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Socarides, Richard (b. 1954)  
 
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As an advisor for President Clinton, Richard Socarides was the first openly gay man to serve in a prominent White House staff position. As the son of psychoanalyst Charles Socarides, who based much of his practice on "curing" homosexuals through so-called "reparative therapy," he also personifies the rift in psychiatric theory and practice regarding gay people that took place in the 1970s.

Richard was the first son of the elder Socarides' four marriages. While his father was championing his theory of homosexuality as a pathology caused by an emotionally "smothering" mother and a distant father, Richard was contending with his own attractions toward males, which were evident to him by ninth grade.

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In a 1999 interview in the Washington Post the younger Socarides recalled how he learned to compartmentalize his romantic relationship with a classmate, which he described as "exhilarating and terrifying," apart from his father's mind-set. He vowed that he would not let his father's work "jeopardize my life."

Sins of the Father

Charles Socarides was not only a psychiatrist who specialized in "converting" homosexuals to heterosexuals, but he also became one of the most vocal opponents of the American Psychiatric Association's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

A rabid critic of the glbtq movement for equality just as his son was coming to grips with his life as a young gay man, the elder Socarides insisted that, using techniques such as aversion therapy, he "cured" thousands of patients, though the evidence for such "cures" was entirely anecdotal.

After the APA's decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, Socarides helped found the North American Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a chief sponsor of "reparative therapy," a practice that the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association recently described as dangerously misguided. The trustees asserted that "the potential risks of 'reparative therapy' are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since the therapist's alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."

When the elder Socarides died on December 25, 2005, anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center in San Francisco, spoke for many gay men and lesbians when he remarked that "[Charles] Socarides outlived his time. He became a kind of anachronism, and a tragic one in the sense that he continued to inflict suffering on the lives of some gay and lesbian individuals and the L.G.B.T. community in general."

Education and Apprenticeship

Despite his championing of the "sickness theory" of homosexuality, which later endeared him to the religious right, the elder Socarides in the 1960s held liberal political views that Richard also adopted. During his student years, Richard supported John Lindsay's mayoral campaign in 1965 and worked for Eugene McCarthy's presidential bid in 1968.

To avoid bringing visibility to his personal life Socarides turned from politics toward law, receiving degrees from Antioch College in 1976 and Hofstra Law School in 1979. He joined Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Lehrer, a prominent Wall Street firm, where he became a partner and remained until 1991.

By 1986 Socarides decided to come out to his father. Charles' initial anger cooled over the next several months to the point where his correspondence to Richard indicated a qualified acceptance of the news. Ironically, in the father's eyes their family dynamics only reinforced his theory of dysfunction. He had divorced his first wife when Richard was six and attributed his son's gayness to the strain of that separation. Father and son maintained a respectful but uneasy connection until Charles' death.

By the time he came out, Socarides had begun reevaluating his career in the light of his earlier interests. His sister's illness from cancer around this time (and eventual death) spurred a further assessment of his life goals.

Socarides renewed his activism through the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

He also became a campaign manager in New York legislative politics and worked briefly with Geraldine Ferraro's ill-fated campaign for the United States Senate. In the early 1990s he championed Senator Tom Harkin's run for the presidency, but soon signed on with the Clinton/Gore campaign after Clinton secured the Democratic Party's nomination.

White House Years

After the 1992 election the Clinton administration tapped Socarides to be White House Liaison for the Department of Labor.

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