Our Founder's Letter to a Younger IHI

Dear IHI,

          It’s June 1, 1973. Your founders, Charles Silverstein and Bernice Goodman have just gotten the keys to your door and have walked into the empty apartment at 490 West End that will be your home for the next few years. It is a classy seven room suite on the upper West Side of New York. Steve Temmer, a friend of the gay community provided seed money to pay for the security and first month’s rent, but nothing else, so you’ll wrack your brains trying to beg, borrow and steal money to install phone lines. You’ll search the streets of New York at night for discarded furniture. No one will care that the furniture is old and beat-up, because this will be home for gay and lesbian people who want psychological help without making homosexuality the focus of treatment.

          You’ll begin with two full time staff. Jeffrey Shaw will work full time as the Administrative Assistant at a salary of $25 a week. Charles will serve as Director of IHI at a salary of zero dollars, but he and his lover William will live full-time in the master bedroom as remuneration. By the time he resigns as director, Charles will be paid $200 a week, well, at least when there is a spare $200 in the kitty. Bernice, her heart and soul in our organization, will be Chairwoman of our Board of Directors.

          Board of Directors? You’ll find that no one has the foggiest idea of what a board should do. They’ll all be therapists because no one from the business community will have anything to do with you. The only lawyer who will help you secure 501(c)3 IRS status and non-profit incorporation with New York State is a heterosexual attorney, Hal Weiner. Gay lawyers will be much too frightened to be associated with you lest colleagues wonder about their sexual orientation. You understand that an opening gay lawyer in 1973 could be accused of moral turpitude and their license subject to revocation.

          You expect the board to provide money to support your work serving the gay and lesbian community, and I regret to tell you that they will fail miserably. They will meet every other Sunday morning, and Charles will buy Danish and make coffee for them. Then they’ll sit around and wonder what to do. Charles and Bernice will suggest that they provide money to pay our expenses, but none of them will ever arrive with a check book. That first board will end one day when one of them complains that there isn’t enough prune Danish at the meeting, and Charles will blow his top and say that at the next meeting they are each to arrive with checks for one thousand dollars, or leave. They left! So you were on your own, but at least you won’t have to buy Danish and coffee to feed them!

          You’ll also sponsor a fundraiser attended by many people in the advertising and marketing industries. Charles and Bernice will buy snacks and beverages, and Charles will make a speech calling for a Gay & Lesbian Community Chest, to snickers from the group. Only one person will give a pledge. $10. And he will never pay it, so in the end IHI will loose money on the fundraiser.

          It won’t be a loss. The IHI staff and its leaders are all filled with piss and vinegar. We will be the first full-time counseling center in New York to provide therapy to gays and lesbians using licensed gay and lesbian (and a few heterosexual) psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. They will each contribute three hours per week and all fees will go to support IHI. And these professionals will love being here, a place where they can be opening gay or lesbian and know that the money is going to a good cause. They will feel at home here because they won’t have to pretend that they are straight like they do at their full-time jobs.

          You will advertise your services in the Village Voice, and by June 30th all available therapy hours will be filled. And in my rooms will be a number of novel ideas, help that the mainstream psychiatric establishment never dreamed of. There will be a lesbian couples group, and a gay mens couple group. There will also be a group for gay men married to their heterosexual wives.

          But the very first group will be for natural childbirth training for pregnant lesbians and their lovers taught by a lesbian nurse. You will advertise it in the Village Voice and in addition to getting calls from lesbian couples, you will be inundated by inquiries from newspapers and radio programs wanting to know “Are you serious?” Or “Can we interview a pregnant lesbian?” Or “How can a lesbian get pregnant?” You’ll also get lots of obscene prank calls, and an unusually large number of masturbation calls. Those will be easy to spot because they will always begin with, “What are you wearing?” (The proper answer is “nothing.”)

          Your phones will ring off the hook day and night for two weeks because of another innovative group you will advertise. It will be a support group for heterosexually married gay men. You will naively believe that they will welcome an opportunity to discuss their plight with like-minded men. “What, you only TALK?” each caller will say with an air of disbelief in his voice. They will think that “support group” is a code for sex. They will believe that we are a gay bordello that fixes up married gay men with hustlers! Get ready for even more JO calls.

          There will also be some funny things that happen the first year of IHI. For instance one day a woman will be looking for the bathroom. By accident she will walk into the room where the nurse teaching natural childbirth is standing over a pregnant lesbian. She will close the door quickly wondering whether she had interrupted some kinky lesbian scene. She will then open another door only to find William (Charles’ lover) standing naked after taking a shower. Outraged, she will exclaim to our receptionist, “What kind of place are you running here?” And she will indignantly walk out!

