How gay activism got homosexuality off the mental health disorder list

In 1973 gay people were emancipated. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to make homosexuality no longer a mental illness. Up until the vote by the APA executive if a 16-year-old found a teacher that he felt he could trust, and he revealed he liked other boys, he could be locked away in a mental […]

Health Sexual Health Bill Coleman, PhD

In 1973 gay people were emancipated. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to make homosexuality no longer a mental illness. Up until the vote by the APA executive if a 16-year-old found a teacher that he felt he could trust, and he revealed he liked other boys, he could be locked away in a mental institution. He would not have had the right to defense or appeal, and could be held at the institution like a prisoner for the rest of his life. Although some places still had laws against homosexuality, a person had to get caught in the act in order to be charged. Where if a guy were to admit he was homosexual to the wrong individual, that was enough to get him committed.

gay-liberation-day-1970In the early 1970’s gay activists harassed the APA to get them to change their position that being homosexual is not a mental illness. It was not a new scientific discovery that caused gay men to go from being crazy one day, to sane the next day. Activists mounted a gorilla campaign against the American Psychiatric Association. They disrupted their convention in San Francisco using fake delegate badges to get into meetings to take over the microphone to denounce the APA. They disrupted other events at the APA convention. The following year the APA agreed through negotiation that gay rights activists could take part in a discussion of whether homosexuality should continue to be classified as a mental illness.


Dr. Fryer appeared as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” disguised in an oversized tuxedo, a cloak, and a rubber fright mask to disguise his identity. He stunned the audience of psychiatrists by stating in a voice distorted to further protect his identity, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” He went on to describe the plight of being a closeted gay doctor in a field that still classified homosexuality as a mental illness. It was the first time a gay psychiatrist had dared to openly address colleagues at a professional meeting.

It was a few brave people who stood up and challenged the system that made the changes to emancipated gay people from the control of the mental health system.

apa-protestAfter much political pressure, a committee of the APA met behind closed doors in 1973 and voted to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder from the DSM-II. Opponents of this effort were given 15 minutes to protest this change, according to Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, in Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth. The vote was close, passing with just 55% support. If 3% of this profession changed their vote being gay or homosexual may still be considered insane.

Satinover writes that after this vote was taken, the decision was to be voted on by the entire APA membership. The National Gay Task Force purchased the APA’s mailing list and sent out a letter to the APA members urging them to vote to remove homosexuality as a disorder. APA members were not informed that the mailing had been funded by the homosexual activist group.

This anti-authoritarian atmosphere undoubtedly contributed to the willingness of the head of the APA to do the right thing and remove homosexuality from the DSM. His decision occurred immediately before the actual vote, and as a result of being taken into a room in which many psychiatrists he knew personally were present and came out to him as homosexual. Thus, this major change in the legal status of homosexuals turned on a knives edge and actually had nothing to do with scientific evidence. The issue had never been about science, only about political prejudice posturing as science. The fear that the APA would be stigmatized as an establishment institution was the primary driving factor behind the change in the DSM.


Gay activism and political pressure liberated homosexuals from the American mental health system.   It makes it clear that we were being labeled insane, sick, and insane for political and emotional reasons not because of a new scientific understanding of homosexuality. One of the most scary is the unelected group can label and lock up a person because of group think. Some felt homosexuals were mentally ill because it was against the bible, or that wouldn’t be good for society if two men were allowed to procreate. Others pointed to studies claiming homosexuals were sick. The end result to change the DSM was thanks to the dedication and work of my activists and political pressure, not science.

This also raised questions about other mental health diagnosis that lacked scientific support to justify taking away a persons freedom.

In western jurisdictions, elected officials make laws. There are limits on the kinds of laws that can be made, called constitutions. If you are accused of breaking a law there is an elaborate process to determine if you are found guilty. Up until 1973, gay individuals could be locked up without the right of appeal or public hearing to plead his or her case. This is unlike a person who robbed a bank, who may get 10 years in jail; but if they were gay they could be in the mental health system for the rest of their life.


How someone gets committed to a mental institution varies in each jurisdiction. Before the APA changed the DSM, it was surprising easy to lose your freedom by being incarcerated in a mental hospital, forced to have treatment, or pressured to take treatment. Any licensed doctor was able to complete a one-page form and commit someone to a hospital against his or her will. Today, mental patients have gained more rights, but reviews of the committal order are usually only after a 10, 30 or 90 day assessment period.

It is still possible for someone to be wrongly committed to a mental institution. For example, a group of guys get together for a weekend at a rural hotel. They engage in kinky homosexual behavior, including fisting, bondage, whipping, golden showers, etc. If a housekeeping staff members walks by and witnesses these activities, without being aware of the consensual sexual play activities of these gay men, they may call the police and file a report. When the police investigate, they discover that no laws are broken. It would be very hard to find a doctor who would label these men as sexual deviants who are endangering themselves or others. The men will be let go, but be left with a cost of their sense of self.

Without an elaborate process of proving mental health issues, the system would be plagued with ways of controlling social behavior.

There’s still much work to be done. Unfortunately, even today, there are jurisdictions where being gay can have you committed, tortured, or even executed.


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