Sweden is typically known as a very progressive country, especially with regard to the treatment of its LGBT population. In fact, it’s probably one of the best places in the world today to be openly gay. But It’s hard to believe that hasn’t always been the case!
Sweden legalized homosexuality in 1944, but don’t relax quite yet — it was still considered a mental illness at this point in time, according to the National Board of Health and Welfare. In fact, more than 30 years went by before that classification changed.
In 1979, people were understandably fed up with being classified as “mentally ill” solely based on their sexual orientation, so they took action. A group of Swedish workers decided to protest by calling in sick to work...on the grounds that they were gay, and therefore “ill.”
The protests were all part of a larger movement sparked by the RFSL, or as it’s known in English, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. One protester even managed to collect social security benefits on the grounds of her “illness.”
RFSL devised another plan: during Homosexual Liberation Week (now known as Stockholm Pride) they were going to occupy the National Board of Health and Welfare building in order to protest the unfair classification of homosexuality. On August 29, 1979, protesters convened to block the stairs of the building.
The protesters waved signs and banners and chanted their dissatisfaction. Eventually, Barbro Westerholm (pictured), the director general of the National Board, came out to see what all of the commotion was about.
Westerholm listened to what the protesters had to say, and eventually warmed up to their demands. All of the hard work paid off, because later that year, the National Board declassified homosexuality as a mental illness, making Sweden the first European country to do so!
It wasn’t until 2014 that the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report stating that there isn’t any scientific evidence that can link homosexuality with full-on mental illness. The report came after decades of studies on mental health and sexual orientation.
“It’s also a human rights issue,” says Susan Cochran, an epidemiologist at UCLA. Cochran lead the working group in a panel appointed by the WHO. Now that researchers have spoken, it’s hard to understand why so many still discriminate against the LGBT community.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science says that, given these results, there could be “tremendous pushback” from countries that have the harshest laws on homosexuality, including Russia, Uganda or Nigeria. But, Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins says that this is “precisely the right time for the WHO to stand up, take an evidence-based approach and say [homosexuality] is not a pathology.”
Today, life in Sweden for openly LGBT people is pretty good overall. The nation has recently passed gender-neutral wedding laws and adoption rights for gay couples. The Stockholm Pride parade even attracts as many as 400,000 spectators every year.
But of course, no country is perfect, and Sweden is of no exception. The official website of Sweden reports that LGBT people do sometimes still face discrimination and prejudice, especially when it comes to how they’re treated in medical centers. Doctors will sometimes discriminate against lesbian women who want to get pregnant, for example.
According to the official website of Sweden, “laws remain laws, in short. The passing of them has not completely eliminated discrimination against people due to sexual orientation or transgender identity.”
There’s still work to be done, but overall Sweden has been doing a pretty good job on the equality front since being gay was considered a "mental illness."