Gestalt Therapy’s Early Acceptance of Diverse Sexualities – Daniel Rosenblatt Remembered

By Malcolm Parlett

To Piotr Mierkowski,

Thank you for highlighting the strong connection between the LGBTQ+ community and Gestalt therapy, especially in its early days. However, there is no mention of Daniel Rosenblatt. Aside from being among the earliest Gestalt therapists in New York, and a close friend of Laura Perls and Isadore From, Daniel contributed an excellent article in 1998 for the British Gestalt Journal (Vol.7 No.1) in a ‘Special Focus Issue on gay and Lesbian Issues’. His historical account was titled ‘Gestalt and Homosexuality: A Personal Memoir’ and appeared alongside two other articles, one by Glenys Jacque (‘Homo-erotic Horror’), the other by Alan Singer (‘Adolescents Coming Out’). Even in 1998, publishing these articles seemed slightly ‘daring’, compared to now.

Re-reading Dan’s fascinating article for the BGJ, I realise how much the Gestalt therapy world has changed since the early days – inevitably so, and with many gains and losses. He gives a detailed picture of how Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1950s offered a place of acceptance and understanding for those exploring their sexuality and preferences, at a time when homosexuality was still widely considered an aberration and psychological disorder. (It was not removed from the DSM III until 1973.) Again, Gestalt was at the forefront of psychotherapy developments. Dan goes on to describe Paul Goodman’s belief that his own bisexuality was a political statement: ‘Goodman is suggesting that he (sic) who would promote community life had also better promote sexuality in all its forms and varieties … Goodman is questioning whether all the safe, neat, hygienic, genteel norms of our society would not be improved by promulgating a rash, sexy, obstreperous intersubjectivity which he believed was healthier and more pleasurable.’ (BGJ, pp. 10-11) In his article Daniel Rosenblatt goes on to describe what was almost certainly the first personal development group for gay men, certainly in Gestalt, and its 25 year history, leading up to its heartbreaking end in the early 1990s, with nearly half of its members having died in the AIDS epidemic.

In remembering Dan Rosenblatt and his pioneering work, his personal presence and his urgent plea that Gestalt should not become too ‘respectable’ in outlook, I realise how much I miss him and his influence in my own development. I realise I am drawn here to include some personal reminiscences…

I got know Daniel Rosenblatt well, meeting him through his being a keen reader of the Journal, and his writing spiritedly contentious Letters to the Editor. He was critical of the way that contemporary writers (as he saw it) had departed from the earlier intentions – notably in not appealing to people who did not see themselves as ‘therapy clients’.

He took me to task about BGJ policy to raise the intellectual and professional credentials of Gestalt, which he saw as a move towards ‘respectability’. We had many lively discussions! His own books were brief, practical, introductory. He did not approve of the style of the BGJ yet I noticed he also became an avid reader of it. He was very critical of Gordon Wheeler’s writing but when they eventually met, they got on famously.

Dan and I became friends over email. Later we met in person, and I stayed with him and his long-term partner, James, at their home on Long Island; he later lent me his apartment as a base during a stay in NYC. He also came to London, on two occasions. He died in 2009. In addition to many conversations about Gestalt and the early history (he was a great source of anecdotes), we also talked about sexuality – being gay (Dan) or bisexual (me) – and the various options, phases, and life-paths taken or not taken. On one occasion, to my surprise, he said that if he could have his time over again he might opt for the ‘same choice ’as I had made, given that missing out on family life and children had been a real loss for him. Gay people have sometimes been prejudiced towards those with bisexual preferences, and this was an affirmative remark for me to hear at the time. I suspect I quibbled over the term ‘choice’, as it does not feel as simple as that. Being bisexual, or pansexual, was a challenge for many of us in a world in which categories, labels, and binary distinctions were so emphatic. The greater understanding and acceptance of fluidity, non-binary sexuality, and queer identities have been a great advance. I think Dan would have been pleased.

Remembering Dan with affection and respect, I have three other vivid memories.

The first is of his generosity and kindness. He unexpectedly passed on to me a jacket that had been made for Fritz Perls by someone at Esalen that Fritz had worn a lot. After Fritz’s death, Laura had given the jacket to Dan. I felt honoured to be the next recipient of this tangible historic connection to Fritz, and I had a sense of Dan’s being grateful to have it safely passed on. I kept it for a number of years and wore it at a few Gestalt functions, but was never entirely comfortable wearing it. I felt insufficiently entitled to wear an item of Fritz’s clothing, and also – given that Fritz and I were not the same shape – the jacket did not fit me! Taking scissors to it would have been a step too far – almost like an act of desecration – so I was glad to donate it to an AAGT auction to raise funds to support conference attenders from less wealthy countries. I think it made nearly $400, going to a German buyer; it seemed an appropriate destination, considering Fritz’s place of birth and where Gestalt originated. What I remember most were the ambivalent feelings we both had about this ’sacred object’, including elements of amusement, enjoyment, and embarrassment. Looking after the jacket for the years I had it did bring a mysterious and thrilling sense of connection to Fritz.

A second stand-out memory was the day when we attended a matinee performance at the Old Vic, and subsequently dined at The Ivy, which for me was my first time. Dan was an ‘arts patrician’, immersed and interested in theatre and plays (he had written one himself that was performed on Broadway), and was very knowledgeable about actors, directors etc. and he was able to identify one or two of the fellow diners. He also managed to talk the waiter into surreptitiously passing him one of The Ivy’s table napkins, complete with embroidered logo that he could have as a memento. The visit evoked the contrasts of the man: both traditional and maverick, conventional and far from conventional. He was also a joiner and non-joiner with strong Gestalt roots and deeply held convictions, yet distancing himself from the New York Institute despite many invitations to ‘come back’. Like most of us, he was an interesting mix.

I think my last meeting with Dan in person was at the end of August 1997. We were briefly staying together in the Russell Hotel in London and on economic grounds were sharing a room. On waking early, looking for a weather forecast, we put on the television: the news was that Princess Diana had been involved in a car accident in Paris and her death was confirmed as we watched. That day I remember our walking together in central London. So, just as I remember where I was when I heard of JFK’s assassination, and where I was when Maggie Thatcher resigned, I always remember where I was on hearing of Diana’s death – the recollection filled with Dan’s laconic presence, field-curiosity, and interest in all things British. Superficially, everything seemed to be continuing as normal, yet there was a field shift that felt a little surreal. There was no indication of the enormous emotional reaction that was to follow within the next few days. Looking back, I think everyone was simply in a state of shock, and unsure ‘how to play this new information’.

Sadly, our friendship did not flourish in the final years of his life. Our patterns of corresponding were too different. He wanted to write almost every day and for me to reply at the same rate. Given that I was hugely committed, still editing, teaching, with a large practice, I could perhaps manage a rhythm of writing every 7 to 10 days. He was frustrated by this and more or less severed our connection. Looking back I’m aware of what we both lost. But in the context of a lifetime, Daniel Rosenblatt has a significant place among early Gestaltists who influenced me, and through his contributions to the BGJ, also has an honoured place in our UK Gestalt history. Thank you, Dan.

Malcolm Parlett

Malcolm Parlett is a semi-retired Gestalt coach, international trainer, and public advocate for Whole Intelligence. In 2020 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Gestalt OSD Centre, Cleveland Ohio (US) for his organisational work. His book Future Sense: Five explorations of Whole Intelligence for a world that’s waking up – was published in 2015.
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UKAGP Newsletter, Summer 2021
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