Eric Wang

Gay rights activist David Kessler MED ’55 recently committed to giving $5 million from his estate to support LGBTQ research at the Yale School of Public Health, according to an April 10 press release from the Yale School of Public Health.

Kessler’s donation is intended to create a professorship in public health and support the work of John Pachankis, the leader of the ESTEEM Research Group at the Yale School of Public Health — a lab that studies how negative stigma can affect the mental health of LGBTQ individuals and helps members of the community come out of the closet.

“The fact that [the endowment] was given to support LGBTQ mental health is remarkable because it shows that LGBTQ mental health represents a highly pressing public health problem that deserves the attention that it historically has not gotten,” Pachankis said.

Pachankis has focused on LGBTQ mental health for his entire career. He established the ESTEEM Research Group after joining the School of Public Health faculty in 2013. Having grown up as a gay man in the Deep South, he is familiar with the struggles that LGBTQ people face. In addition to the $5 million pledge, Kessler donated $200,000 to Pachankis’ team as an immediate-use fund. Pachankis said the ESTEEM Research Group is using the fund money to refine their online mental health treatment program for LGBTQ people and increase access to it in areas of the country where homophobia is most prevalent.

“We can do a lot with that gift,” Pachankis said. “It’s a big impact on LGBTQ individuals’ health and wellbeing.”

Now retired, Kessler was a prominent member of the gay rights movement in San Francisco during the second half of the 20th century. As the first elected president of Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights — the first organization of gay physicians in the world — Kessler championed efforts to destigmatize homosexuality in doctors’ offices. He also worked for the National Gay Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association, a group which he would later preside over in 1980.

Following his two-year presidency at the Gay Caucus in 1982, Kessler decided to fund an endowment for LGBTQ research at Yale. At that time, however, the administration was not receptive to his offer.

“For some reason or another, Yale didn’t seem to be ready for that at that time,” he said.

But when the Yale School of Public Health recently introduced Kessler to the work of Pachankis, he was again ready to donate.

“It was right up my alley that I was looking for,” Kessler added. “Helping gay people come out of the closet is one of the most important things that gays can do both for themselves to increase their own mental and social stability and also to increase society’s acceptance and knowledgeability about gay people.”

Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund expressed appreciation for Kessler’s gift.

“It’s a really generous thing for a Yale MED alumnus to have given the bulk of his estate to Yale,” he said. “We’ve only had six gifts in the school’s history over a million dollars, so it’s highly influential for us to have a gift of this magnitude, so we can advance research.”

According to Pachankis, LGBTQ individuals face mental health challenges due to the stressors they face as a minority group. Hurt by discrimination, bullying and social isolation, young members of the LGBTQ community also face difficulty connecting with sources of support and guidance. In areas of the United States and around the world where LGBTQ members are not accepted by society, Pachankis’ online counseling program will help individuals who may be unable to seek conventional therapy.

Pachankis added that he respects Kessler as a foundational figure in LGBT research.

“It is a remarkable change that he’s lived through and what LGBTQ people of that generation lived through,” he said. “We have a lot to learn from that generation about how to create lives that are meaningful, that are resilient and can ultimately support the next generation of LGBTQ people.”

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu .

Correction, April 16: A previous version of this story stated that Kessler is a former Yale professor. In fact, he is only an alumnus of the School of Medicine. The story also stated that Kessler’s donation will endow the professorship of John Pachankis. In fact, since Kessler’s donation is a bequest, the holder of the eventual endowment will not officially be determined until Kessler’s final estate is settled.