RFSL has been working for LGBTQ individuals's rights for more than half a century. Below is an in-depth view on how RFSL became the internationally recognized organization it is today.
Up until 1944 same sex sexual acts were criminalized in Sweden. When the ban was lifted, a higher age of consent, 18 years of age was applied. The decriminalization did not lead to a higher acceptance of homosexuality. Homosexuality was still considered immoral and harmful. But visibility did increase; there were discussions in the press, and 1950 panic set in when reverend Karl-Erik Kejne claimed that he was being persecuted by a gang of homosexuals that were being protected by the police. Kejne claimed that the persecution started because he had been trying to expose said gang. The event was referred to as ”the Kejne affair”.
A group of homosexuals formed an organization as a reaction to the Kejne affair. They wanted to inform about homosexuality, promote rights issues and make it easier for homosexuals to meet. On October 21 1950, the Swedish members (35 men and one woman) of a Danish organization, ”Förbundet af 1948”, met in Solna. One of those present was the Danish president of the organization, Axel Madsen, who in 1989 became the first person to enter into partnership with his husband Eigil.
The newspapers reacted with sensation seeking. During its first two years the organization was called ”the Swedish section of Förbundet af 1948”. 1952 the Swedish organization became independent and was named ”Riksförbundet för sexuellt likaberättigande” (the National Organization for Sexual Equality) – RFSL. In the beginning RFSL tried to work politically by advancing issues of rights, but as the fifties drew to a close, most of its work was to organize social events for its members. Starting 1955, the paper ”Följeslagaren” (Companion) was issued.
In 1951, RFSL worked politically to to lower the age of consent for same sex sexual acts; something that didn’t happen until 1978. In 1953 RFSL petition to the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs that homosexuals be given the right to enter into marriage. In 1952 RFSL suggested that the Swedish UN-delegate should advance the issues of homosexuals’ social, legal and humans rights. These attempts were unsuccessful, and were criticized from within RFSL.
RFSL wrote many letters to newspapers. In 1957 RFSL was reorganized, and two divisions were created: ”Kretsen” (the group) for male members, and ”Diana” for female members. ”Albatross” was started in 1958 for members outside of Stockholm. To become a member, you had two be recommended by two members or one person on the board of directors, and be approved at a meeting. You were free to use an alias.
RFSL didn’t have a meeting venue. The most used venue was the YMCA at Bondegatan 57 in Stockholm. RFSL also used an office at Majorsgatan 9.
Presidents of RFSL during the 1950’s:
Tore Hultman 1950-1951
Owe Ahlström 1951-1953 och från 1955
Bengt Borgstedt 1953-1955
RFSL grew during the 60’s. The committee wasn’t very active, but the magazine ”Följeslagaren” featured news and commented on social issues. It also featured personal ads, to make it easier for members to come in contact with each other. The Albatross division put a lot of wok into corresponding with members outside of Stockholm. Ove Ahlström (1909-75) was the president during the whole decade, and put the emphasis on creating meeting spaces for homosexuals.
The members of Kretsen and Diana could participate in the monthly meetings. In 1964, these divisions got their own venue, called ”Timmy” at Timmermansgatan 24. They didn’t advertise that the venue was used as a meeting point for homosexuals; the windows were covered with curtains. The office space at Majorsgatan was used until 1966, when RFSL moved to a smaller space at Folkskolegatan 22.
The radical changes of the 60’s did not immediately affect RFSL. The Stonewall-revolution in the summer of 1969 in New York, where homosexuals and trans individuals fought back against the police that had harassed them, did however become a source of inspiration for young activists in Sweden.
President of RFSL during the 60’s:
In November 1970 RFSL celebrated its 20-year jubilee at the City Club, that had opened in 1969 as Sweden’s first private gay club. There was a close cooperation between City Club and RFSL. To enter the club you had to be a member, and part of the revenue was given to RFSL who also had an office at the premises.
When RFSL’s President Ove Ahlström resigned at the annual meeting on February 7th, 1971 it marked the beginning of a turbulent year in RFSL’s history. Younger activists wanted to renew the ways in which the still reclusive homosexual organisation was working.
