thing I would like to share with you, and then by extension, the people out there


ROBERT KRULWICH: What would you like to share, something you’ve been mulling?


JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, so I recently completed, sort of a mini series in conjunction with a film that’s now out in the world called Boy, Erased, for a project that we called UnErased


ROBERT KRULWICH: Which people can hear


JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. We put it out, four episodes. It’s out there in the world, in the wild, on ITunes, Spotify, all the places. And I want to play you one of the four today because I think it’s--I think--


ROBERT KRULWICH: I think in all honesty I probably should say I’ve heard them, as it happens




ROBERT KRULWICH: Here’s the thing that sort happened--that I found just about the third one of those, that’s our first one. Here’s a really important moment in American history, I guess you’d have to say, in America’s cultural history.




ROBERT KRULWICH: And it almost feels like a single individual walks into one room and says something startling to a group of very important people because of an accidental moment that he just happened to be over here a talk and his colleague comes to him -- so by a crazy quilt of serendipity, enormous changes come. Now this may be oversimplifying it, and I’m sure there’s a lot else going on deeper and shallower rhythms, but the changes come almost by accident. Because someone misses a train.


JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, yeah. That’s a pretty good tease




JAD ABUMRAD: There you go, OK. So can we play it?


ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah. Let’s play it.


JAD ABUMRAD: This is UnErased a new podcast that reveals the hidden history of conversion therapy in America. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Episode 3. Let's start this episode by talking about one of the great successes in psychology.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: If you're living with a mental health problem, it can be hard

to know which way to turn or what to do to feel better.


JAD ABUMRAD: It's called CBT.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Cognitive behavioral therapy.


JAD ABUMRAD: You hear about it sometimes in the news around treatments for PTSD. Like suppose a soldier is being triggered by a loud sound. Well what the therapists will sometimes do is take that same sound, play it for the person over and over, but under less and less stressful circumstances. Until gradually over time, the sound gets less stressful


TAPE ARCHIVAL: CBT focuses on goals and focuses mostly on the present day. And

things that are affecting you and your life now.


JAD ABUMRAD: These kind of techniques can help people with gambling addiction stop gambling. People who smoke stop smoking. It is a hugely important wave in psychotherapy. It's often called the second wave. Freud was the first. This is the second. And what follows is a story about one of the grand pubahs of this second wave and a grand awakening that he had. It kind of blew up the world. Okay maybe that's overstating it. But no. I don’t know. I don’t know


SHIMA OLIAEE: So start from all you know about Gerry.


DAVID TEISLER: So Gerry is a god.


JAD ABUMRAD: Case in point this guy. This is David Teisler. We bumped into him digging through some archives at the Association for behavior and cognitive therapy central office. My colleague Shima Oliaee and him were hunting around for some tapes while they were, he sort of offhandedly mentioned it. Yeah. Gerry Oh he's he's trained practically everybody in the field.


DAVID TEISLER: We have this thing called-- There's this river tree and it

basically plots the several different people from whom almost every single. Contemporary psychologist. Came from.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Gerry's one of the six.


DAVID TEISLER: He's a god because how many people owe their careers to him.


JAD ABUMRAD: You might call him one of the six cardinal bishops of contemporary psychology.


GERRY DAVISON: [LAUGHING] My name is Sigmund Freud. [LAUGHS]




GERRY DAVISON: It’s Gerald G E R A L D, middle initial C, last name Davison, D A V I S O N. Professor of Psychology, University of Southern California.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry grew up in the 1940s.


GERRY DAVISON: Orthodox Jewish household.


JAD ABUMRAD: Playing stickball in the streets of Boston at a time when the streets were empty because of the war


GERRY DAVISON: I was a good little boy and didn't get into trouble and you know.


JAD ABUMRAD: Says he was kind of a quiet kid.


GERRY DAVISON: I wasn't a particularly cheerful child. I would say.


JAD ABUMRAD: Analytical, watchful. Anyhow Gerry eventually finds himself one day working.


GERRY DAVISON: At a ham factory.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Wonderfully different


JAD ABUMRAD: In a ham and--


GERRY DAVISON: Like ham and eggs.




JAD ABUMRAD: A kind of a weird place for a Jewish kid to be there he was.


