Dr. Richard Isay Dead at 77

Dr. Richard Isay, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and gay-rights advocate, died of cancer on June 28 and was interred at Green-Wood yesterday.

Dr. Richard Isay. Photo by Gordon Harrell, husband of Richard Isay.

When Dr. Isay, as a young man, trained for his profession, homosexuality was looked upon as a disease to be cured. In fact, anyone who was openly gay was barred by the American Psychoanalytic Association from training. Dr. Isay, after graduating from Haverford College and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, worked as a resident in psychiatry at Yale and trained at the Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute.

But, struggling with his own sexuality, he went through ten years of therapy, married, and fathered two children. After he was declared “cured,” he finally admitted to himself that he was gay. He pioneered treatment of gay patients without trying to “cure” them and began to write that homosexuality was normal, not an illness.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disease. But many of its members resisted that shift and Dr. Isay tried for years to convince them, and the public, that not only was homosexuality not a disease, but that it was just a normal variety of human sexuality. In 1992, after he and the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit, the Association agreed not to discriminate against gays in training, hiring, or promotion.

In 1980, he told his wife that he was gay. They stayed married for the sake of their children–whom they did not tell about his homosexuality. In 1989, he moved in with Gordon Harrell, an artist. They were married last year at his son’s home; a grandson served as best man.

Dr. Isay was the author of several books, including “Being Homosexual” (1989), “Becoming Gay” (1997), and “Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love” (2006). He urged homosexuals to come out and to accept and understand who they are. He talked about this on many television shows, including “Larry King Live,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “20/20,” and “The Morning Show.” His life was the subject of books and documentaries.

According to Dr. Jack Drescher, author of “Psychoanalytic Therapy and Gay Men,” quoted in The New York Times, it was quite a struggle for Dr. Isay: he “was a pioneer, a very brave man. He was attacked by psychoanalysts. He took a lot of flak.”

Up until his death, Dr. Isay was a professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College and was on the faculty of Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Richard Isay Dead at 77”

  1. My partner was a case study in the book with me included m, both of us under pseudo names. Both Dr Isay and my partner have passed, but it does my heart good to know our lives mattered and change occurred.


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