These days, the acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgendered people seems firmly entrenched in the American mainstream. After several teen suicides linked to bullying and sexuality, the It Gets Better campaign included high-profile supporters, including President Barack Obama. With legalized gay marriage in six states, and perhaps soon in New York, it may be difficult for many to imagine a time not so long ago when those seeking help for questions surrounding gender and sexuality would have had serious difficulty.
When The Institute for Human Identity was founded in 1973, it was the only counseling center and non-profit organization that worked with the LGBTQ community in terms of its psychological issues. Back then, homosexuality was still considered a mental disease that needed to be cured. IHI, however, was breaking boundaries by spreading its mission statement: to provide a relaxed, non-biased ambiance of professional mental health services for the LGBTQ community and anyone who felt stigmatized by lifestyles that conflicted with the social norms. Rather than labeling them “sick” or trying to cure their “illness” with prescription medication, IHI treated people as individuals and not mere numbers. This still stands today.
“We shy away from the medical model of labeling people sick. We don’t believe people are sick; we believe people are having problems in living their lives to the fullest potential and we help them with how to deal with it,” Dr. Miriam Colbert Ehrenberg, executive director of IHI, said. “We don’t provide a stop-gap for client issues because medicine only alleviates an issue, it doesn’t cure it.”
According to Ehrenberg, by labeling people “sick” and loading them up on prescription medications, it would be impossible to solve a person’s core issues. And just as homosexuality was labeled a mental illness in the past, prescribing medications for individuals can pin a label on them that has the potential to follow that person the rest of their life. (Although IHI does have a consulting psychiatrist, they choose to not prescribe medication unless it would truly benefit the patient during the psychotherapy process.)
Dr. Charles Silverstein, the founding director of IHI and one of its current supervisors, was one of the people responsible for removing the label of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. For his efforts, Silverstein will receive the gold medal award for lifetime achievement by the American Psychological Foundation August 5 in Washington, D.C.
“It’s an honor to receive such a prestigious award,” Dr. Silverstein said. “Only four gold medals are given a year, and with a membership of over 150,000 in the American Psychological Association, you can see there is a lot of competition.”
Silverstein created the institute with an all-volunteer staff that collected fees for the psychological services provided. Nearly 40 years later, IHI continues with its mission—and these days the staff, of course, is paid. Silverstein’s private psychotherapy practice is now located in the Upper West Side on West 83rd Street. He’s also known by many as the co-author of the groundbreaking book, The Joy of Gay Sex (with Edmund White) and The New Joy of Gay Sex (with Felice Picano).
In addition to psychotherapy, IHI provides workshops that address common issues of the LGBTQ community, including dating, sex and other social issues. They also have a groundbreaking new support program called “family Q,” funded by the New York State Department of Health. It’s the first program in the city to provide counseling for psychological issues and workshops to LGBTQ families and prospective parents encountering problems that their straight counterparts rarely deal with.
“In the future, we want to broaden and keep the mission of teaching people to live to their full potentials alive,” Ehrenberg said. “Psychotherapy isn’t a cure; it’s an educational process.”
IHI, 322 8th Ave., Ste. 802 (at W. 26th St.), www.ihi-therapycenter.org.