The Rainbow History Project
Preserving Our Community's Memories

Zapping the Shrinks

May 3, 1971
On the heels of the Mayday protests came another joint operation of gay liberationists, Mattachine Society of Washington and the newly formed Gay Activists Alliance.  The American Psychiatric Association was holding its annual convention at the Shoreham Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park.  Seven years earlier, Jack Nichols and Dr. Franklin Kameny had launched a campaign to bring about removal of homosexuality from the psychiatrists' manual in which it was classified as a mental disease, on a par with schozophrenia and manic depression.
The Mattachine Society of Washington takes the position that in the absence of valid evidence to the contrary homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance, or other pathology in any sense but is merely a preference, orientation, or propensity on a par with and not different in kind from heterosexuality.
-- Ronald Bayer; Homosexuality and American Psychiatry; 1981; page 88
The May 1971 Scene:  A Bad Time for a Conference in Washington DC
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) held its annual convention in Washington DC during the first week of May 1971, amidst the turmoil and congestion of the MayDay antiwar demonstrations and at a time when the Gay MayDay contingent in those demonstrations had drawn large numbers of gay men and lesbians to the city.  The convention was held at the Shoreham Hotel which backed up on Rock Creek Park.  The scene in the city was chaotic: protestors, estimated at more than 10,000, (the remnants of an initial contingent of nearly 50,000) had spent the mornings of Monday May 3rd and Tuesday May 4th disrupting traffic, blocking roads and bridges, and trying to bring the normal business of government to a halt in protest against the Vietnam War.  An even larger federal force, some 13,000, of soldiers (Marines and US Army), National Guardsmen, and police fought off the protestors.  More than 10,000 were arrested.  Tear gas and smoke were in the air in downtown Washington DC. The streets around the APA convention were patrolled

Following disruption by gay activists at the 1970 convention in San Francisco, the APA offered a conference panel discussion to be organized by Dr. Kameny, who invited Barbara Gittings, Jack Baker and others to participate in a discussion entitled "Lifestyles of Nonpatient Homosexuals", which ensured the panelists admittance to all of the convention's activities including the annual Convocation of Fellows.

Resisting the 'Sickness' Definition
The American Psychiatric Association's definition of homosexuality as an illness in its second Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1968) provided crucial underpinnings for federal discrimination against homosexuals.  From the late 1940s, civil laws had in many states criminalized homosexuality defining it as a sexual pathology and providing imprisonment and institutionalization as punishment.  A core of American psychiatrists and psychologists provided written arguments supporting the definition of homosexuality as an illness.

In contrast to older homosexual organizations' accommodation of medical opinion, Washington DC's Mattachine Society (MSW) took a contrary view that homosexuals were as 'normal' as heterosexuals.  MSW's position was not accomplished without dissent.  Jack Nichols, co-founder of MSW, in an October 14, 1963 letter to the MSW Board proposed a formal statement opposing the medical establishment.  Discussion of the policy within Mattachine was protracted.  However, by 1965, MSW was on the record stating that homosexuality and heterosexuality were equally 'normal'.

-- from the unpublished memoirs of Jack Nichols, used with permission:

"... it was psychiatric nonsense that infuriated me most.  Kameny knew this, and encouraged my anger.  In autumn, he suggested that I approach the executive board of the Washington Mattachine to present my viewpoint. 

My October 14 letter to the board became, according to historian John D'Emilio, the first plea requesting that movement activists reject the medical establishment's authority, and hammer out a position paper stating that homosexuality is not a disease.  Many movement conservatives were unwilling to take such a step, and I began to realize that my mission would necessitate getting around these persons as well. 

My letter, addressed to the conservatives, explained first that Kameny had asked me to state my views, namely that we must say that homosexuality can't be considered an illness until such evidence is forthcoming.  I ridiculed anyone's not taking such a stand, convinced that without it we'd be able to do very little to help gay self-images rise, one of the most important functions of any gay organization.  Anticipating conservative objections that taking this stand might bolster false self-confidence, I countered by saying:  "Homosexuality cannot be considered a disease until science says that it is, and science has said no such thing."

Returning from Manhattan, Lige and I stepped into the boiling political struggle we'd helped ignite, designed to put The Mattachine Society of Washington on record stating unequivocally that homosexuality isn't a sickness. Frank Kameny was also at the center of this struggle, linked with us as a militant pitted against a large conservative membership.  Kameny hammered out proposed wordings for the policy, leaving it to a handful of members--who were also militants on this particular question--to convince conservatives it had to be passed.  No other gay organization had yet adopted such a policy.

Frank Kameny was also at the center of this struggle, linked with us as a militant pitted against a large conservative membership.  Kameny hammered out proposed wordings for the policy, leaving it to a handful of members--who were also militants on this particular question--to convince conservatives it had to be passed.  No other gay organization had yet adopted such a policy.

In its final form the policy read:  "The Mattachine Society of Washington takes the position that in the absence of valid evidence to the contrary, homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance, or other pathology in any sense, but is merely a preference, orientation, or propensity, on par with, but not different in kind from, heterosexuality."

Zapping the APA

Gay activists in post-Stonewall New York City, particularly Marty Robinson and other leaders of the Gay Activists Alliance/NY are credited with popularizing the zap in 1970 as a means of drawing attention to gay issues and of pressuring politicians to respond to gay demands.  In Washington, DC the GLF had used zaps in 1970 to protest discussions of homosexuality at Catholic University and to protest discrimination at the Zephyr Restaurant near American University.

