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Popular Topics in Social Sciences
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In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Richard Isay (1934-2012)
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/30/12
Last updated on: 07/02/12
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Psychiatrist and gay rights advocate Dr. Richard A. Isay died on June 28, 2012 in New York City. The cause of death was complications from cancer.

A native of Plattsburg, New York, Isay was born on December 13, 1934. He graduated from Haverford College and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, completed his residency in psychiatry at Yale, and trained at the Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute.

At the time of his death, Isay was professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and a faculty member at the Columbia University Center for Psychiatric Training and Research.

As Denise Grady reports in the New York Times, although Isay is now regarded as a pioneer in the struggle to change the way psychiatry regarded homosexuality, he did not come out until he was 40, married, and a father.

Early in his career, homosexuality was regarded as pathological and openly gay professionals were barred from training as analysts at institutions accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association, the oldest professional group for analysts in the United States and one of the most influential, with many training institutes and affiliated societies.

Dr. Isay himself underwent 10 years of therapy in an attempt to "cure" his homosexuality. In the early 1970s, soon after the analysis ended and he was supposedly "cured," he realized that in fact he was undeniably homosexual. He was also married and the father of two sons.

Even as he lived as a closeted gay man, however, he refused to attempt to "cure" gay patients, knowing that such attempts were futile and dangerous. Instead, he helped gay patients to accept themselves.

Isay also began arguing in professional journals and books that homosexuality was neither an illness nor a matter of arrested development, but a normal variation of human sexuality.

In 1980, he told his wife that he was gay, and he became more open about his sexuality in professional interactions. He and his wife decided to remain married for the sake of their two children. They divorced in 1989 when the children reached adulthood.

Although the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disease in 1973, many members of the American Psychoanalytic Association continued to regard it as an illness and the group continued to discriminate against openly gay analysts.

In 1992, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Isay threatened a lawsuit to force the American Psychoanalytic Association to end its discriminatory practices.

As a result, the association issued a series of statements pledging that it would not discriminate in training, hiring, or promoting analysts. It also formed committees to educate member institutions on its changed policies.

Perhaps the best known of Isay's books are Being Homosexual (1989), Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance (1997), and Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love (2006).

In 1979, Isay met artist Gordon Harrell, who would become his partner. They did not begin living together until 1989, after Isay and his wife divorced.

Isay and Harrell were married in 2011, at the home of Isay's son Josh.

He is survived by his husband Gordon Harrell, sons David and Joshua Isay, former wife Jane Franzblau, and four grandchildren.

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