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Relationships Dr. Richard Green, who challenged psychiatry’s view of homosexuality as a mental disorder, dies at 82

Dr. Richard Green, one of the earliest and most vocal critics of psychiatry’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, died on April 6 at his home in London. He was 82.

The cause was esophageal cancer, his son, Adam Hines-Green, said.

Dr. Richard Green. (File Photo).

Courtesy of the Green Family via The New York Times

Dr. Green, who was also a forceful advocate for gay and transgender rights in a series of landmark discrimination trials, became aware of the marginalization of people with alternate sexual and gender identities while training to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a leading centre in the study of sexuality.

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In 1972, shortly after completing his specialty in psychiatry, he defied the advice of colleagues and wrote a paper in The International Journal of Psychiatry questioning “the premise that homosexuality is a disease or a homosexual is inferior.”

At the time, three years after the protests against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York, the site of a major turning point in the gay-rights movement, psychiatry’s diagnostic manual classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and publicly arguing otherwise came with professional risks.

“Those were times when, if you spoke up in support of homosexuals, people immediately thought that you were secretly homosexual yourself, or had unresolved sexual issues,” Dr. Jack Drescher, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia, said in an interview. “Richard was very much heterosexual, and it took a lot of courage to argue for gay people.”

That paper and others initiated a prolonged dispute in the profession, much of it bitter and sarcastic. In one published debate, in The American Journal of Psychiatry, prominent figures on both sides took barbed shots at one another. The openly gay comedian Ron Gold titled his commentary “Stop It, You’re Making Me Sick!”

Dr. Green asked if heterosexuality should also be labelled a mental disorder.

“Styles of heterosexual conduct do indeed form much of what is dealt with by psychiatrists,” he wrote. He added that “instability in maintaining a love relationship and neurotic uses of sexuality – in which sexuality is used to control others – as a substitute for other feelings of self-worth, or as a defense against anxiety and depression,” account for a large number of cases.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association sided with Dr. Green and other influential figures, including Dr. Judd Marmor and Dr. Robert Spitzer, and decided to drop homosexuality from its diagnostic manual.

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Dr. Green continued his advocacy throughout his career, appearing as an expert witness on behalf of gay or transgender people in more than a dozen trials.

In 1962, he testified for a Nicaraguan man immigration officials had moved to deport because he was gay. The plaintiff prevailed and became a U.S. resident. Dr. Green also testified on behalf of a transgender woman suing to keep her job as a pilot, and a transgender parent suing for child visitation.

After completing a law degree at Yale University in his 50s, Dr. Green joined a 1990 American Civil Liberties Union case in California as a volunteer lawyer, arguing against the Boy Scouts of America, which had barred a gay man from becoming an assistant scoutmaster. The Boy Scouts won the case – although the organization would lift its ban on openly gay members and leaders in 2015.

“Imagine taking on the Boy Scouts,” said Dr. Jules Black, an obstetrician-gynecologist, a founder of the Society of Australian Sexologists and a friend of Dr. Green’s. “He had the smarts and nerve to take on his colleagues, the psychiatric establishment and these huge issues like decriminalizing sexuality; that was enormous. He didn’t do it alone, but he was right in the middle of it.”

Richard Philip Green was born on June 6, 1936, in the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., the only child of Leo and Rose (Ingber) Green. His father was an accountant, his mother a teacher.

After graduating from high school, he attended Syracuse University on a state scholarship and got his medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1961. He specialized in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became a professor and researcher. In 1986, he met Melissa Hines, who was on the academic staff there, and the two married. They divorced in 2014.

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In addition to his son, Dr. Green leaves his companion, Claire Loveday.

In his early work, Dr. Green found that many effeminate boys grow up to be gay. He reviewed that and other research in his 1987 book, The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality.

In 1975, he founded the International Academy of Sex Research and became the first editor of its journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior, a position he held until 2002.

After obtaining his law degree, Dr. Green relocated to Britain, where he served as a professor of psychiatry at the faculty of medicine at Imperial College, London, and on the law and psychology faculties of Cambridge University.

“He had no interest in conforming,” his son said at his memorial service. “Beyond those he loved, I genuinely don’t think he cared what people thought or said about him. Most of the time, I think he loved that they were saying anything about him at all. He had exactly no interest in social norms.”

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