Protestors blocking the stairs of the National Board of Health and Welfare in 1979. Image Credit: Courtesy RFSL

Psychiatry has not always been kind to people whose sexuality veers from the societal norm. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in many countries as late as the mid-20th century—if it was not classified as an outright crime. Even Sweden, that Scandinavian bastion of openness and equality, identified being gay as a disorder as late as 1979. 

That year, a group of Swedes took advantage of the legal framework that made being gay an illness and called in sick to work, claiming their homosexuality as the reason. One woman, from the southern province of Smålandeven, managed to get Social Security benefits for calling in gay. 

Calling in gay was part of a larger protest from the RFSL, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. Sweden decriminalized homosexuality in 1944, but according to the National Board of Health and Welfare, which develops health standards, it was still a disease. As a bit of context, the American Psychiatric Association announced that it would no longer consider homosexuality a mental disorder in 1973, though it continued to use “sexual orientation disturbance” to categorize individuals who felt distressed by their sexual orientation (among other odd disorders).

Fed up with the lack of traction it was gaining through traditional letter and phone campaigns, RFSL planned to occupy the National Board building as a demonstration against pathologizing gayness. On August 29, during the middle of Stockholm’s “Homosexual Liberation Week” (later Stockholm Pride), RFSL protesters gathered to block the stairs of the National Board building, chanting and waving banners. Barbro Westerholm, the newly installed director general of the National Board, eventually came and sat with the protestors, and became amenable to their cause. In late October of 1979, the National Board declassified homosexuality as a disease, making Sweden the first European country to do so. 

Needless to say, not all countries have caught up. It wasn’t until 2014 that a World Health Organization panel concluded that there is no scientific basis for mental disorders specific to gay people, and the American Psychiatric Association’s treatment of transgender people remains controversial.