History Lesson: When the Swedish homosexuals stopped being sick

Back in 1979 homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in Sweden, but an occupation of the National Board of Health and Welfare, organised by RFSL – the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights – changed history.

History Lesson: When the Swedish homosexuals stopped being sick

The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights – most commonly referred to as RFSL – was officially founded in 1952 after having been a Swedish branch of The Danish Federation of 1948 (later LGBT Danmark) since 1950.

Although homosexuality was legalised in Sweden back in 1944 it was still classified as a mental illness within the health system 25 years later, and during the summer of 1979 RFSL decided to take matters into their own hands.

I can’t work today, I feel gay
A small group of activists from RFSL, including novelist and playwright Jonas Gardell (author of “Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves”), occupied the staircase inside the National Board of Health and Welfare in August 1979 in order to push for a change. The number of LGBT activists grew steadily day by day and they demanded to speak to the new director-general of Social Security, Barbro Westerholm, and convince her to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness.

The activists from RFSL were ready to keep occupying the National Board of Health and Welfare for a full week, and since they could not go to work in the meantime they had to protect their jobs by phoning Social Security. So they did. Some of the RFSL members famously called in sick, claiming they were unable to work because they felt very homosexual. One lesbian woman allegedly even managed to get sick benefits from Social Security on this basis.

The removal
By late August 1979 the number of activists had grown to somewhere between 30 and 40 people and on August 29 the group was greeted by the new director-general of Social Security, Barbro Westerholm, who had a fruitful conversation with the activists during which she expressed her surprise upon learning that being gay or lesbian was still classified as a mental illness and she announced that the classification would be removed as soon as possible.

On October 19, 1979 homosexuality was no longer a mental illness in Sweden and the country went on to become one of the most progressive in the world when it comes to LGBT legislation.

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