Homosexuality was once considered a mental illness. It was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which the American Psychiatric Association describes as “an authoritative volume that defines and classifies mental disorders.”
That changed in 1973, when a subcommittee of the organization “reviewed the characteristics of the various mental disorders and concluded that, with the exception of homosexuality and perhaps some of the other ‘sexual deviations’, they all regularly caused subjective distress or were associated with generalized impairment in social effectiveness of functioning.” That was an important step in the process that led to the removal of homosexuality from the book of mental illnesses. Officially, homosexuality was no longer considered pathological.
You can read more about how and why this happened in a 2015 article, Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality. What I would like to share here is the role that gay activists played in getting the issue taken seriously.
Martin Duberman tells some of those stories in his new book, Has the Gay Movement Failed?. A key moment occurred in 1970 at the national convention of the American Psychiatric Association. Meetings like this one are for mental health professionals, but this one was different. Gay activists, including some from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), showed up and spoke out at talks and panel discussions.
For example, in his talk, Dr. Charles Socarides
“stressed that homosexuality was an emotional illness fraught with guilt and anxiety. That led Chicago’s GLF to pass out a leaflet to the doctors in attendance asking if Socarides would “also consider Judaism an emotional illness because of the paranoia which Jews experienced in Nazi Germany?””
The activists were just getting started.
“When Dr. Nathaniel McConaghy of Australia began describing his success in giving homosexual male patients injections of apomorphine and then, while suffering from nausea, showing them slides of attractive males, the GLF attendees erupted. Joined by a group of some twenty feminists, GLF members jumped up from their seats in the auditorium with shouts of “Torture!” “Get Your Rocks Off That Way?!” and so forth.”
Three years later, homosexuality was no longer in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Activism alone would not have been enough to get homosexuality depathologized, if psychiatrists believed it really did qualify as a mental illness. But once they were pushed to examine their assumptions, they did, and found them wanting.