Branches outside of Stockholm are established
During 1971 the first three branches outside of Stockholm were formed in Gothenburg, Malmoe and Uddevalla. In 1971 Uppsala the Uppsala Förening för Homosexuella (UFH) was established and in Orebro there was an independent and more radical organisation called Gay Power Club.
The younger activists were advocating ”gay liberation”, and to achieve that one had to be open and actively do advocacy. In Orebro in April 1971, Gay Power Club organized the first demonstration in Sweden for homosexuals’ rights.
Demands for changes in working methods
Some of the members of the Orebro club were also members of RFSL. At RFSL’s annual meeting 1971 these members submitted a motion on changes in RFSL’s working methods. One of the demands in the motion was the organisation of demonstrations.
RFSL was not ready to accommodate the younger activists. In the protocol it’s said that the newly instated President Barbro Sahlin didn’t think that “we are ready for such actions at the moment”. The activists increased the pressure by organising cooperation conference in Uppsala May 20-23, 1971. The conference was open to everyone, regardless of membership, and was characterised by a strong opposition between RFSL and the more radical activists.
Under banners like ”gay power” a demonstration was held in connection with the conference. It was the first demonstration of it’s kind to gather a larger following. The result of the conference was that a committee was formed. The committee was to develop new by-laws for RFSL and make suggestions on new working methods. Shortly after that the working group Holmfrid was established in Stockholm by three activists (Peter Appelgren, Stig-Åke Petersson and Christer Ståhl), and its goal was to implement new working methods.
RFSL gave its passive support to the working group, which was allowed to work independently from RFSL’s office space. The group established a hotline and started to contact different authorities on the issue of homosexuals’ living situation
The old and the new RFSL
The oppositions between the old RFSL and the new working group culminated during an additional annual meeting in Stockholm September 18-19 in 1971. The appointed committee made suggestions on changes in the organisation that meant that the organisation’s branches would be given more power through a system where each branch was to appoint a representative to attend the congress
Up until then every member of RFSL had a vote at the annual meeting. The decision made at the meeting was that the by-laws would be changed according to the committee’s suggestion. The individual voting right was replaced by a representation system at the congress. This organisation form has been in use ever since then.
At RFSL’s first congress in 1972 the 22-year-old Stig-Åke Petersson was elected new President. With that RFSL had had adopted a new way of working. In 1972 the two clubs in Stockholm, Kretsen for men and Diana for women, were joined to form the branch RFSL Stockholm. The change meant that many older activists, especially older women that had been active in Diana, didn’t feel comfortable and left the organisation.
The curtains were opened
A symbolic change at RFSL Stockholm’s association premises at Timmermansgatan 24, was that the curtains that had been covering the windows facing the street were opened in the early 70’s.
Inside the premises all was not peace. The group Victoria, for women, that in 1975 was reformed under the name Lesbisk Front (lesbian front), wanted to have a day set aside for women. When the male majority decided to reject the request that the premises should be open to women only one day a week, Lesbisk Front left RFSL.
Another conflict at this time concerned how the board should be organised at a national level. The branches in Stockholm and Uppsala thought that the board was too dominant and requested a more flat organisational structure, with a larger influence from the branches. Since these two branches had the majority of votes, they got what they wanted. From 1976 the board (and the President) was abolished and replaced by a decision-making group with one representative from each branch.
This difficult way of managing the organisation was abolished after just five years, when the more traditional organisational form was reinstated in 1989 with a board of trustees and a President.
The first liberation demonstration
The first liberation demonstration was held in Stockholm, August 1977, with an after party in Vasaparken. The annual demonstration was to evolve into the event “Homosexuella frigörelseveckan” (the homosexual liberation week). In association with the liberation week a new publication called “Kom Ut” (come out) was issued, and this was to become the organisation’s member’s magazine.
