Homosexuality: The Mental Illness That Went Away

by Phil on October 8, 2011

Post edited and updated January 2, 2013, to reflect clarifications as a result of interactions with the many people who have left comments.  I thank them for their input.

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According to the American Psychiatric Association, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness.  Freud had alluded to homosexuality numerous times in his writings, and had concluded that paranoia and homosexuality were inseparable.  Other psychiatrists wrote copiously on the subject, and homosexuality was “treated” on a wide basis.  There was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualized as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated.  And, of course, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in DSM-II.

Then in 1970 gay activists protested against the APA convention in San Francisco.  These scenes were repeated in 1971, and as people came out of the “closet” and felt empowered politically and socially, the APA directorate became increasingly uncomfortable with their stance.  In 1973 the APA’s nomenclature task force recommended that homosexuality be declared normal.  The trustees were not prepared to go that far, but they did vote to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses by a vote of 13 to 0, with 2 abstentions.  This decision was confirmed by a vote of the APA membership, and homosexuality was no longer listed in the seventh edition of DSM-II, which was issued in 1974.

What’s noteworthy about this is that the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses was not triggered by some scientific breakthrough.  There was no new fact or set of facts that stimulated this major change.  Rather, it was the simple reality that gay people started to kick up a fuss.  They gained a voice and began to make themselves heard.  And the APA reacted with truly astonishing speed.  And with good reason. They realized intuitively that a protracted battle would have drawn increasing attention to the spurious nature of their entire taxonomy.  So they quickly “cut loose” the gay community and forestalled any radical scrutiny of the DSM system generally.

The APA claimed that they made the change because new research showed that most homosexual people were content with their sexual orientation, and that as a group, they appeared to be as well-adjusted as heterosexual people.  I suggest, however, that these research findings were simply the APA’s face-saver.  For centuries, perhaps millennia, homosexual people had clung to their sexual orientation despite the most severe persecution and vilification, including imprisonment and death.  Wouldn’t this suggest that they were happy with their orientation?  Do we need research to confirm this?  And if we do, shouldn’t we also need research to confirm that heterosexual people are happy with their orientation?  And if poor adjustment is critical to a diagnosis of mental illness, where was the evidence of this that justified making homosexuality a mental illness in the first place?

Also noteworthy is the fact that the vote of the membership was by no means unanimous.  Only about 55% of the members who voted favored the change.

Of course, the APA put the best spin they could on these events.  The fact is that they altered their taxonomy because of intense pressure from the gay community, but they claimed that the change was prompted by research findings.

So all the people who had this terrible “illness” were “cured” overnight – by a vote!  I remember as a boy reading of the United Nations World Health Organization’s decision to eradicate smallpox.  This was in 1967, and by 1977, after a truly staggering amount of work, the disease was a thing of the past.  Why didn’t they just take a vote?  Because smallpox is a real illness.  The human problems listed in DSM are not.  It’s that simple.  You can say that geese are swans – but in reality they’re still geese.

The overall point being that the APA’s taxonomy is nothing more than self-serving nonsense.  Real illnesses are not banished by voting or by fiat, but by valid science and hard work.  There are no mental illnesses.  Rather, there are people.  We have problems; we have orientations; we have habits; we have perspectives.  Sometimes we do well, other times we make a mess of things.  We are complicated.  Our feelings fluctuate with our circumstances, from the depths of despondency to the pinnacles of bliss.  And perhaps, most of all, we are individuals.  DSM’s facile and self-serving attempt to medicalize human problems is an institutionalized insult to human dignity.  The homosexual community has managed to liberate themselves from psychiatric oppression.  But there are millions of people worldwide who are still being damaged, stigmatized, and disempowered by this pernicious system to this day.

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  • Hapee

    I must contradict the extrapolation presented in relation to the assumption that standing fast in the face of persecution etc. proves that someone is happy with orientation to a mental state, thus disproving such a state is a mental illness. It is a peculiar fact that in the face of personal danger, imprisonment, persecution and the like, people with mental illnesses do quite avidly cling to their positions. Pedophiles and anorexics provide two well known example groups. Commitment under duress to the mental state is a commonality in probably most if not all mental illnesses. There are other weaknesses in logic within this article as well. The author may wish to revisit some points and reconsider, since the reading audience is going to have no trouble immediately perceiving such flawed arguments.

  • Anonymous

    People with the “anorexia” label, self starvers, regularly reform their eating behavior after several brutal force feedings in psychiatric facilities. I’ve heard fathers of girls who were labeled “anorexic” call force feeding the “nuclear option”. You don’t talk nuclear tactics with an entity that isn’t amenable to responding to threats. Your generalizations don’t hold. Many of the people labeled “mentally ill” do in fact cling less to their positions to avoid personal violence against them after learning the hard way what violence institutional psychiatry will unleash upon them. If what you say is true, why do the penalties for noncompliance built into things like community commitment laws, even exist? Psychiatrists and governments themselves, see that threats of increased coercion bring easier compliance. Why would parole for sex offenders, even exist? If they were known to not respond to duress? Why are mental hospitals filled with detainees that literally BEG staff not to do certain violent things to them again? If the person labeled “mentally ill” is so unwavering in their positions, why is it common, very common, for the fresh detainee in a psychiatric facility, to go in knowing nothing about psychiatry, and come out convinced they must take pills for the rest of their lives? to come out parroting every cliched “just like diabetes” line they’ve been fed by the psychiatrists that had them as a captive audience? Why, if they are such generalized automatons of steadfast holding to their positions in the face of duress, do they embark on lives of jealously guarding their privacy and identity with the obvious aim of self preservation against outing and stigma? Your generalizations, don’t hold. Which isn’t surprising, given psychiatry is all about generalizations, and it is that very generalization and classification of disparate people and problems that is its fatal flaw. When one thinks in terms of “anorexics and pedophiles”, one assumes that’s like thinking in terms of “diabetics and phenylketonurics”. Nothing could be messier and more complex than an actual human being living in a civilization, as compared to a predictable “disease process”.