Excerpt from Arthur Evans' article, "Zap: You're Alive!,"  Gay Today, August 30, 1999:

"Zaps are militant, but non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobic persons in positions of authority.  Zaps had two intended audiences--our own community and the larger political world. In regard to our own community, zaps often used humor and theater to build up group morale and gay identity ... 

As was our common practice, we also made sure that the mass media heard of the zap.  Zap and hype, zap and hype. With that two-step, we danced our way into the limelight of public awareness and broke through the taboo of discussing things gay ... Marty Robinson, the chief architect of zapping, argued that we should go after the liberals precisely because they claimed to be our friends... Although effective in building up community morale and generating immediate political payoffs, zaps could be dangerous."

APA's Convocation, which Dr. Kameny calls the "ordination of the new psychiatrists," was held in the hotel's elegant Regency ballroom.  The guest speaker for the convocation was Attorney General Ramsey Clark.  The Convocation, the high point of the convention, drew the entire body of conferees.  On the stage were seated the leadership of the APA.  Because of the antiwar demonstrations, the hotel was ringed with police.  Inside the room, Dr. Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Jack Baker and other panelists had taken seats.  Dr. Kameny and other panelists had presented their panel on Lifestyles of Nonpatient Homosexuals at the APA convention and were in the front of the Regency Room for the Convocation.

Earlier in April, the newly formed Gay Activists Alliance/DC (GAA), the Gay Liberation Front-DC (GLF) and the Mattachine Society of Washington had laid plans for a major zap of the APA's Convocation.  Perry Brass recalls (in his Come Out article chronicling Gay MayDay and the zap) that six members of GAA were given copies of the statement to be read to the psychiatrists following the disruption of the convocation.

In the days before the convention, activists had scouted the hotel for entrances to the Regency Room and the night before had wedged open the fire doors so that activists could get into the hall from the Rock Creek Park woods through which they would approach the hotel.  Cliff Witt is credited by Dr. Kameny with organizing the zap and was the intended speaker for the activists at the zap of the Convocation.

Perry Brass recalls

"The zap was utterly incredible.  It had been set up weeks ago by GAA and GLF Washington ... [Following the GayMayDay demonstrations] About thirty people from the GayMayDay Tribe including several members of the Washington commune [GLF House, 1620 S St. NW, Washington, DC] piled into a VW van and a few cars and headed for the [hotel].  Half of the men were in really fabulous drag with wildly painted faces, that accentuated the spontaneous, liberating attitude of brothers in drag ..."
Brass was unable to find a way into the Regency Room and tried entering through the garage.
"The noise coming from the Regency Room was like out of the Inferno.  I tried to open the door, but a shrink was pulling it tight.  I managed to get it open for a minute. "Get out of here.  We don't want any more of you people in here!" he was shouting.  I heard voices from inside the room shouting, "Faggots!  Drag queens!" ... Then I saw all of our people streaming out of the garage entrance virtually followed by this posse of cursing shrinks ...

When we arrived back at the commune, the queens had already broken out into a Fred Waring arrangement of 'When the Gays Go Marching In'."

Inside the Regency Room, as planned, GLF, GAA, and MSW members had charged into the room chanting and cheering and disrupting the proceedings.  At the front of the room was a low platform with a podium, chairs, and a microphone.

Dr. Kameny tells the story:

Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, speaking at a Rainbow History program on the Sickness Question, September 19, 2001, at the Sumner School Museum:

"They had this row of elderly psychiatrists sitting in back wearing their gold medals with a ribbon around their necks.  And we were sitting there; we knew what was going to happen.

And right in the middle of Ramsey Clark’s speech the doors burst open and all of our people burst in.  The elderly psychiatrists were enraged and proceeded to beat our people on their heads with their gold medals.  [The psychiatrists] pushed a lot of them of them out, including the person we had arranged to to seize the microphone and give the speech. 

 [The psychiatrists] locked the fire doors.  So people milled around for a bit and nothing was happening and I decided we were going to lose this altogether, so I came forward up on the stage and seized the microphone. 

The moderator asked me what I was doing.  I said I’m seizing the microphone from you, and he said “Well, tell me your name and I’ll introduce you.”  So I did and he did.  And I proceeded to denounce them until one of the elderly psychiatrists just pulled the plug out of the wall.  But I never needed a microphone to be heard, so I went on anyway. 

And the psychiatrists were down below shaking their fists at me and calling us Nazis.  In any case it was interesting.

A few days later we went into their exhibit area and they had someone, a guy from Iowa, who was selling devices for aversion therapy.  We denounced him and sort of forced him to close down there.

That began to get things moving."

The APA was on notice that gay men and women were no longer going to acquiesce in others' definition of their normality.

Between the 1971 convention in Washington and the 1972 convention in Dallas, the APA, Dr. Kameny,  Barbara Gittings, and others negotiated over a presence for homosexuals at the conference.  Dr Kameny recalls "At that point they were afraid to say no to us.  So they said yes.  Barbara Gittings got an architect to make us a very very nice booth out of white Styrofoam so that it would be easy to ship down to Dallas, and a big sign saying Gay, Proud, and Healthy.  And I wrote a leaflet to go with it, which Lynn Womack, a local gay printer printed up for me in large numbers of copies."

On December 15, 1973, the Board of the APA voted to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual's list of mental disorders.

-- Mark Meinke
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