GERRY DAVISON: So I had a job in the graveyard shift that would start like at midnight and go until 8:00a.m.


JAD ABUMRAD: One day he is at the Ham factory maybe on his way to the Ham factory, bored.


GERRY DAVISON: What was there to do, so I was reading. Somehow I settled on Freud's introductory lectures at Clark University that he gave in the early twentieth century.


JAD ABUMRAD: So he's reading Freud in the ham factory, reading Freud's lectures, and something about it hooks him. But also horrifies him.


GERRY DAVISON: This book made a profound impact on me.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: (Recording of Sigmund Freud)


JAD ABUMRAD: OK so this is Freud that you're hearing right now, don't what the hell he's saying. Apparently this is the only recording of him that exists.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: (The unconscious).


JAD ABUMRAD: He’s talking about the unconscious. You can kind of make that word out. And Gerry says the whole idea that you could peel back the layers of a human psyche.


GERRY DAVISON: It was absolutely almost voyeuristically fascinating.


JAD ABUMRAD: At the same time, he says, he felt like some of the things Freud was saying.




JAD ABUMRAD: Was just kind of weird.


GERRY DAVISON: How can Freud say, if you dream of a train going into a tunnel, you're

really dreaming of having sex with your mother.




JAD ABUMRAD: Anyhow something about the book both intrigued and enraged him enough that he goes to Stanford and then Stoneybrook and to make a long story short ends up standing at exactly the right place where many streams converge to create the first real up ending of Freud. The behavioural therapy revolution. Previously it had been all about dreams and the subconscious. Now it was scientific. It was about experiments and you know the basic question.


GERRY DAVISON: How do you sit with a suffering human being.


JAD ABUMRAD: And help them.


GERRY DAVISON: How do you make someone happy or less anxious little depressed.


JAD ABUMRAD: Do you remember the first patients you started seeing?


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah they were those so-called YAVIS you know, YAVIS. Y A V I S. It's another acronym called young young--I don’t know what the A stands for. Able or attractive.




GERRY DAVISON: The YAVIS patient is the patient who--


JAD ABUMRAD: Hold on we're looking it up for you.




JAD ABUMRAD: It is a term psychotherapists use to describe the--  young attractive verbal intelligent and successful.


GERRY DAVISON: That's it. You got it.


JAD ABUMRAD: So you know early on he says he saw a lot of people who were your classic.


GERRY DAVISON: Garden variety neurotics, which is not a very complimentary term,



JAD ABUMRAD: He says that is what they used to call him. But the whole reason we're telling you this story is that in that initial batch of patients, Gerry says, he began to see like fairly frequently these young men walk in. They were mostly young men, who complained that they were sexually attracted to other men. And they really wished they weren't.


GERRY DAVISON: That's right.


JAD ABUMRAD: He says he can't remember how many exactly walked in. Maybe somewhere between four and a dozen.


GERRY DAVISON: I'm trying to think of. They were-- they all came and I supervised some cases and the trainee clinic at Stony Brook. They all came because they weren’t happy and they wanted to change.


JAD ABUMRAD: They wanted you to turn them from gay to straight.


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah yeah and not wanting to you know impose my heterosexual values on them, some would say my heterosexist values on them, I would check it out with them.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: Can you tell me a little bit about what your living situation is like your social life and whatnot, your friends and that sort of thing. We’ve got an apartment off campus. I live with--I live by myself.


GERRY DAVISON: And in fact the film


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: Did you live by yourself last year too?


GERRY DAVISON: Where I really roleplayed myself, I wasn't acting, but we did have a graduate student play the role of a troubled homosexual young man who wanted to change. You'll see in that film a pretty reasonable rendition.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: Have you ever previously been to a therapist? No. Have you ever the thought of going before? Yeah.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry says the film that he made, which you’re hearing, is sort of a composite of all the cases that he saw of this kind. And what you see in the film is him in a suit sitting in one chair a couple of feet away from him as a young man with big 70s hair, about the same age.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: I was kind of having trouble.


JAD ABUMRAD: And the guy explains that he--




JAD ABUMRAD: That he's having trouble concentrating.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSIONS: Yeah I'm having a lot of trouble getting down to work. It turned out that he was recently frightened by an intensification of his long standing attraction to men.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry says initially he had no idea what to do with these cases.


