May 17 in History: The Day WHO removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses

May 17 in History: The Day WHO removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses

The struggle for homosexuals to have the same rights as heterosexuals is one that has been fought for decades.


Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for many years and was only voted off the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD) on 17 May, 1990.

Homosexuality was widely considered an abomination and to be against the laws of nature around the world for thousands of years.

One of the most influential individuals in the classification of homosexuality as an illness was Austrian forensic psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing.

According to Krafft-Ebing, functional deviations of the sexual instinct (to be attracted to the opposite sex) caused sexual deviances (including, but not limited to, homosexuality).

He saw this as something occurring during puberty, and said it was biologically based in the cerebral cortex, close to the olfactory bulb.

However, renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud disagreed with Krafft-Ebing’s theory, believing that everyone is born with bisexual tendencies, and expressions of homosexuality could therefore be seen as a normal phase in psychosexual development.

Freud explained the development of homosexuality in terms of his psychosexual theory of development.

During the so-called autoerotic phase, he claimed, boys who have an excessive interest in their own genitals will (according to Freudian theory) become homosexual.

Freud’s theories were ground-breaking yet controversial at the time, as the vast majority of society still considered homosexuality to be against the laws of nature.

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was first published in 1952 and defined sexual deviance as deviant sexuality which is not caused by symptoms of more extreme disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Sexual deviance was introduced as the new term for cases formerly classified as “psychopathic personality with pathologic sexuality.” Homosexuality was thus classified as a pathological behaviour.

Homosexuality’s inclusion in this classification was eventually ended in 1973 when a revised version of the DSM that did not contain homosexuality was published.

WHO’s larger and more extensive version of the DSM, the ICD, was first published in 1949 as ICD-6.

It was the sixth revision of the ICD which was originally published as the International Classification of Causes of Death by the American Public Health Association (APHA) in 1900.

Its name was changed a number of times before it eventually became known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases in 1949 with the publication of ICD-6 taking place a year after WHO took over responsibility for the ICD.

The most recent version of the ICD, ICD-10, was drafted in 1990 and saw the removal of the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.

ICD-10 was officially released to and adopted by the majority of the world in 1994. It was implemented by South Africa in 2005.

Same-sex marriage has since been legalised in a number of countries, including Australia, the most recent nation to do so.

Massachusetts became the first state in the United States of America (USA) to legalise same-sex marriage when it did so on this day in 2004 (the USA has since legalised same-sex nationwide).

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  1. Mandy
    May 18, 08:22 Reply

    Funny how Nigerians still go on and on about how homosexuality is a mental issue, when the rest of the modern world has disproved and moved on from it. Our backwardness is just a wawu.

    • Cocent
      May 18, 08:42 Reply

      Exactly! I have heard people say it’s a mental illness or demonic oppression.

  2. Malik
    May 18, 20:01 Reply

    “During the so-called autoerotic phase, he claimed, boys who have an excessive interest in their own genitals will (according to Freudian theory) become homosexual.”

    Food for thought?

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