Dr. Richard Isay, Lover and Fighter, Dies at 77

Dr. Richard Isay in 1996. | COURTESY OF GORDON HARRELL

Dr. Richard A. Isay, the out gay psychoanalyst who fought successfully to make his professional association drop its discrimination against gay members and its treatment of gay patients as cases of “arrested development,” died in New York on June 28. He was 77.

The cause of death was complications of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, stomach, and liver, his partner of 32 years and husband Gordon Harrell said. The cancer diagnosis was sudden, and Isay died a little more than a week after it in the arms of Harrell, whom he had legally married less than a year ago.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) dropped homosexuality from its index of mental disorders in 1973, but the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) held homosexuality was pathological into the 1990s.

Dr. Jack Drescher, an out gay analyst, said that until Isay took the group on, APsaA believed that “homosexuality was a ‘developmental arrest’ –– a lower level of psychological development.” Gay psychoanalysts were discriminated against by the profession because the attitude of the establishment was, “How could you treat a heterosexual who had a higher level of development?”

Isay, who himself had undergone psychoanalysis to stop being gay, figured out after ten years in the early 1970s that it didn’t work. But it took another 20 years to get APsaA to accept that view.

William Rubenstein, now a law professor at Harvard, was director of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1992 when Isay asked them to use the New York City law banning sexual orientation discrimination to challenge the practices of his profession. Rubenstein wrote in an email, “Richard finally got them to remove their restrictions on admitting gay men and lesbians to their ranks, nearly a quarter century after homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Rubenstein wrote that Isay’s contributions went far beyond this case, citing his “pioneering books attempting to make sense of the particular psychological dilemma gay men confront” and his service “as an analyst, counselor, and mentor for countless gay people in his every-day practice. His many efforts helped lay the groundwork for the advances in social acceptance of LGBT people in the past decades. As importantly, Richard’s work gave dignity to our struggle and helped ameliorate the suffering so many gay people unnecessarily experience.”

Isay, born on December 13, 1934, was a native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Haverford College near Philadelphia. He went to medical school at the University of Rochester and did his psychoanalytic training at the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis. He was clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and lecturer in Psychiatry at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Among his many books were “Being Homosexual: Gay Men and Their Development,” (1989) and “Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love” (2006).

In addition to his active membership in APsaA, he served as vice president of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association (NLGHA) and as a member of the board of the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) for LGBT youth in Manhattan.

Dr. Joyce Hunter, a founding member of HMI and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute’s HIV Center, said, “He was one of my mentors along with Damien Martin and Emery Hetrick. He was extremely intelligent without being pretentious. He was really one of the reasons that NLGHA was taken seriously and able to make policy in the field of LGBT health care.”

Isay was the recipient of numerous professional honors, most recently the 2011 Hans Loewald Award from the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education.

Dr. Bob Greer, an orthopedist who had been friends with Isay since they roomed at Haverford, said, “He was always very liberal,” noting that Isay became president of the United World Federalists in college, promoting international cooperation. “He was an extraordinarily loving guy.”

Charles Kaiser, the out author of “The Gay Metropolis,” wrote in an email, “He was a man of special warmth and humanity. He had a kind of broad empathy, which may only be possible if you've attempted a heterosexual life and then accepted your true nature –– and then learned how to celebrate it.”

Isay was married to the former Jane Franzblau, who wrote in the New York Times last year about how they stayed together for ten years after he came out. They had two sons whom Isay adored –– Dave, who founded Story-Corps, the oral history project on National Public Radio, and Josh, one of New York’s most prominent political consultants, as well as four grandchildren.

Gordon Harrell, an artist, was the love of Isay’s life. Harrell wrote, “We stayed together, despite the odds, the age difference, the background difference, and the criticism, and the longer we remained together, the deeper our love became. We spoke between almost every patient, for over 30 years. I acquired many of his characteristics, as he did mine. We've been told that our voices are the same (just ask his kids, who never knew who it was answering the phone), our mannerisms, facial expressions, body language. We eventually became so close that we became part of each other –– very happily halves of a greater whole. There was a synergy between us that even we didn't understand. And that, I suppose, is what true love is… I cannot imagine any couple being closer.”

Steven Sampson, an American writer living in Paris who was a patient of Isay’s and became his friend, wrote in an email, “I think Richard was sort of a ‘bridge’ person, providing a bridge between different worlds that don't always communicate. He was married with children, yet he was gay and had a long-term passionate committed relationship with another man, in an environment where long-term relationships were rare.”

Dr. Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist who in 1991 discovered a difference in brain structure between gay and straight men, wrote in an email, “Dick Isay stood Sigmund Freud on his head. Freud said it was problematic parent-child relationships that made a child gay; Isay said that it was the gayness of the child that made the parent-child relationship problematic. After a long struggle psychoanalysts have warmed to his views and to gay people generally. For a glimpse of how they treated gays a generation or so ago, read Martin Duberman's book ‘Cures.’ Thank Dick Isay that those horrors are mostly history.”

Dr. Richard Friedman, the author of two books on homosexuality and psychoanalysis, called Isay “an authentic moral leader and hero.” He wrote, “He was a true pioneer and spoke his mind to a psychoanalytic audience that was often hostile. Isay was unyielding in his certainty that his own life served as an example that the prevailing psychoanalytic ideas about homosexuality were incorrect… A generation of gay psychoanalysts and psychotherapists followed in his footsteps but only because he alone stood his ground in adverse and even threatening circumstances.”

Tobias Picker, the composer and a patient of Isay’s, wrote in an email, “Richard said that fear of death came from feeling unloved. He knew he was completely loved by his husband, Gordon, and his family and it was easy to see that he felt that love utterly and completely. He knew he was much beloved by his patients too. Not long ago, he told me, with his trademark contented smile that he had no fear of death –– that he never gave it a thought.” Picker added, “For those who didn't know him, his writings leave behind a lasting legacy of love.”

Both his sons said that Isay’s favorite literary figure was Ferdinand the Bull from the Munro Leaf children’s book, the gentle beast who preferred flowers to bullfights. Richard Isay, famous for the fights he took on and won, was a lover at heart.