'Cured': Film Review

Kay Tobin @Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library
Fascinating doc about doctors who took too long to heal themselves.

Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer's doc recounts the fight to change homophobic bias in the psychiatric profession.

Many documentaries have explored battles for gay liberation: There have been films about Stonewall, AIDS activism and the struggle for marriage equality. But Cured, which received its (virtual) premiere at this year’s Outfest, finds a fairly fresh slant that scintillates. In addition to facing widespread public bigotry, the gay liberation movement was inhibited by an unusual enemy, the American Psychiatric Association, which had long declared homosexuality to be a mental illness. It was not until the 1970s that a newly energized minority strove to change this diagnosis in order to ease the transition of gays and lesbians into the mainstream. Cured will eventually be shown on public television, and it has also been purchased for adaptation into a dramatic TV series.

The film provides many examples of how proscriptive psychiatric evaluation seeped into popular culture, with excerpts from interviews by Mike Wallace and David Susskind that reflected the negative stereotypes. To give another example, in its review of the 1962 British film Victim (one of the first to address the topic of homosexuality, with gay actor Dirk Bogarde starring as a closeted barrister), Time magazine wrote, “Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself.”

Although the topic of psychiatric bias against homosexuality may seem a bit arcane, it definitely had widespread implications, leading to coercive aversion therapy techniques that were commonplace in past decades and have not completely disappeared even today. Cured recalls that Freud himself was tolerant of homosexuality and did not consider it an illness. But many of his disciples disputed his views. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey also challenged prejudice by releasing studies that suggested gay fantasies and experiences were more widespread than previously acknowledged — a finding that was fiercely repudiated by the psychiatric establishment of the era. It was partly in response to Kinsey that the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), published in 1952, listed homosexuality as a mental disorder.

The gay liberation movement that exploded after the Stonewall riots eventually motivated activists to focus on the biases that existed within the psychiatric establishment. These activists began to disrupt psychiatric conventions in the early 1970s, and in December 1973 the APA board of directors finally voted to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic manual of mental illnesses.

But more conservative psychiatrists like Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber refused to surrender without a fight. They insisted on presenting the issue to the entire membership of the APA. In 1974, 58 percent of the membership voted with the board to remove the negative characterization. But with more than 40 percent of psychiatrists still agreeing with the earlier stigmatization, it took many more years for more liberated attitudes to reach into the larger American population.

The film does a thorough job of documentation, with several interviews of doctors and activists who were engaged in the battles within the APA. There are also a number of archival interviews with homophobic psychiatrists, including Dr. Socarides (whose son became a gay activist working for President Clinton). One of the most revealing of these past interviews is an excerpt from testimony by a closeted gay psychiatrist who appeared masked at the 1972 APA convention in Dallas and spoke about the prejudices that led him to keep his own identity secret.

There is also archival footage of Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist who was one of the first people to challenge the psychiatrists’ prejudice by conducting studies of gays and lesbians who seemed to have no greater psychopathology than heterosexuals. (Hooker’s studies were the subject of a 1992 documentary, Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker.)

Filmmakers Bennett Singer (whose credits include Brother Outsider, the story of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin) and Patrick Sammon (Codebreaker, a documentary about gay mathematician Alan Turing) managed to track down an impressive number of interviewees since beginning the film in 2015. Several of their subjects have since died, while others — including activists Don Kilhefner and Magora Kennedy and psychologists Charles Silverstein and Lawrence Hartmann — are still alive.

The film itself is sometimes a bit dry, with a few too many talking heads. But it recounts a fascinating part of history and definitely benefits from having so many vibrant and articulate participants to recall their part in a battle that did a great deal to change longstanding (and not yet extinct) prejudices.

Venue: Outfest
Directors-screenwriter-producers: Patrick Sammon, Bennett Singer
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Cole Rucker, Jeff Nalin, Andrew Tobias, Mel Heifetz
Archival producers: Mridu Chandra, Lewanne Jones
Director of photography: Sam Henriques
Editor: Steve Heffner
Music: Ian Honeyman
80 minutes