GERRY DAVISON: They were anxious, very depressed. These were folks who the kind of people who could you know commit suicide.


JAD ABUMRAD: He says he felt like he just had to help.


GERRY DAVISON: That's what I was taught. That's what I was taught.


JAD ABUMRAD: And so in the film.


GERRY DAVISON: You know after maybe I don't know 15 minutes.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry says to the guy.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: I'd like to outline for you a procedure.


JAD ABUMRAD: Now before we actually get into that procedure just a little bit of context is necessary.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: I know that inside now I'm sick - I'm not sick just sexually. I'm sick in a lot of ways.


JAD ABUMRAD: It's time Gerry was not the only therapist in the situation. There were a lot of therapists all around the country trying to quote help their gay patients.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: Homosexuality is in fact a mental illness. Anything that we can do to prevent future generations from suffering this affliction must be done.


GERRY DAVISON: The overall approach certainly did not start with me. There were other people who were doing what was called behavior therapy with gays. Most of it was aversion therapy.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: Terrible foul stench comes from his body. The odor is so strong.


GERRY DAVISON: Which was applying electric shocks when they saw pictures of same sex people. Or making them nauseated with injections.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: We vomit again and again all over everything.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry remembers one of the leading aversion therapists coming to Stoney Brook where he was training at the time to give a lecture. And the guy showed 16 millimeter films of how it was done.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, THERAPY SESSION: The researcher shows an attractive slide of a

male on the screen


JAD ABUMRAD: The film showed researchers hooking up gay men to electrodes.


GERRY DAVISON: To their fingers or their forearms.


JAD ABUMRAD: Show them pictures of men.




TAPE ARCHIVAL: If the patient fails to shut it off you get a physical shock.


JAD ABUMRAD: And they would shock them.


GERRY DAVISON: Hurting them inflicting physical pain.


JAD ABUMRAD: They’d then show him another slide of a naked gay man, do it again.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: So he comes to associate the male slide with anxiety and pain.


GERRY DAVISON: This bothered me just personally. This had this-- it bought the idea of of intentionally inflicting physical pain on other people. I just worried about it. It was cringeworthy.


JAD ABUMRAD: Interestingly Gerry doesn't fault the researchers who administered those shocks.


GERRY DAVISON: Picture it. They were like dentists before novocaine. You know, pulling a tooth, I'm old enough to remember what going to the dentist was like to get a filling or getting a tooth pulled before there was novocaine.


JAD ABUMRAD: Is that the right analogy though? I mean if your tooth hurts you need to

have it pulled. Here you don't need to have your homosexuality pulled out of you.


GERRY DAVISON: You may not think so but if you're gay in the 1960s.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Most Americans are repelled by the notion of homosexuality.


GERRY DAVISON: And you're being haunted and discriminated against.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: A CBS News survey shows that two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort, or fear


GERRY DAVISON: And being told that you're an evil person and you're disgusting.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: These people need help.


GERRY DAVISON: And so what Feldman was trying to do


JAD ABUMRAD: Feldman was a leading aversion therapist. He was the guy that showed that film.

GERRY DAVISON: He was doing the best that he could given what was available knowledge.


JAD ABUMRAD: You said they were just trying to help the patient.


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah yeah that's why I don't demonize him.


JAD ABUMRAD: In any case as Gerry is sitting there in the back of the room watching this guy Feldman show this film of people being tortured, he says he just kept thinking, geeze. Do we have to do it this way?


GERRY DAVISON: But People were saying well but it works. And that's what the literature was telling us. But I was thinking, Well are there other ways to do it.


JAD ABUMRAD: And so what Gerry decided to do was take the basic idea of aversion therapy and flip it.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: So what am I supposed to do now? I’m supposed to-- Well I'd like you to follow me if you can, what I want to say now.


JAD ABUMRAD: And this is what you see in the film. He basically tells the patient here's what I want you do. Grab a copy of Playboy magazine.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: You probably get a hold of the copy of playboy without too much trouble, you know at a newsstand or something


JAD ABUMRAD: You know. Go to the newsstand, get a copy.


GERRY DAVISON: Playboy was what I thought of as a source of material of attractive women.


