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The Declassification of Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder in 1973

Throughout the 20th century, homosexuality was seen as a mental disorder, with Gene Ampon having experienced being a ‘patient’ at Atascadero State Hospital in the early 1960’s. It wouldn’t be until 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association decided that homosexuality was in fact not a mental disorder.

Our story begins with Gene Ampon, who would be able to describe the torture that happened at the Atascadero mental hospital in California. Claiming to be the first mental hospital that could “cure” homosexuality, when Gene was 16 he would be placed in this facility.

Within the second day of being at the mental hospital, Gene was sexually assaulted, though in order to survive he would give his body for food and other items.

Gene Ampon in 2021, taken by Lee Romney

Many people, who were 18 and older, would be given electroconvulsive shock therapy and others would be given a sedating drug called phenobarbital. Gene would be given the drug every morning for two years and was constantly taunted about how his age stopped the facility from using the electro shock therapy that was used to torture others.

Gene had also experienced solitary confinement, and with all of this he had decided to swallow his pride and pretend to have interest in heterosexual relationships. With this he was released at the age of 18 in 1964 and in 1966 Atascedro would become more extreme when using drugs and calling it treatment.

Many of this would change at Atascadero when Dr. Michael Serber was hired in 1970 and Don Kilhefner would help in other ways. Within the 4 years that Dr. Serber worked at the mental hospital, he tried to address the treatment of the patients wihtin the facility. Always trying to stand up for his LGBTQ+ patients. Dr. Serber would go on to write a paper that expressed his feelings of anger towards how the people at the mental hospital were treated. This paper would never be published by any journal and during his time no one would understand his belief that homosexuality was not an illness. Dr. Michael Serber would die of cancer in 1974.

While Dr. Serber was working towards changing the lives of those within the mental hospital, Don Kilhefner would do the same outside of the mental hospital. Building community and trying his best to protect gay men and in the end, causing the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to back down.

During a meeting between those in the APA, Don Kilhefner had proceeded to interrupt the presentation and tell them that the LGBTQ+ community was mentally ill because the medical field caused them to be. This happened in 1970 and it wouldn’t be until 1973 when the APA voted that homosexuality didn’t meet the requirements to be a mental disorder. Many events would have to occur before this liberation for the LGBTQ+ community to happen.

In 1972, a homosexual psychiatrist named John Fryer had decided to testify for the fight of declassifying homosexuality. Though this would be a very interesting event due

Dr. Henry Anonymous (John Fryer) in 1972

to the fact that in order to protect himself he wore a mask, distorted his voice and used the name Dr. Henry Anonymous. He would explain to the panel that everyone has something to lose in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

Within that year, declassifying homosexuality would not be pondered, but this would be the start of the LGBTQ+ liberation. In the following year, a man named Ronald Gold would give a speech while saying “Stop it, you're making me sick.” Implying that the APA was making these individuals sick when they were healthy. There was also an argument about how homosexuality didn’t meet the requirements of a mental disorder. Homosexuality didn’t cause distress and these individuals weren't uncomfortable with their sexuality. Thus, in 1973, homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder by the APA.

Despite the declassification, many things had been placed in stone throughout society. Believing that homosexuality was an illness, but these individuals were safe from being classified as having a mental disorder.

Even with the social damage that had occurred at the time, it was still very important that this had been reversed and not left to cause more damage to the LGBTQ+ community. Gene Ampon would go on to live with his life partner in Seattle and hope that those who are not in the LGBTQ+ community would be more accepting. With him expressing his experience, hopefully no one has to go through something like that ever again.

Lee Romney, J. J. (2023, October 23). When gayness was a crime and a mental illness: One man’s journey from involuntary confinement to Pride. MindSite News.

Uyeda, R. L. (2021, May 26). How LGBTQ+ activists got “homosexuality” out of the DSM - JSTOR DAILY. How LGBTQ+ Activists Got “Homosexuality” out of the DSM.

Unknown Author, (1973, December 23). The A.P.A. ruling on homosexuality. The New York Times.

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