Gays, immigration and the endless challenges of consciousness and activism

by Lawrence D. Mass

In the mid 1970’s I began my journey of consciousness and activism as a watchdog for reactionary developments in psychiatry that threatened to reverse the 1973–74 declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

During my medical training and first work as a practicing anesthesiologist in the Boston area in the mid 1970’s, I entered psychotherapy. Randomly selected Dr. Maxwell G. Potter was a Harvard-based, psychoanalytically trained and oriented psychiatrist who retained and perpetrated his profession’s trademark homophobia beyond the period of the declassification.

That declassification may have won the day with gay activists and progressive psychiatrists, but it remained hugely unpopular in the mainstreams of psychiatry. Although Dr. Potter was so homophobic that one might imagine he could easily be sued for malpractice, think again. Even today, practitioners of conversion therapy, widely denounced as unethical and now illegal in a few states, have a free hand to do pretty much whatever they want. When was the last time you heard about any psychiatrist being successfully sued for malpractice?

Dr. Richard Pillard, widely known as the first openly gay psychiatrist in America, was a specialist in genetics who went on to do landmark work on the heritability of sexual orientation, on homosexuality and science, and on “People of the Eye” — studies of deaf ethnicity and ancestry.

Although I did eventually confront Dr. Potter with the specter of malpractice and terminated “therapy” with him, the experience left me feeling deeply disheartened and adrift. Enter Dr. Richard Pillard, a distinguished Boston-area psychiatrist who became known for being the first openly gay psychiatrist in America. Channel surfing one afternoon, I chanced upon a forum that featured Dr. Pillard and enlightened discussion of homosexuality and the APA declassification, for which Pillard had notably given testimony.

In those days, affirmation of gayness was still not something one read, saw or heard much of in the media. On those rare television programs that featured affirming viewpoints, they were still always “balanced” with “experts” voicing the old “medical” — mostly psychiatric and mostly psychoanalytic — viewpoints of homosexuality as a disorder of society and mental health. But here, without such apposition, was this knight in a white suit speaking calmly and with authority about developments in psychiatry and their implications for gay people and society.

By the next day, I had left Dr. Potter and entered into individual therapy with Dr. Pillard. Without realizing it at the time, I had purchased a one-way ticket to a life of consciousness, activism and their principal outlet of expression for me — my writing.

The first big subsequent development for me was my determination to change the trajectory of my medical career from anesthesiology to psychiatry. At that juncture, what I most wanted to do was respond with my life and career to what I had experienced with Dr. Potter within its wider context of social and political homophobia. In those days, gay civil rights were still nonexistent. Developments like gay marriage, nondiscrimination in the workplace and by the military and immigration, and hate crimes legislation still seemed more like science fiction than imminent or even possible. With the guidance of Dr. Pillard, I decided to do a second residency in psychiatry.

I had a lover in those years in Chicago who I wanted to live with during my training. Hope and affirmation based on the APA declassification were beckoning me forward. But nothing had prepared for me what I would experience in applications for psychiatric residency programs in the Chicago area. Uniformly, the psychiatrists who interviewed me at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois medical schools were enraged at my openness about being gay. I was rejected by all of these departments. Without exception, everyone I interviewed with was a version of Dr. Potter.

So appalling and infuriating was this experience that I wrote it up in what became my first piece for the gay press and as a gay activist. Originally entitled “Trial By Ordeal,” the editor changed that title to “Psychiatry On Trial.” It was the centerpiece of the August 11, 1979 issue of Boston’s Gay Community News.

With Dr. Pillard’s encouragement, and in the wake of my bitter experience with Dr. Potter and the applications for psychiatry residency training, I joined the ranks of Dr. Pillard’s fledgling group of openly gay psychiatrists. Originally called the “Gay Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association,” the name had to be changed to “Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association,” since it wasn’t an official committee of the APA, as the APA was quick to point out.

Although not myself a psychiatrist, I joined these heroes as their newsletter editor, reconfiguring it from a message center to a venue for news stories and editorials. My first headline sparked controversy not only with the APA, but with the Gay Caucus as well, some of whose members were more cautionary than others; they did not want to jeopardize their limited but hard-earned status.


My banner headline for that first issue of the GCMAPA Newsletter was provocative in highlighting that psychoanalytic theory, with its characterization of homosexuality as a form of “psychopathic personality,” was a basis of older INS immigration proscriptions against “homosexuals.”

“Until 1990, the United States was the only country in the world with an explicit policy of excluding visitors and potential immigrants because of their sexual orientation. Although the word ‘homosexual’ has never appeared in U.S. immigration law, from 1952 to 1990 most U.S.courts interpreted the provision excluding persons ‘afflicted with a psychopathic personality’ to require the exclusion of any person identified as homosexual or who engaged in homosexual acts. Countless individuals have been excluded at the border, deported, or denied naturalization under this provision” (from “Sodomy and Public Morality Offenses Under U.S. Immigration Law:Penalizing Lesbian and Gay Identity” by Shannon Minter, The Cornell Study of Homosexuality and Immigration Law in the U.S., 1993).

How many LGBTQ persons were denied immigration status on the basis of such designations we will never know because crucial medical records of Ellis Island have been lost.

In that early period of my activism, I wrote essays and interviewed progressive psychiatrists and sex researchers in chronicling what I called “the shift in the credibility of medical and scientific opinion about homosexuality and sexuality from the temples of psychiatry to the laboratories of sex research.”