JAD ABUMRAD: Then he says when you get back home.


GERRY DAVISON: Get yourself aroused to whatever you're accustomed to.


JAD ABUMRAD: Think about a man. Think about his body.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: You start masturbating with your homosexual image. Now that comes to a point


JAD ABUMRAD: You know the inevitable point.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: At that point of inevitability switch over to the female picture, have your climax, OK. And, you know--


JAD ABUMRAD: The basic idea was instead of shocking people into hating their gay thoughts he would gently encourage them to take their positive gay thoughts and map them onto a different body.


GERRY DAVISON: In fact, I think the technical term was orgasmic reorientation.


JAD ABUMRAD: And in the video apparently it seems to work. In the video Gerry checks in with him about ten times and the guy tells him at first it was really hard for him to finish the deed while looking at female pictures. But then it got easier and easier until finally after about ten of these sessions


TAPE ARCHIVAL: I really feel like I'm really getting into it now. What happened was every time I masturbated, now I can go straight through without any trouble, you know-- You like --you like what’s happening. I think the thing I like most is I now see some direction. I feel myself moving toward something as opposed to not knowing which way I was going to go, and I think that's a good feeling.


JAD ABUMRAD: Okay setting aside for a moment the question of whether this therapy actually worked. I think you can guess the answer to that, and it is not the point of the story.  What happens next is that this therapy takes on a very surprising and of its own. And that’s after the break.




JAD ABUMRAD: I’m Jad Abumrad, UnErased






ROBERT KRULWICH: Will continue in just a moment




JAD ABUMRAD: I’m Jad Abumrad


ROBERT KRULWICH: I’m Robert Krulwich


JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab. Today we’re listening to a story from a series I produce called Unerased. Let’s get back now to the the story of Dr. Gerry Davison and the Gay Cure. It is 1966, 67. Gerry has pioneered this new kind of conversion therapy called orgasmic reorientation, he has made a video about it. Shortly after making this video Gerry found himself reading the very magazine implicated in his therapy.


GERRY DAVISON: Naturally reading it just for the articles as they say.


JAD ABUMRAD: As they say.


GERRY DAVISON: And I was reading the playboy forum


JAD ABUMRAD: That’s the section in the magazine where readers write letters, talk about stuff, voice concerns


GERRY DAVISON: And in the forum, this would have been around 1966 or 67, there were people writing in troubled by their homosexuality.


JAD ABUMRAD: Here’s one we found. "When I was in the hospital the doctor told me there were very few cures for cases like mine and that I should try to adjust my condition."


GERRY DAVISON: Well being a card carrying behavior therapist, I wrote a letter.




JAD ABUMRAD: You wrote a letter to Playboy.


GERRY DAVISON: Crazy isn't it? and I said, actually there are new procedures for helping gay men become less gay. It comes from behavior therapy and I don't know what else I wrote. Well, they they they printed it.


JAD ABUMRAD: What ensued in the Playboy forum over the course of many issues, many years in fact, was a vigorous back and forth. Gerry's letter prompts a series of other letters some positive, some negative. One in particular which calls out aversion therapy as this cruel thing which then causes one of the world's leading aversion therapists, a guy by the my name is David Barlow to jump in and defend himself. He writes, “Our procedures are not torturous or the inquisition, rather methods derived from experimental laboratories and carefully applied to consenting human beings to relieve some suffering.” That letter prompts a famous gay activist, Frank Kameny, to jump in with his own response. He writes, “I find the August playboy forum letter from David H. Barlow offensive and illustrative, not only of the failures of psychology and psychiatry in their approach to homosexuality, but also of the dangers in the form of human engineering.” Here's a weird fact, Kameny’s letter was titled Gay Is Good, and just a few years later, post Stonewall.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Gay is good. Gay is good.


JAD ABUMRAD: That phrase


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Gay is proud. Gay is proud.


JAD ABUMRAD: Would become the slogan of the entire gay rights movement. And this was maybe the first time that that phrase was used. In the pages of Playboy.


JAMES PETERSON: Everyone raves about how interactive the Internet is. People forget

how interactive Playboy magazine was.


JAD ABUMRAD: OK so this is a little bit of a digression, but I think it's one so worth taking. That's James Peterson.