RFSL’s first political victory was when, in 1973, the Parliament made the statement that “homosexual cohabitation is, in the view of society, a fully acceptable form of cohabitation”. The statement came after RFSL had approached the Parliament’s law committee, which was working on suggestions of a new family law. A result of this statement was also that the Government issued an investigation on homosexuals’ situation in society.
In 1979 there was another victory when The National Board of Health and Welfare decided to remove homosexuality from its classification of illnesses. The change had been preceded by a number of activists (among them Jonas Gardell and the magazines Reporter and QX’s later editor in chief Jon Voss) occupying the stairs in The National Board of Health and Welfare’s premises during liberation week. The activists refused to leave before speaking to the general Barbro Westerholm, which they got the chance to do.
Presidents of RFSL during the 1970’s:
Ove Ahlström -1971
Barbro Sahlin 1971
Jan-Åke Nilsson 1971-1972
Stig-Åke Petersson 1972-1973
Kjell Rindar 1973-1974
Sten Lind 1974-1975
Sten Sönnerberg 1975-1976
Lars Lingvall 1976
Post abolished 1976-
The optimism that the LGBTQ movement (or the gay movement) felt at the beginning of the 80’s (with hopes that through increased openness it would be more widely accepted to live as a homosexual) would soon be overshadowed by a threat.
In 1982 the first case of AIDS was diagnosed at Roslagstulls hospital in Stockholm. It soon became clear that men who have sex with men were overrepresented among those who had contracted the illness in the West. It took some time before it could be proven that it was a sexually transmitted virus that slowly broke down the body’s immune system.
In August 1982 RFSL demanded that The National Board of Health and Welfare make a plan for the management of AIDS in Sweden. The first news that homosexual men in USA were suffering from a mysterious and deadly disease had reached RFSL as early as 1979.
During 1982 Venhälsan was opened at Södersjukhuset in Stockholm; the first health care clinic for homosexual and bisexual men. It is here men who have sex with men will come to get tested, when a reliable test becomes available. Some will be informed that they are, as it is to be called, HIV positive.
During the entire 80’s, being diagnosed with HIV means that the risk of you getting sick and dying within a few years is very big, since no potent anti-retroviral drugs have been developed.
The new illness creates panic with fears of an epidemic among the whole population. AIDS is sometimes called “gay plague”, and the media fuels society’s concerns and there is sometimes an aggressive tone in the debate on homosexuals.
Homo- and bisexuals’ everyday lives will be marked by the new illness and society’s opinions on it. Some get sick while others watch their partners get sick or have friends who get sick and die.
An information campaign is launched
The authorities are initially slow to respond to the new illness. It isn’t until the mid 80’s, with the formation of the AIDS-delegation, that information campaigns targeted at the entire population are launched.
Until then RFSL, with small means, has worked on information that targets men who have sex with men. In the beginning of 1983 RFSL makes a statement that homosexual men should refrain from donating blood, which is a foresighted decision since it was then not yet determined that AIDS was caused by a virus in the bloodstream. That same year, The National Board of Health and Welfare grants RFSL 25 000 Swedish crowns earmarked for the production of the brochure “AIDS facts”, which gives advice on how to protect oneself.
In 1985 an amendment of the law is made that makes HIV part of the Communicable Diseases Act. This means that HIV positive individuals are obliged to reveal their HIV-status and that involuntary isolation is made possible. RFSL’s objections, that fewer people will dare to get tested and that it is safer sex and not a repressive legislation that is the best protection against HIV are dismissed.
In 1986 there is a debate in the media on how HIV is spread uncontrollably at the so-called sauna clubs. The Government and Parliament quickly draw up a law that prohibits gatherings that might lead to sexual interactions. The so-called sauna club-law forced the existing gay saunas to close.
State investigation on the situation of homosexuals
The hysteria and tragedy surrounding HIV/AIDS meant that homosexuality became a focal point in media and public debate. HIV/AIDS also contributed to the State and Government having to acknowledge that homosexuals existed.
