Published on 19 Oct 2012 Sections ,

Transsexualism not a mental illness, say campaigners

Pressure grows on the World Health Organisation to change its definition of transsexualism and remove it from its internationally recognised list of mental disorders.

Transsexualism 'not a mental illness', says campaigners (G)

More than 35,000 people so far have signed a petition which calls on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reclassify transsexualism.

The petition was started by a cast member from the Channel 4 show My Transsexual Summer and the campaign is being a final push ahead of the International Day of Action for Trans Depathologisation on 20 October.

The WHO publishes an international classification of diseases (ICD) which is used to inform government policy and health provision. The ICD is currently under its 11th review and campaigners hope that transsexualism will be reclassified.

Homosexuality was removed from the list of mental disorders in 1990, when the ICD was last revised.

The European parliament adopted a resolution calling on the WHO, which represents 194 members states, to change its definition of transsexualism as a disease in September last year.


Sarah Savage, who went through transition last year and took part in My Transsexual Summer, said the current classification was “insulting”.

“I’m trans – I’m not mentally ill,” she told Channel 4 News. “Quite frankly for the WHO to classify me as mentally ill for a part of my identity, is quite insulting.

“Before I can get to an NHS identity clinic, I have to be certified by a psychiatrist as sane.”

ICD 11 is expected to be published in 2015. Before then, the WHO takes recommendations from independent working groups and these will be made open to public consultation on the internet, possibly by the end of this year, before the revised recommendations are then tested by health ministries.

If it was declassified and did not feature in the disease list at all, transsexualism could run the risk of being ignored by doctors, said Ms Savage. Instead campaigners are hoping for a reclassification – preferably as a birth defect, which is non-pathological and is suitable “if someone feels that they’ve been in the wrong body since childbirth,” she added.

The hope is that a reclassification would open the door for a more patient-led approach to treatment.

Mental health category

WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartel told Channel 4 News that the ICD revision reflects the demands and requirements of the 194 member states.

He added: “The reclassification of transsexualism is part of a much bigger picture – the whole of the ICD is up for revision, and that’s why it may take until 2015 before we see changes. But there certainly has been recognition of these issues.”

The campaign was started by Maxwell Zachs. “Gender is not an illness, its just a part of who I am, like being Jewish or vegetarian or sometimes talking too much,” he said.

“Considering transsexual people as mentally ill serves only to contribute to their discrimination.”