There is a scene in Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s powerful documentary, Cured, that will stay with me for a long, long time. A group of activists join an annual meeting of the American Psychologists Association (APA). One man takes the microphone away from an APA speaker. At that moment, I expected the meeting to dissolve into chaos, even violence.
However, something incredible happened. The activists asked the APA members to either leave the room or listen to their stories. Those that stayed, arranged themselves into small groups and a dialogue began. People talked. People listened. Progress was made.
Can you believe that?
This moving and heartwarming moment comes at a turning point in Cured - when the film moves from documenting a shocking and devastating time to celebrating an empowering and inspiring moment in LGBT history.
Cured tells the story of the social and medical injustice carried out in the US at a time when being gay was considered to be a mental illness that could be cured, a sexual deviance that must be addressed - a learned behaviour that had to be unlearned.
Sammon and Singer’s gripping documentary examines the impact of this damaging view via newly rediscovered archive footage and a series of insightful interviews.
From the beginning, Cured is a tough and often deeply upsetting watch. Activist and psychologist, Charles Silverstein, reveals the fear and shame he felt when he realised that he was gay. “The word meant that you were mentally ill,” he explains. Desperate to safeguard his job as a public school teacher, Silverstein spent seven years of his life in therapy.
Meanwhile, Reverend Magora Kennedy reveals that she was given two choices when her mother realised that she was a lesbian. She could either agree to go to UTICA State Hospital (a facility for the mentally ill in New York) or get married to a man. She chose the latter option. She was just 14 years old.
Those who were admitted to psychiatric wards to be “cured” faced hours of talk therapy sessions, electric shock treatments and, in the most extreme cases, lobotomies. In archive footage, a patient called Whitey describes his experience of being institutionalised for four years as “like a horror movie”.
Cured explores how and why such treatments were created - focusing on the work of psychologists including Dr Alfred Bloch, Dr Irving Bieber and Dr Charles Socarides. As a result of the beliefs of these and other leading psychologists, homosexuality was at the top of the list of mental disorders in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of 1952.
Following the rise of activism in the 1960s, a small impassioned group took on the APA and challenged the DSM. Sammon and Singer introduce us to these heroes - including Silverstein and Reverend Kennedy and also Kay Lahusen, Barbara Gittings, Dr Frank Kameny, Dr John Fryer, Dr Lawrence Hartmann and Ron Gold. Their stories are incredibly powerful and inspiring.
Meanwhile, we also meet Dr Richard Green - who was one of the first straight psychiatrists to speak out in favour of removing homosexuality from the DSM. In 1972, he published a groundbreaking paper that argued the mental illness designation was not grounded in science.
“What I question in this essay,” Green wrote, “is the given state of ‘knowledge’ that homosexuality is, by definition, a ‘disorder’, a ‘disease’ or an ‘illness’. I am not convinced we have the data by which to base these judgements. I question them because they’re not proved.”
Some psychiatrists, including Dr Charles Socarides (watch out for a brilliant moment in Cured featuring his son, Richard), would refuse to be moved from their prejudice. However, thanks to the courageous and tireless work of a group of incredible activists, a devastating chapter in LGBT history was closed. Fighting back proved to be the best cure.