JAMES PETERSON: I was senior staff writer slash senior editor for Playboy magazine.


JAD ABUMRAD:He worked at Playboy from 1973 to 2003. He's sort of the institutional memory of the old playboy, last man standing kind of.




JAD ABUMRAD: James reminded me-- actually, the truth is I never even knew this to begin with, that Hugh Hefner's intent with Playboy wasn't just to show naked ladies. He had a whole philosophy that he actually spelled out in great detail.


JAMES PETERSON: I call it the term paper that changed America. When Hefner was an

undergraduate the first Kinsey Report on male sexuality came out.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: This research has been possible because some people have cooperated.


JAMES PETERSON: And it was a bolt from the blue. It changed Hefner's life. It came out I think 1948. And it described a range of male sexuality without judgment. Kinsey described males on a range of one to five, from strictly heterosexual to strictly homosexual. But in the middle were something like 35 percent of American men had had a homosexual experience in their adolescence or early adulthood. So the straight jacket was released. And what struck Hefner.


HUGH HEFNER: This to me is the value of Kinsey indicated for the first time statistically  the great disparity.


JAMES PETERSON: Was this dissonance.


HUGH HEFNER: That existed between our professed beliefs and the actual actions of



JAMES PETERSON: Between sex laws versus what people were actually doing.


HUGH HEFNER: This is one good reason for questioning some of the old morality.


JAD ABUMRAD: And so when Hefner started Playboy along with the magazine and playmates and along with all of the televised parties from the Playboy mansion.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: We’re glad you're here too


JAD ABUMRAD:] Along with all that, James says he wrote this constant stream of essays.


JAMES PETERSON: Monthly installments.


JAD ABUMRAD: One essay a month for two years. Like really long essays.


JAMES PETERSON: On capitalism, religion. Essays on the history of sex.


JAD ABUMRAD: Collectively became known as the Playboy philosophy.


HUGH HEFNER: The philosophy really I think is an anti puritanism.


JAD ABUMRAD: And James says behind the scenes.


JAMES PETERSON:Through the Playboy Foundation we were funding court cases that advanced gay rights, abortion rights, birth control rights.


JAD ABUMRAD: And James says the playboy forum was part of that whole initiative. Right after he finished that two year sort of chain of essays, Hefner then created that space in the front of the magazine.


JAMES PETERSON: For people who had nowhere else to turn.


JAD ABUMRAD: And it was in that space where you had some of the first open discussions of homosexuality in America, ever.


JAMES PETERSON: And I said you know it's-- you look back the sexual revolution happened on the newsstand.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Testing. Testing. 1 2 3 5 6 7 8.


JAD ABUMRAD: OK, back to Gerry’s story


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Recording of a workshop by Gerald C. Davison October 6, 1972 New

York Hilton.


JAD ABUMRAD: Playboy letter-- episode aside Gerry continue to push his playboy therapy and in fact he says among therapists, the technique kind of started to blow up. And in 72, he ends up getting invited to give a workshop.




JAD ABUMRAD: A yearly convention.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Present to you some ideas and data and whatnot from our point of view as we have been working with homosexuals.


JAD ABUMRAD: We're going to skip over the actual specifics of that workshop.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Well I think it's clear that we have solved all the problems that this field has.


JAD ABUMRAD: Because what's more consequential.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Thank you this was enjoyable for me. [APPLAUSE]


JAD ABUMRAD: Is what happens after the panel. Gerry is hanging out, waiting for the room to clear and this young young man walks up to him.


GERRY DAVISON: Chubby. He was a little chubby, about my age.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry was 33 at the time.


GERRY DAVISON: Very pleasant, very friendly, lot of smiles. I don't recall if he had any--a beard. He came up to me and introduced himself as a graduate student at Rutgers.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he said you know I heard your talk. I thought it was interesting. I'm actually giving a talk myself the next day. Do you mind if I hand out some flyers for it?


GERRY DAVISON: And I said I don't mind at all, of course.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: The decision was made to attack what we called the gatekeepers of American attitudes.


JAD ABUMRAD: This is Charles Silverstein. He was that young therapist in training with the flyer. Unbeknownst to Gerry he was gay, and was part of a growing movement of activists that were targeting people like Gerry.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: You have to understand that the behaviourists have a different point of view.


