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Dr. Richard Isay, Psychologist, Psychiatrist, And Gay Pioneer, Dies At 77

Gazette2Dr. Richard Isay died of cancer on Thursday, according to the New York Times. He was 77. During his life, he affected a dramatic and lovely transformation: from a young, frightened, and closeted psychiatrist and psychologist; to a distinguished professional, married man, and father playing at heterosexuality; to an outspoken LGBT advocate and fierce proponent of equality in his change-resistant field.

Dr. Isay entered psychology when homosexuality was considered as a disorder, and that's how he treated his own orientation. He pursued therapy, was pronounced cured, and persisted with what his wife, Jane, would later call "half a marriage" for many years.

He came out to Jane in 1980, though the couple wouldn't dissolve their union for another nine years. (They told each other they stayed together "for the children.") Dr. Isay came out to his colleagues, too, which proved risky: Although the American Psychiatric Association had declassified homosexuality as an illness in 1973, American psychoanalysts still tended to view gayness as a psychic deformity. From the Times:

... Not only did some of his heterosexual colleagues attack his ideas, but they also stopped referring patients to him and suggested that he might need more therapy himself.

... In 1992, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, [Dr. Isay] threatened a lawsuit to force the association to promise not to discriminate against gay people. The group relented, issuing position statements that it would not discriminate in training, hiring or promoting analysts. It also formed committees to educate member institutions on its changed policies. Even so, some members still regarded homosexuality as something that therapy could change. But in 1997, the group became the first national mental health organization to support gay marriage.

The last people to whom Dr. Isay came out were his children, who he didn't tell about his orientation until he was preparing to separate from his wife and move in with his long-time lover, the artist Gordon Hassell. Having tended to that very personal business, in 1989 Dr. Isay became a fully public advocate, publishing Being Homosexual: Gay Men and Their Development, a book which challenged the entrenched homophobia in the psychoanalytic community. Later, Dr. Isay pub wrote Becoming Gay, about the dangers of the closet, and Commitment and Healing, a scholarly argument for romantic love. At the time of his death, Dr. Isay was a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, and a faculty member at the Colombia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

Last year, Dr. Isay's ex-wife published an essay in the Times, in which she recalled the night in 1980 when her husband told her he was gay:

When he came in, his face was grave. He sat down on the bed and said, “I have something I need to tell you.” He took a deep breath. “I’m homosexual.” At that moment I saw my future collapse before my eyes. I got the chills and ran to take a hot bath. It gave me time to think and warmed me, but not for long. We spent the night talking and lamenting. On the plane home, we held each other and sobbed and planned. By the time we landed, we had decided to keep his sexual orientation a secret and stay married for the sake of the children.

Those children are now grown. Last summer in Manhattan, Dr. Isay married Gordon Hassell in one of their living rooms. His grandkids served as flower girl and ring bearer.

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Isay. "Being Homosexual" was one of the most important books in my life.

    Posted by: Jeff NYC | Jun 30, 2012 10:46:00 AM

  2. what a loss to our community and anyone who cares about gay epople.

    his books are outstanding and i would highly recommend them.

    Posted by: t | Jun 30, 2012 10:47:15 AM

  3. Columbia University, of course, not "Colombia".

    Posted by: Bill | Jun 30, 2012 12:34:25 PM

  4. Dr Isay made an immeasurable contribution. Please note he was a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, not a psychologist. While not mutually exclusive, each requires separate training.
    The psychoanalytic community vilified Dr Isay but largely because of his work and the ongoing work of other psychoanalysts, gay and straight, modern psychoanalysis is essentially a gay-affirmative approach: a person's expression of his or her sexual orientation is open to non-judgmental exploration and it is anathema to psychoanalysis to attempt to change sexual orientation.

    Posted by: David | Jun 30, 2012 12:53:54 PM

  5. Ditto what JEFF NYC said.

    Posted by: JOE 2 | Jun 30, 2012 1:07:05 PM

  6. A brave man. His coming out so publicly helped us all.

    My thoughts are with his partner and his family.

    The gay community needs more sane, educated and brave men like him !

    Posted by: Icebloo | Jun 30, 2012 2:54:07 PM

  7. I don't think that anyone who has not faced the unjustified contempt of their co-workers and peers has any idea just how unpleasant, even disabling it can be. That some stay to fight (and live to win) is what heroism is and what must be done. Most retreat. Hide. Dissemble. Walk away. They have their reasons, and reason to be forgotten.

    But the awards and remembrances rightly go to people like Dr. Isay who choose instead to lower their heads and push past the scorn and ignorance making way for the rest of us. I am a grateful benefactor of this man's difficult journey which, I believe, is now crowned with the peace and relief which rewards those who have stayed the course and given meaning to the word progress.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Jul 1, 2012 8:09:16 AM

  8. For all his angst, suffering and ultimate transformation, it's unfortunate that gay marriage would become the focus of this generation. His marriage had the components of love and trust and was kept together to keep alive the illusion there, for others sake. Today it's misconceptions, selfishness and self entitlement spewing forth that we are calling gay life!

    Posted by: Harry | Jul 1, 2012 10:49:03 PM

  9. Harry: I think you have things backwards, and also suspect you are being disingenuous. (Is that you, Maggie Gallagher? Or maybe Peter LaBarbera?)

    "love and trust" is great, but I don't think illusions are anything to celebrate. Very, very few of us -- including oldies like myself -- pine for the sunlit days of lie-based opposite-sex sham marriages, and inequality.

    Posted by: MW | Jul 2, 2012 1:58:42 AM

  10. Probably aids related

    Posted by: bill | Apr 14, 2013 10:31:20 PM

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