“The (Musical) Spark in My Life”

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“The (Musical) Spark in My Life”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In the 1970s, Temple University professor of psychiatry John Fryer urged doctors not to treat gays and lesbians as “sick.” This was not only the opinion of many Americans towards homosexuality, but the official viewpoint of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which deemed homosexuality a mental illness, “curable” through lobotomy and electro-shock therapy.

Disguising himself as “Dr. Anonymous” – complete with a disfigured Richard Nixon joke shop mask, an oversized suit, and a voice modulator – Fryer denounced the dubious “science” underpinning the medical profession’s view of homosexuality at the APA’s 1972 annual meeting. Owing to Fryer’s protest, the APA removed the classification of homosexuality as a psychosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual the following year.

While Fryer’s contribution to LGBT activism is becoming more widely known, there was another man behind that mask: a dedicated church organist and choir director for over 30 years.

Fryer himself identified music, not psychiatry, as the “spark” in his life. Many Philadelphians, unknowingly, already have an intimate connection to him as a musician: Fryer played the organ at every Temple University and Temple Medical School commencement from 1975 to 2000.

On March 31, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) will explore the significance church music held in Fryer’s life. Rebecca Alpert, professor of religion at Temple University, will discuss how events in Philadelphia have played a pivotal role in history as churches struggle with issues of race, gender and sexuality with a special focus on Fryer, organist for three decades at St. Peter’s Church in Germantown. Ain Gordon, HSP’s Embedded Artist who has been developing a play based on Fryer’s life, will join Ms. Alpert.

Members of the Arch Street United Methodist Church Choir will share musical selections important to Fryer, with a newly digitized recording and documents from the John Fryer collection unveiled for the first time. A preview of Ain Gordon’s upcoming play, 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous (to premiere May 5 at the Painted Bride Art Center) will also be featured.

During the program, The LGBT Religious Archives Network will present its 2015-16 LGBT Religious History Award to Dr. Bruce Dorsey, professor of history at Swarthmore College, for his paper, “Making Men What They Should Be:” Male Same-Sex Intimacy and Evangelical Religion in Early Nineteenth Century New England.

This program is a part of the An Artist Embedded project, a two-year collaboration between HSP and playwright Ain Gordon. Major support for An Artist Embedded has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from HSP.

Program Information:

  • WHEN: Thursday, March 31, from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.
  • TICKETS: $10 for members of HSP and the Philadelphia Orchestra, $15 for nonmembers. Register here.