JAD ABUMRAD: Unlike the Freudian weirdos they were scientists.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: I would say many of them were.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he says the public trusted the behavior therapists. They had a lot of sway over public opinion, so they could convince Gerry and his colleagues that homosexuality was not something that needed to be cured, maybe the public would go along. But the question was How do you do that? How do you make the case?


TAPE ARCHIVAL: Now, if you would like a dialogue to begin, let it begin now.


JAD ABUMRAD: This was around the time when gay activists would start zapping meetings where they'd basically go to a conference where therapists were meeting, storm an event, grab the mic, and just take over.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: We want to deal with people -- And we want a change. They’re

wanting to burn our brains out


JAD ABUMRAD: Charlie's sense was that this gonzo approach was not going to convince the people that needed convincing, like Gerry. And so when he approached Gerry after that workshop.


GERRY DAVISON: Very polite and friendly.


JAD ABUMRAD: Simply handed him a flyer said hey me and a few folks are doing a thing, come by. Charlie says he just had a sense.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: His heart was in the right place.


JAD ABUMRAD: So he thought maybe you'll take a different approach with this guy.


GERRY DAVISON: I looked-- I remember looking at the flyer and seeing oh it’s those radical gay activists, all these troublemakers. I mean I'd been called in my career I’ve been called a Nazi and a fascist. So I remember looking at the flyer saying to myself well there's no way I'm going to go to this.


JAD ABUMRAD: So he shoved the flyer in his pocket.


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah I wasn't interested.


JAD ABUMRAD: Went off to the next panel. The following day, the final day of the conference.


GERRY DAVISON: Sunday morning checked out of the hotel. And I was on my way to leave for Penn Station to go back out to Stony Brook.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he says on his way out he kept bumping into colleagues who were like hey great workshop. Love your Playboy therapy thing. And so he'd stop and chat.


GERRY DAVISON: And at one point I looked at my watch.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he realized - damn it!


GERRY DAVISON: I could not make it down to Penn Station.


JAD ABUMRAD: He was going to miss the train.


GERRY DAVISON: And I thought oh the next train doesn't leave, you know, three hours later.


JAD ABUMRAD: Suddenly had some time to kill and for whatever reason the thought pops into his head.




JAD ABUMRAD: That kid from Rutgers with the flyer.


GERRY DAVISON: Maybe I'll go to--  I pulled out the the flyer he gave me. I hadn't thrown it away. And I found the room, and I went to the room and it was a madhouse.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: So the room was electric, in the sense that it was absolutely packed.


JAD ABUMRAD: Charlie and two other gay therapist were on stage. There were maybe a few hundred people in the audience.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: Although it may seem incredible to you, they had never heard a gay person speak at a convention.


JAD ABUMRAD: I mean maybe they’d seen gay people interrupt the convention but never take part.


JAD ABUMRAD: So in my Hollywood imagination of this moment, people are shouting, they're waving--




JAD ABUMRAD: Charlie says this time he worked very hard to keep it profesh, respectful.


JAD ABUMRAD: OK. So it's so it's it's cordial but fierce.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: I was at the top of my form.


JAD ABUMRAD: When it came time for him to speak, Charlie says he took aim at that idea he'd heard people like Gerry repeat over and over again.


GERRY DAVISON: I only work with people who want to change. So what's the what's the big deal.


JAD ABUMRAD: That idea. Here's what he said that day. We asked them to read the remarks.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: The discussion of male homosexuality. To suggest that a person comes voluntarily to change his sexual orientation is to ignore the powerful environmental stress, oppression if you will, that has been telling him for years that he should change. To grow up in a family where the word homosexual was whispered, to play in the playground and hear the words faggot and queer, to go to church and hear of sin, and then to college and hear of illness, and finally to the counseling center that promises to cure, is hardly to create an environment of freedom and voluntary choice. What brings them into the counseling center is guilt, shame, and the loneliness that comes from their secret. If you really wish to help them freely choose, I suggest you first desensitize them to their guilt. After that let them choose. But not before. I don't know any more than you what would happen, but I think their choice would be more voluntary and free than it is at present. Yes those are my words.


