It was the rainiest, wettest Mother’s Day in history,” San Francisco psychiatrist David Kessler recalls. “I had to get from Manhattan to Flatbush with a bunch of lilacs in one hand, a gift-wrapped French scarf under my arm and an umbrella in the other hand. All the while I worried about how to break the news. Two minutes after I took off my jacket, she gave me the perfect opening. ‘You’re getting older, my mother said. ‘Aren’t you ever going to get married?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘You’re not attracted to women?’ I felt I was on a roller coaster. I said, ‘No.’ Then she said, ‘Does that mean you’re a ah, ah, ah…’ The word stuck in her throat. I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
That is how Dr. Kessler—then 48—finally told his 75-year-old mother last May that he was homosexual. Kessler, president of the Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, the nation’s first formal organization of gay doctors, says his mother was understanding. Yet she worried what relatives and friends would think. “Thank God your father isn’t alive,” Kessler recalls her saying. He adds, “I felt very good about who I was and what I was doing. It was the first time in 25 years my mother and I had said anything meaningful to each other.”
A few weeks later Kessler went public, opening his remarks to colleagues at a symposium on homosexuality: “As a longtime gay psychiatrist myself…” The reaction was pleasantly surprising. “I had anticipated disgust,” he says. “The worst that happened was that some people couldn’t talk about it and went on as if nothing had happened. Nobody broke off a professional or personal relationship.”
Kessler credits Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay teachers with helping him decide to “come out of the medicine cabinet.” He recalls: “I thought, ‘I’m a gay teacher in a sense; what’s all this, that I can’t teach?’ It was so silly and yet so dangerous.”
Kessler was also inspired by a survey of 2,500 psychiatrists which reported that 69 percent thought homosexuality was an illness. “This got my goat,” he says. “Fellow psychiatrists were saying we were sick, and we were sitting back letting them.”
He has mixed feelings about Homosexuality in Perspective, the new study by Masters and Johnson. Kessler agrees that homosexuality is learned, not genetic—”We are a product of what happens to us in our life.” Medical World News reports, however, that his view “differs considerably from those emerging in endocrine clinics and labs around the world.” Some scientists argue that sex hormones present at birth are vital in sexual preference.
Where Kessler parts company with Masters and Johnson is in their reported ability to “convert” gays to heterosexuality. He suggests that their converts may have been bisexual. In his private practice and at the medical center, Kessler treats straights as well as gays. He says his “coming out” apparently did not affect his relationship with heterosexual patients.
Born in Brooklyn, Kessler took pre-med at Brooklyn College and earned his M.D. at Yale. His early fantasies were homosexual, even though his first sexual experience, at the end of medical school, was with a woman. “She seduced me,” he says. “She was very attractive. I was wary, but also excited. It didn’t work out.”
Kessler entered gay life as an intern in a New York hospital. (“There were quite a few gay interns,” he recalls.) Later, working for the U.S. Public Health Service, he was transferred to Charleston, S.C. (“A decadent Southern gay life,” he says. “It seems like every Southern male is partly gay.”) He returned to Yale for psychiatric training. “I had a quasi-paranoid view,” he says. “I thought the psychiatrists could read my mind and know I was gay.” He moved to San Francisco in 1962 and at first “played the narcissistic role to the hilt.” He has never lived with anyone for more than nine months and describes himself as a loner. Since being elected president of the 300-member gay rights group last June, however, Kessler says that publicly he has become “a real loudmouth.”
At services for San Francisco’s murdered gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, in November, Kessler spoke: “Harvey Milk asked us to come out to shatter the myth that we are freaks or weirdos. Now it is our turn to fight for him.”