          There will also a day when Cosmopolitan Magazine arrives to interview Charles, who will not fathom what on Earth they want of a gay & lesbian counseling center. “The Cosmo girl,” the representative will say, “needs to have a way to spot whether her boyfriend is gay or straight.” Apparently Cosmo girls are unusually attracted to gay men providing an obvious problem. Charles, you should understand, has no idea of what a Cosmo girl is – or Cosmopolitan Magazine, for that matter. “You read Cosmopolitan don’t you,” she will ask.

          “Of course,” Charles will say, “every week,” oblivious to the fact that the magazine is a monthly – and frankly, not caring. He will believe the whole thing a put on by members of the staff. “Why doesn’t she just ask him,” he will say. “Out of the question” will be the reply. Impatient with the obvious (to him) stupidity of the question and remembering all the administrative work waiting to be done, he will say, “The Cosmo girl (said with contempt in his voice) should take a walk with her boyfriend. Then watch whether he looks at more men’s asses than women’s asses. That will give her the answer.” Shocked, outraged and insulted, the Cosmo interviewer will collect her papers and with one final sneer, leave the office. None of the staff will believe Charles when he tells them the story, since they also have no idea of exactly what a “Cosmo girl” might be.

          Publicity about you will bring many visits from the police. They will never harass you, they are just looking for information, but will accept the confidentiality of the therapeutic relationship.

          A visit from the FBI early one Sunday morning will be more threatening. They will be searching for information about a missing child. The usual diplomatic Charles will blow his top at their assumption that gay people are child molesters. He will tell them that if they want to search for notorious queers that they should check out their closet queen FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover and his boyfriend Clyde Tolsen. Perhaps that will lead to a new FBI file!

          You will be privy to a few other notorious closet queens. Like Cardinal Spellman, called “Franny” by his gay friends and his chorus boy garcon de jour.  And Roy Cohen who denied his homosexuality until the day he died, but always carried an industrial sized jar of Vaseline with him. Just in case! 

          A few months before opening, Charles and Bernice made a presentation before the American Psychiatric Association demanding that homosexuality be deleted as a mental illness. Charles will spend considerable time the next six months politicking for it, and in December 1973 the APA will announce that homosexuality is to be deleted from their handbook of disorders. We were no longer mentally ill. “Isn’t science wonderful,” Charles will announce to the staff. “On December 14, 1973 we were all perverts, but on December 15 we were healthy and normal.”

          The nomenclature change will be electric. It will be announced in every newspaper and TV program. The New York Times will do a feature on it. And the TV program “60 Minutes” will bring a camera crew to IHI in order to interview Charles, film a therapy session, then interview Barbara Gittings, one of the unsung heroes of the movement. After the program airs, you will be inundated with media requests for interviews, but more important it will bring a number of new therapists to join the staff (at the usual salary of nothing), and many new patients who never before knew about our services.

          And two years later Charles will be appointed Editor of the newly published Journal of Homosexuality, and that same year publish his first two books, A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality, and the Joy of Gay Sex (with Edmund White). Bernice will publish a book on lesbian mothers.

          And years later people will ask whether founding and operating me, the Institute for Human Identity was hard. They will think of our living month to month, never quite sure whether the rent could be paid, or harassing phone calls calling us fags and dykes, or going to professional meetings and being shunned by colleagues fearing that they might be tainted by our sin –  our being up front by appearing on radio and TV. But the truth is that our problems were only about money. Every member of the staff was inspired and energized. We will be building a new institution, not the physical plant, rather an idea. What was it that Dumas once wrote? “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time had come.” We are that idea, we are building a therapeutic service as an alternative to the insulting and prejudiced treatment of LGBT people. We are going to help them live productive lives. We are building this new institution – and it will be fun – and the memories of the people, the services, yes, and the battles will live with us forever. How we will take pleasure by poking our fingers in the eyes of the established psychiatric community.

          Bernice will pass away on 2003. Judy Clarke, a charter staff member will serve as Executive Director for a while, and will still be on staff 40 years after we open. Charles will resign as director in 1977, but continue on staff. He will publish eight books, receive many awards, but be present as his lover of 20 years dies. And the staff will watch so many of our colleagues and patients die during the plague years; memorial services will be a frequent activity.

          But IHI will stand tall through the decades and serve our community. Our staff will continue to have fire and energy in their hearts – still searching for new ways to provide competent clinical services to our community – still searching for money to pay our expenses – but always knowing that IHI is home to both our staff and the people we serve. And for many of us, it will be a more inviting home than the one we were born to.