  • HAHAHAH

    You’re conflating homosexual attraction (not a choice, just like heterosexual attraction) with homosexual action (obviously a choice since it’s an action).

  • Pingback: Exploding The Deceitful Myth That Homosexuality And Pedophilia Are Somehow Two Different Things | Start Thinking Right

  • Nexus Arcana

    Excellent article Phil,

    Sorry I’m late to the post here but I came across it as part of my research into the continued politicization and corruption of the DSM. At this point in time, there are psychiatrists and psychologists who are actually attempting to reclassify psychopathy and other anti-social disorders as both “good” and “bad” types.

    DSM V nearly had pedophilia reclassified as a “sexual preference” and Narcissism was nearly removed from the DSM altogether.
    It is telling how corrupt the APA is by the sheer insanity of their current decisions on a whole host of issues.
    This started with the homosexual issue and has continued ever since.

    https://www.psychopathfree.com/content.php?316-Wise-Psychopaths-Honest-Narcissists-Empathetic-Sociopaths-Other-Virtuous-Evil-People

  • Phil_Hickey

    Nexus Arcana,

    Thanks for your comment, and for your encouragement.

  • Nexus Arcana

    My pleasure, sir.

  • Lastrights

    I don’t normally reply to such arguments considering that it is much like debating theology and no proof is going to change someone’s mind hence why homosexuality is a mental illness that cannot be cured simply because A. the person does not think that their behavior is harmful and B. The person invokes an inability to open themselves to the idea of change they have accepted their disposition as one outside their scope of comprehension and control much like a drug addict. That being said all of this is based upon psychology and what the biased APA has published to protect their own assets and none of it is based upon science. Let me say that again psychology and the diagnosis of mental disorders is not based upon SCIENCE it is simply theory and hypothesis. Ivan Pavlov said it best when he as a Nobel Prize winner in medicine stated that until the physiology of the brain can be fully explored psychology will never be anything more that a hypothetical study and never science.
    This is exactly why the APA raises such objection to the initiative to map the human brain simply because if that were to occur and they could identify abnormalities in brain development that affect approximately 2% of the population then they would have no credibility as an organization. In fact Sigmund Freud stated in his extensive study of homosexuality that it has a direct link to paranoia which is still classified as a mental disorder. Another study showed that while homosexuality in itself was not harmful that is was the lack of sexual versatility and the clinging of the person to one gender that is the basis for the psychosis and the fact that homosexuals only view their gender as attractive or worthy of affection.
    I know these words fall on deaf ears but take what lie you must to make it through your day.

  • Lastrights

    the very problem with your argument is you are basing your opinion which is all it is on the theories and hypothesis of others in psychology which is NOT science in itself. So throwing around any ideology that homosexuality is not a mental illness or that one is born with a sexual predisposition has no basis in science and is as relevant as the tooth fairy. Guess that is why gays are referred to as fairies because it is all based on myth not science.

  • Anon

    “This is exactly why the APA raises such objection to the initiative to map the human brain”

    Pretty sure the APA is creaming its pants over the initiative you mention. Pretty sure, no dead certain actually, that they think not enough money has been allocated to it.

    But this thread, continues to be hilarious week in week out, with the “viewpoints” that it seems to draw.

  • Francesca Allan

    There is simply no evidence that homosexuality involves any kind of pathology, neurological or otherwise. It is in fact you who are holding out your opinion (homosexuality = bad) as though it had a scientific basis. It does not. I find homophobes both nasty and tedious so I won’t be discussing this issue with you any further.

  • Francesca Allan

    My thoughts exactly, Anon. My understanding was that the APA was very much pro-brain research an an attempt to validate the field as a science.

  • Truth

    Homophobic propaganda and bullshit.

  • Anon

    Usually its only the comments that get called that. You’re saying the article is?

  • Richard Bowell

    If there is a choice, then is that choice a choice of orientation or is it a choice of living / lifestyle?
    It might be that a person is born as a blank canvass. Or it might be that the person is born with a sexuality.
    Whether or not a person is born as a blank canvass or with a sexual leaning, is that position affected by exposure to the dominant heterosexual culture? And what happens if the person is exposed also to significant homosexual culture? Is the person then just made aware of his / her own leanings by exposure or does exposure influence the person?
    Once exposed, is it then choice?
    Is it a case of no choice before exposure?
    I have another area of questions I will post separately.

  • Richard Bowell

    But isn’t human population of approaching 7 billion already far too big?

  • Richard Bowell

    False, a mental illness, if it exists at all, exists whether its visible to others or not.

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