JAD ABUMRAD: Do you remember how those words hit you?


GERRY DAVISON: It affected me very deeply. Affected me very deeply.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry says he went to Penn Station, with Charlie's speech


TAPE ARCHIVAL, CHARLIE SILVERSTEIN: What brings them to the counseling center

is guilt, shame--


JAD ABUMRAD: Echoing in his mind.


TAPE ARCHIVAL: 5:45 depart --


JAD ABUMRAD: Says He got on the train back to Stony Brook. Sat there staring out the window at the scenery.


GERRY DAVISON: Thinking. Thinking.So I was running through the whole talk is action in my head


ARCHIVAL TAPE, CHARLIE SILVERSTEIN: And to feel comfortable with their sexuality.

After that let them choose but not before.


JAD ABUMRAD: He says by the time he got to Stony Brook he felt something change in him.


GERRY DAVISON: I went to school the following day. I know I began to talk to people about what I had just heard at the convention and how it’s gotten me to thinking.


JAD ABUMRAD: He says he was teaching a series of undergraduate classes at that time and he would get up in front of those classes and for the first time think, what if some of these students are in the closet?


GERRY DAVISON: Talking to people mulling things over talking to students. I began to think of what I've been doing was absolutely wrong.


JAD ABUMRAD: Meanwhile his film on the Playboy therapy was still making the rounds, still gaining converts.


GERRY DAVISON: Oh yeah people love the film. The film had been out for a year already, and by the time the film began to be shown, I was already wishing that it wasn't being shown. But I had no control over it.


JAD ABUMRAD: 1973, a couple of months after that convention, Gerry gets nominated as the president of the AABT, the gigantic organization that had thrown the conference he’d just attended. He becomes one of the youngest presidents ever. And the following year he was due to give the presidential address. This is where things come to a head. The conference that year was held in Chicago.


GERRY DAVISON: It came at a time of great fervor and foment


JAD ABUMRAD: He says in the days and months leading up to the conference.


GERRY DAVISON: People on the radical left were calling us fascists and Nazis. And

they were publishing circulars with their home addresses.


JAD ABUMRAD: Someone published your home address?


GERRY DAVISON: [00:29:02] Absolutely. We had to-- I was president of the association at the time. I remember we all had walkie talkies. And we hired plainclothes people and Chicago police because we were that afraid of violence.


JAD ABUMRAD: Set the scene. When you give the speech how big is the room?


GERRY DAVISON: Big big room. Big Ballroom.


JAD ABUMRAD: A couple hundred people?


GERRY DAVISON: A thousand.


JAD ABUMRAD: And these are all therapists?




JAD ABUMRAD: And how are you feeling before the speech?


GERRY DAVISON: Very nervous, terrified. But--


JAD ABUMRAD: He says before the talk he'd actually met Charlie in a diner and told him about the speech he was going to make.


GERRY DAVISON: I remember him saying you know that your reputation may suffer.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: You have to remember that in those days, if you said

something positive about a homosexual, people would suspect you.


GERRY DAVISON: People may think that you're gay.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: Oh he must be gay. That's why he's saying that.


GERRY DAVISON: He warned me. He warned me.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: [APPLAUSE] Colleagues and my friends, I want to make plain if not perfectly clear, that I am speaking only for myself on an ethical issue that impinges importantly on our therapy enterprise.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry began the talk by telling the audience.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: I wish today to voice some concerns I had been wrestling with for over three years.


JAD ABUMRAD: That he's troubled.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Surrounding the way behavior therapists and for that matter there are all other therapists have been approaching homosexuality.


JAD ABUMRAD:That he like a lot of the therapists in the audience have been approached by clients, gay men mostly who want their help to be made straight.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Those people who relate to us that they are troubled by their homosexual behavior or feelings.


JAD ABUMRAD: But then he asks Silverstein's question, what does it actually mean to help these people?


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: As Silverstein put it at the AABT convention two years ago in a discussion of male homosexuality, and let me quote again


CHARLES & GERRY: To suggest that a person comes voluntarily to change his sexual orientation is through this to ignore the powerful environmental stress, oppression if you will, that has been telling him for years that he should change to grow up into the family where the word homosexual was whispered--


JAD ABUMRAD: He quoted you in that speech.




