Olympia Dukakis is Armistead Maupin. Former NFL player Wade Davis is the writer Linda Villarosa. True Blood's Carrie Preston, 30 Rock's Maluik Pancholy, Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal, Orange Is the New Black's Lea Delaria and Natasha Lyonne – all of them are of different races, genders, and sexual orientations than they are in their everyday selves, or at least they were last December at New York Theatre Workshop, where they performed selections from The Letter Q, a book of letters by queer authors to their younger selves. This performance was part of the 40th anniversary celebration of IHI Therapy Center, a clinic serving the mental health needs of all New York City residents without regard to cultural background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. By playing against type, these and other celebrities emphasized how we are all more alike than we are different, how empathy is the key to transformation, and how those of us in the minority, on the margins, or outside the norm are too often denied empathy. What better or more fun way to dramatize IHI's devotion to identity development and the well-being of persons who transcend traditional cultural limits than such a performance?
IHI: The Beginnings
The Institute for Human Identity (IHI) was founded by Dr. Charles Silverstein and Bernice Goodman in June 1973. These trained psychotherapists were emboldened to create professional, LGBT-affirmative mental health services at a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. At that time, the only available psychotherapy that viewed queer people through the lens of empathy – as opposed to sickness – was non-professional peer counseling.
A few months before opening, Silverstein and Goodman made a presentation before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) demanding that homosexuality be deleted from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Silverstein spent months tirelessly politicking for this, and on Dec. 15, 1973, the APA announced that homosexuality was no longer a disorder. As Silverstein put it at the time, "On December 14th we were all perverts, but [the next day] we were healthy and normal."
IHI's first office was a seven-room suite on New York's Upper West Side. Silverstein recalls that the furniture was old and beat-up, but this paled in comparison to the psychological help that queer people received, without their sexuality becoming the focus of treatment. They were finally treated as people with full lives. From these humble beginnings, IHI became a professional training ground that helped therapists of all types develop cultural competence – not only for gay and lesbian clients but for a multitude of people whose ethnicity, race, or expressions of gender or sexuality were not commonly understood. Internationally known sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, aka Dr. Ruth, is among the many clinicians who trained at IHI.
The clinic's current offices in Chelsea are welcoming, confident, and professional, a testament to the enduring vision and passion of its founding. In addition to psychotherapy services for individuals, couples, and families, the clinic provides internships for therapists in training, educational seminars on various facets of queer lives, and Family Q, a groundbreaking support program of free workshops and counseling for LGBTQ parents and prospective parents.
What I find most riveting of all about IHI is the diversity of clients that the clinic attracts. In 1973, gay people were largely assumed to be white and male. But Silverstein and Goodman did not embark on this voyage to serve that population alone. Forty years later the deep empathy underlying their efforts provides refuge for a host of people with identity conflicts.
When I interned at IHI in 2007, I was moved by the variety of clients who found their way there: the young man from Mexico suffering from trauma, having been raised to believe that he was attracted to men only because he was inhabited by evil spirits; the woman who had suddenly lost her wife of 20 years and had been cut off from her family years before that; the client in transition from female to male, struggling to preserve the relationship that he had with his girlfriend; the straight man of Puerto Rican descent who found that his family's culturally based gender norms were causing him great anxiety and depression. Throughout my internship I received quality supervision in a variety of disciplines. The training challenged me to consider and empathize with numerous perspectives, identities, and lives; to listen; to learn; to be prepared to be unprepared in my work as a psychotherapist; to not make assumptions about who a person is before they tell me who and how they are.
A wider variety of people – of all ages, skin colors, and identities – are bravely seeking assistance in discovering their truths than ever before. We owe much of this progress to the founders of IHI.
The freedom to perform our lives with fearlessness, versatility, and truth is my idea of optimal mental health. When we make use of this freedom, we expand concepts of identity for ourselves and other people, inspiring each other to create lives that are more livable.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW
A version of this piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on December 6, 2013