Today, we don’t hear much about people being denied legal entry on the basis of being gay, or even for having HIV. Hostility to immigrants, ever-present trans-historically, became far more global. The gruesome history of hostility to immigrants in America is captured in the common folk wisdom that “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”

One of the pieces in On The Future of Wagnerism is called “Voices of Hope and Resilience, and Our Relentless Vilification of The Other, from Wagner to Trump.” There I recount a visit I made to Ellis Island with its museum displays of America’s history of immigration. They include one detailing the many immigrant groups that have experienced discrimination as immigrants. Every ethnic group you can think of is there — Irish, Italians, Jews, Blacks, Asians, Scandanvians, etc.

But there is one group that has experienced notable immigration discrimination that is not acknowledged in that Ellis Island exhibit: LGBTQ people. Has anyone at the museum been confronted with this, I wondered? That question would beckon to me during the endless, often ferocious immigration scandals of the Trump presidency, and as I became personally involved in the plight of undocumented immigrants.

Coincidentally as we attempt to deal with yet another anti-gay onslaught from conservatives stoked by populist extremists and culminating in transphobic legislative edicts redolent of Nazi Germany, it occurred to me to be that person who inquires about this issue of omission in the official history and exhibits of Ellis Island. In the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, and as echoed in the exhortations of ACT UP and recovery, I felt the call to “do what you can with what you have, where you are.”

In his voice mail reply to my initial inquiry, Jerry Willis, Public Affairs officer of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation (within the National Park Service), sounded upbeat, noting that there were upcoming meetings where this issue would be timely for discussion. He referred me to Diana Pardue, Director of Museum Services and who has been praised for her leadership in working with the US National Committee of the International Counsel of Museums (ICOM).

Pardue put me in touch with Alan Kraut, Distinguished Professor of History at the American University in Washington, D.C., who will oversee a major updating of Ellis Island’s programs and exhibits. Professor Kraut specializes in immigration and ethnic history and the history of medicine in the United States. He is currently writing a history of xenophobia and nativism in America. Kraut’s research has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Institutes of Health. He is a past President of the Organization of American Historians and is the current President of the National Coalition for History. He is an elected fellow of the prestigious Society of American Historians. In 2017 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

In a one-on-one zoom session with him 5/24/21, Professor Kraut made clear his commitment to update Ellis Island Museum information and exhibits to include LGBTQ experience. Not only were “homosexuals” discriminated against on the basis of designations such as “moral turpitude,” he noted, but also as “LPC” — likely to become a public charge. Those designated LPC “were declared unlikely to be able to support themselves and would end up on the public dole or [dependent upon] private charity. Years later, in the 1930s, consular officials in Europe denied visas to Jews seeking to escape the Nazis using the same clause.”

It’s a concept that can still be gleaned in current policies, especially towards refugees of color. Our discussion seemed timely in advance of plans to redesign the museum and exhibits, an ambitious endeavor that won’t actually commence for several more years.

Optimism seems warranted. In 1965, U.S. immigration laws were amended (The Immigration Reform Act became the Immigration and Nationality Act) to exclude homosexuals — “aliens afflicted with…sexual deviation” — from admission into the United States.

Under President Reagan, Congress added AIDS to the list of “dangerous, contagious diseases as a basis for excluding persons from the United States.” Bans were implemented for people who were HIV-positive from entering the U.S. Only under strict circumstances could people apply for a waiver.

Since 1990, however, there have been more progressive developments involving not only persons identified as LGBTQ seeking asylum but as well those who are HIV positive.

My own quest for acknowledgement and reconciliation was for something more specific and seemingly modest, but also subtle and tricky: to include LGBTQ people not only in light of our experience of being denied immigration status on the grounds of pseudoscientific and pejorative medical and psychiatric theories and practices, but to have LGBTQ people designated in literatures and exhibits, like and together with the other groups, mostly ethnic and national, that have experienced immigration discrimination and anti-immigrant bigotry.

Would such inclusiveness arouse resentment, such as that we’ve seen over the years for LGBTQ participation in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade? That is, would some national and ethnic groups feel demeaned and sullied at having LGBTQ people included with them? Would it seem to them that they are being grouped inappropriately with degenerates or those formerly designated as such? How should it be presented and how should it be appreciated that homosexuals were, together with ethnic groups, discriminated against in the history of immigration in America? Would the more subtle colors of prejudice show through, even under the auspices of a new, more enlightened administration and reconfigured museum of immigration?

The story Larry Kramer tells in his massive two-volume satirical history, The American People, is of the suppression and loss of history, especially of gay people, but in tandem with other minorities. More than anything else, it is the story of how the despised and dispossessed have been expunged from history, and with that from memory and awareness. It wasn’t until last year, in anticipation of the current centennial remembrance, that most of us learned of the Tulsa riot and massacre. Just so, Kramer intuits, recurrent atrocities collectively amounting to genocide have been perpetrated against gay people, their histories of “moral turpitude” expurgated as unsuitable even for documentation.

How the history of immigration will include LGBTQ experience and tell the story of anti-gay bigotry and exclusion continues to unfold. Clearly, we will have our work cut out for us. Meanwhile, as they say, the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step.


Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was the first to write about AIDS for the press. He is the author of We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. He is completing On The Future of Wagnerism, a sequel to his memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.