JAD ABUMRAD: What was that like?


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: I was quite pleased.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Continuing the quote from Silverstein


GERRY & CHARLIE: What brings them into the counseling center is guilt, shame, and

the loneliness that comes from their secret.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON:In other words Silverstein's suggests that we must go back in the causal network and ask ourselves as determinists what are the determinants of the client asserting to you that he or she wants to change.


JAD ABUMRAD: Gerry then delivers this simple point which is that the problem that these people are asking us to solve, is a problem we created. That we labeled as a problem. And so.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: Even if we could affect certain changes there is

still the more important question of whether we should. I believe we should not.


JAD ABUMRAD: To us now, or to many of us now, that may sound like kind of a simple, easy, obvious thing to say.


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: But that was an extraordinary statement. You see everybody

else was arguing that the attempts to change sexual orientation ended in failure. That was not what he did. He did something quite different. He said in that speech, it makes no difference how successful the treatment is. It is immoral.


JAD ABUMRAD: Charlie says he was the first person to say that


CHARLES SILVERSTEIN: To ever say that trying to change sexual orientation was an immoral thing to do.


JAD ABUMRAD: And that's not a trivial thing. I mean you could see this moment in a way as one of the early tremors of a tectonic shift in, not just therapy but all of science. Like science to that point, it concerned itself with objectivity. That was all that mattered. We stand apart from the world and we examine it as it is, objectively. But that from this moment forward would start to be questioned all over the place, even in places like mental illness. You know you look at history, you see that some diseases come and go. Why would that be? Well people would begin to argue that even mental illnesses are social constructs created by the society, by the people who study them. What Gerry was doing here, he was shifting the language. He was saying, forget objectivity, forget bullshit empiricism. Let's talk about ethics. Let's talk about morality. We shouldn't do this not because it doesn't work -- which it doesn't -- but because it's wrong.


TAPE ARCHIVAL, GERRY DAVISON: I hope and I recommend that we continue to

devote the necessary energy to the important challenges. Thank you.


JAD ABUMRAD: You write about that moment like as you were talking about how like the air felt in that moment. You write, “friends commented afterwards that one gets that kind of silence when everyone in a room full of 1000 people stops breathing at the same time.”


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah yeah exactly right. I remember that. I just remember that you know like what are they going to do when I say this. And it turned out, that what they were doing was holding their breath.




JAD ABUMRAD: They do eventually clap. But afterwards Gerry says, at the reception, he walked in and it was like parting the Red Seas. Nobody wanted to talk to him.


GERRY DAVISON: They're all looking at me. And I remember one person, I will not name him, he came over to me and shook my hand. Then he bent over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Well did you like that?”


JAD ABUMRAD: Oh like he was making a point to say you must be gay because you said those things.


GERRY DAVISON: Yeah. And I said I said screw you.


JAD ABUMRAD: So it took a while to get the peeps on board. But they did start to come around and get on the right side of history. And it's not a straight line by any means, but there is a line that you can draw between Charlie's words coming out of Gerry's mouth and the Epically Huge decision that the psychiatric community as a whole would make to remove homosexuality as a mental illness from the DSM, that big bible of mental illnesses. Gerry’s speech happened right at that beginning, when science was just about to wash its hands of the whole idea of a gay cure. And what's interesting, I find just one final thought, you could read this entire story as a sort of prelude. Psychotherapists were basically ready to say that homosexuality was not an illness by about 1986. That is precisely the time when the Christian community walked in and grabbed the baton.


JOHN SMID: The scientific communities were accepting homosexuality, and they were saying that it’s not a disorder anymore. They were removing it from the DSM-3, which is why we need to do what we’re doing. Because Christians have to fight the battle. Christians have to fight this battle of homosexual sin, because the professional counselling community won’t do it anymore.


JAD ABUMRAD: So it was very explicit in your mindset


JOHN: SMID: Oh yeah


JAD ABUMRAD: That, that story is a story that you hear in the next episode of Unerased, which I think we might also play on Radiolab.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I hope so, because all of a sudden instead of talking to data, instead of talking to genes or instead of talking to chemicals, now you’re talking to either God or your parents or your teachers or your society or to pressures that are all around you. And it gets really, really lonely and really, really tough