A State investigation on the situation of homosexuals had been issued in 1978 with Stig-Åke Petersson (born 1950) from RFSL as the acting expert. In 1984 the investigation presented the report Homosexuella och samhället (homosexuals and society), which was ground breaking in that it was the first time that a country made an extensive inquiry into the social and legal situation of homosexuals. The investigation contributed to making homosexuals’ rights a more politically debated issue. For example, it proposed a basic protection law against persecution of homosexuals, a ban on unlawful discrimination in the penal code, refugee status for persecuted homo- and bisexuals and a new law on partnership for same-sex couples.
As a direct effect of the investigation a law on homosexual co-habitants and a ban on unlawful discrimination of homosexuals was instated in 1987. The investigation’s other suggestions were put aside for the time being.
RFSL receives grants for its work
The investigation had also advocated that homosexuals’ organisations at a national level should get a special grant for their work. In the late 80’s this grant became a reality, issued by The National Board of Health and Welfare and later by the Public Health Agency of Sweden. The grant meant that RFSL in 1988 had the opportunity to hire a full time editor, Greger Eman (1952-2003), for its member magazine Kom Ut (come out).
A year later an administrative post as secretary at the Board of Trustees was instated. The first secretary was Eva Ahlberg (born 1959). Before then RFSL had been given other financial support from The National Board of Health and Welfare, for its HIV preventative work with men who have sex with men.
In the summer of 1986 staff was hired for HIV preventative work. In the beginning the work was organized jointly with the office in Stockholm and the branch was called RFSL-rådgivningen (RFSL counselling).
Later, the HIV and health work was organized separately and called Hiv-kansliet (HIV office), with Sten Pettersson (1951-1992) as its first director and George Svéd (born 1952) and Anna Mohr (born 1944) as experienced and vocal co-workers.
New and bigger premises at Sveavägen in Stockholm
The same George Svéd would also, as the President of RFSL Stockholm, play an important role when RFSL was to move to new and bigger premises at Sveavägen 59 in February 1988.
Intense dialogues with Stockholm City Council resulted in that the municipality agreed to put in more than ten million Swedish crowns to restore two stories in one of the municipality-owned properties at Sveavägen.
The bookstore Rosa Rummet, the restaurant Alice B and the discotheque Pride opened at the ground floor, and upstairs offices and conference rooms for RFSL Stockholm and RFSL were built.
The investment was very ambitious, aimed at offering a professionalized entertainment- and culture enterprise that would attract a significant amount of visitors. The house at Sveavägen (commonly called “Huset”), with big windows facing the street, had been created.
The club- and restaurant ventures proved hard make a profit from, and they were soon outsourced.
The small scale of the premises at Timmermansgatan where a member more easily could drop by was also lost. Many new branches were however created and would meet great needs, for example Gayseniorerna for older homo- and bisexual men, and the Golden Ladies for lesbian and bisexual women in the upper middle age and above. Both senior groups are still part of RFSL Stockholm with social events every week.
Our work outside Stockholm grows
RFSL’s work outside Stockholm grew during the 1980’s, with many newly formed branches. The annual congress became a bigger event.
RFSL joins lesbian separatist organisation
There was a recurring friction between RFSL’s board and groups of female activists that wanted more resources to be allocated for the female part of the members. They felt they had been made invisible during the AIDS crisis. One issue was whether RFSL should join the new international lesbian separatist organisation ILIS (International Lesbian Information Secretariat). When the congress voted in favour of joining, RFSL’s President Kjell Rindar (born 1941) chose to resign.
Even though the decade had started on a sad note, by the end of the 80’s the gay movement could once again be optimistic about the future. In 1989 Denmark became the first country in the world to instate registered partnership; a form of marriage for same sex couples. The first to enter into registered partnership was one of RFSL’s founders, Danish Axel Axgil, who on October 1st 1989 married his husband Eigil at a ceremony at the courthouse in Copenhagen. The first motions for the instatement of registered partnership in Sweden were submitted in the spring of 1989.
Presidents of RFSL during the 1980’s:
Position abolished -1981
Kjell Rindar 1981-1984
Stig-Åke Petersson 1984-1988
Hans Ytterberg 1988-