“An integral part of our unwritten philosophy at Identity House is that we exist for our internal community as well as for the larger outside one…by fighting for the right of each person in the community to establish her/his own identity.”—Patrick Kelley
Imagine if you can 1971, New York City and the United States. New York and the US are rocking in turmoil. A divisive war engages the nation abroad and civil unrest fires the field at home. Many of the tethers to the past appear torn and ragged. Major redefinitions of social relationships are under construction at heavy cost to those involved. People in power are being continually assaulted and diminished by those previously outside wanting to take the power for themselves.
It was several years before the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations removed homosexuality from their lists of psychological disorders (’73 and ’74, respectively). Brad Wilson and Hal Kooden, both Psychologists and early members of ldentity House, were two of those responsible for the removal of homosexuality from the APA’s DSM-III. It was a time when lesbians and gay men were taking the power to redefine themselves — and were joining together in activist communities.
Two years before, a crowd of angry gay bar patrons prominently led by a group of drag queens fought back the police who had just raided their watering hole, The Stonewall Inn. The ensuing demonstrations lasted a few nights. Psychotherapist and teacher Patrick Kelley, ran into Paul Goodman, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy, in the crowd outside the bar one night and expressed his surprise at encountering him. Goodman says, Kelley tells us in his essay Beyond the Hot Seat, “Why not? This is where tonight’s revolution is taking place.”
In this heady atmosphere Identity House came into being founded by a group of professionals and nonprofessionals as a reaction to the way we were labeled as “sick” by the therapeutic community. As a way of taking care of our own and structuring our identity, the organization was conceived as one of peers who would counsel clients at a Walk-in-Center and gay or gay positive psychotherapists who would run supervision and training and be available for referrals if needed. The peers would share their own positive experiences of being lesbian or gay as a way of reflecting and affirming being gay, lesbian, bisexual, (and later transgender, or questioning) for each other and for those who sought our services.
Identity House began operating out of the basement of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. The Walk-In Center was opened to the community where many troubled men and women traveled to speak with peer counselors as they agonized over whether or not to finally come out to their friends and families.
Lee Zevy, another founding member and former clinical director, said “[Our clients] had never actually talked to anyone about being gay before, and they’d walk up and down outside the WIC, up and before getting the courage to come up to the office and talk,” said Zevy. “And after having the one-on-one counseling, we also started men’s and women’s groups, where they could talk to each other about what it meant to be gay, about going to the bar or dating, and really about any topics they wanted to discuss.”
Those at the forefront of the sessions quickly realized the effect they were having on these people who had spent so much time with a burden that carried such emotional — and sometimes, as the result of attacks, physical — pain and scars.
“People changed after their very first meeting,” said Zevy. “They gained self-esteem, optimism, hope. They learned about each other, and formed their own friendship groups. It was everything we wanted.”
Of course, in an organization of both professionals and nonprofessionals, you can expect some creative tension. Early in our history this tension came out in a dispute between those who sought to make Identity House solely a hierarchical professional organization and those who sought to keep it a mix of peers and professionals working together as equals. Kelley led the way to hold on to a concept of a membership organization based on a loose structure with a horizontal governance. Kelley’s outline for Identity House was firmly based in the principles of gestalt therapy approaching, contacting, assimilating and withdrawal, creatively encountering the environment to destruct and build anew. Identity House would have a rotating steering committee supportive of a governing process. From this process small groups or committees would evolve to attend to the needs of the counselors, do the administrative work and address issues raised by those entering Identity House for help. The configuration of these committees would change as the needs of the organization changed. All members of Identity House no matter their training or voluntary contribution to the functioning of the organization – peer counselors, psychotherapists and non-counseling members – would be equal in terms of decision making. The first set of bylaws stated loudly “The membership shall be the highest governing body of this organization.”
These two contending visions led to breakups and regroupings. As a result, there was a split in Identity House in which another organizations formed along the hierarchical lines of a more traditional professional institute.
Identity House preserved its name in the conflict, by two quick-thinking women members. Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love — lesbian co-authors of the 1972 book “Sappho Was a Right-On Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism” — saved the day, as the story goes.
“They were members of Identity House, and after the split, they flew right up to Albany to make sure we could reserve the name, before it could be taken,” Zevy recalled.
After the conflict that led to the other organization, Identity House was reconstituted. In June of 1973. The organization began to grow from a small group that moved back into, then clinical director Patrick Kelley’s office in 1973 to where in time we were able to afford our first home, on 6th Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. In 1991 we moved to 39 West 14′” Street with the help of a bequest from Patrick Kelley, and the endowments of many grateful members who had passed away during the AIDS crisis. The larger spaces allowed the organization to expand its programming to include workshops, conferences and social events.
“The value of those parties was that they weren’t the bars, which had really been the only places to meet other gay and lesbian people at that point,” said Zevy. “We wanted to provide a more neutral, non-alcoholic setting for people.”
Fast forward to the end of the 1990s. AIDS had devastated the New York gay men’s community in the previous 15 years. Identity House worked closely with groups like the newly formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the staff of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital to deal with new sources of fear — even as close comrades fell victim. One particularly deep blow to the organization was the death of Patrick Kelley, who an early victim of the disease.
As Identity House grew, it maintained its integrity by receiving its primary funding from the membership and donations from clients and continued support in part by endowments left by some of the early members who had worked with and recognized the importance of the city’s first peer counseling organization.
In the late ‘90s, the group moved again to a larger space on West 14th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The organization remained there until the rent doubled in 2006. The organization decided that survival meant cutting down on costs by renting space at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street and running groups in the offices of contributing psychotherapists and rental spaces.
But some things never really change, and Zevy pointed out that the direct connection of peer counseling — the in-person, conversational and deeply personal element that can sometimes be forgotten in a digital age — still has the same healing effect it did more than four decades ago.
Some of these original members are still part of Identity House. Others who first came as clients now work here as peer counselors or therapists. Not only is Identity House the oldest volunteer-based LGBTQ Peer Counseling Walk-in-Center organization in NYC, it is also a group that has successfully preserved gender parity and diversity as sexual and gender configurations have evolved. This is unique about Identity House.
“A lot of these young people come to us and they want to be counselors, and they’re often very accomplished because they’ve been driving themselves to work hard in school, or to build their careers,” said Zevy. “But before an orientation, before we train them at all, we ask them how they feel. And it’s still a sort of revolutionary thing, because you see that the young people are starved for the connectedness, for the humanity that we offer.”
“This is what makes our organization function,” she noted. “At school, or at work, people are worried about completing tasks, but here, we’re worried about how you feel. So, yes, a lot of our peers have, and will, go on to become therapists, psychiatrists or lawyers — but now they really have a heart. We send them off with a heart.”
As we close in on the first 50 years of Identity House, we look forward to the next 50. It begs the question: Is Identity House needed in the 21st Century? There are now many institutions serving the LGBTQ+ community and there is a wider acceptance and integration of LGBTQ+ people. Many LGBTQ+ people now are no longer on the margins but in the mainstream. Even as acceptance improves and technology reshapes the way we communicate, it is sometimes easy for LGBTQ+ people to feel like outsiders, even within the organizations we create for ourselves. Identity House remains a place where we talk and listen. Feel welcome to bring yourself and know you will be heard.