Pride & struggle a century ago
Lesbians on the front lines of fight for rights,
By Leslie Feinberg
A proposed German penal code was drafted in
late 1910 that would criminalize sexual acts between women.
Any law that threatened same-sex love between women was also
inherently anti-trans gender, since the oppressed populations
overlapped. In 1721, for example, a German individual who was
named Catha rina Mar garetha Linck at birth was burned at the
stake for the crime of being a female-bodied person who lived
as a male and married another woman.
Until 1794 a Prussian code executed people of all sexes for
what the law characterized as "unnatural acts." That edict was
amended in 1837 to a sentence of "imprisonment followed by
In their book "Lesbians in Germany: 1890s-1920s," authors
Lillian Faderman and Brigitte Eriksson wrote, "In 1851
punishment for 'unnatural acts' was restricted by a new code to
males only. 'Victorian' mentality had spread to Ger many. The
law preferred to ignore the possibility that women were capable
of sexual expression."
The menace of including same-sex love between women in
Paragraph 175 posed a new challenge for the women's movement in
Ger many, which had been "advancing unimpeded" since the early
Women who today might call themselves lesbians were very
active in the early German women's rights movement. But they
largely did so without "coming out of the closet."
The early Uranian movement had been mostly made up of
individuals who today might identify as gay men, male-to-female
cross-dressers and transsexual women. However, as the Homo
sexual Emancipation Movement grew in social strength and
weight, it emboldened lesbians to openly emerge as social
'Reach for the stars!'
Anna Rueling was just such a leader. That name was a
pseudonym as well. She was born Anna Theo Sprungli.
Exactly a century ago, Rueling made a famous public address
in Berlin, delivered before a meeting of the Scientific Human
This 1904 public meeting was an important breakthrough.
Faderman and Eriksson note "Accord ing to [Uranian leader
Magnus] Hirsch feld, the police sometimes even prevented women
from attending the Scientific Humani tarian Committee's public
forums because the discussion of homosexuality was regarded as
unsuitable in the presence of women. A public lesbian
organization would not have been tolerated at that time."
Rueling congratulated the committee, wrote Michael
Lombardi-Nash, "for its support of women's rights and for
including lesbians, along with homosexual men, in its fight for
equal rights." (The Gay & Lesbian Review, May-June
Her speech that night was a landmark. It was titled "What
interest does the women's movement have in solving the
homosexual question?" In it she stressed the imperative of
unity between the women's and homosexual emancipation
movements. But the talk was essentially calling for unity
against transgender oppression, as well, since Rueling--like
many rights activists of that era--considered homosexuals to be
a kind of intermediate sex. She called for equal opportunities
in education and the job market for women, men and
Unity was key to Rueling's arguments. "If people would just
observe, they would soon come to the conclusion that
homosexuality and the Women's Movement do not stand opposed to
each other, but rather they aid each other reciprocally to gain
rights and recognition, and to eliminate the injustice which
condemns them on this earth."
She stressed that homosexual women "have suffered because of
their masculine inclinations and natural characteristics, and
because of the many, many injustices and hardships caused by
laws, society, and the old morality which concerns women."
Rueling told those gathered, "[F]rom the very beginning of
the Women's Movement to the present day, it has been more often
than not homo genic women who took over the leadership in
Rueling blasted the mainstream leadership of the movement.
"If we weigh all the contributions which homosexual women have
made to the Women's Movement, one would be astounded that its
large and influential organizations have not lifted a finger to
obtain justice in the state and in society for the not so small
number of its Uranian members, and that they have done
absolutely nothing to this very day to protect so many of its
most well-known and most worthy female predecessors in this
battle from ridicule and scorn when they explain to the greater
public about the true essence of Uranism. ...
"The so-called 'moderate' tendency will not help homosexuals
one bit for the simple reason that deeds of this kind have no
tendency at all. Victory will come as a sign of radicalism, and
we expect that the radicals will change the direction. ...
"The Women's Movement and the movement for homosexual rights
have thus far traveled on a dark road which has posted many
obstacles in their way. Now it will become brighter and brigh
ter around us and in the hearts of the people. This is not to
say that the work of securing the rights of women and of
Uranians has come to an end; we are still in the middle of two
opposing sides, and many a bloody battle will have to be
Rueling concluded with optimistic historical vision, "And
when, at times, as they will, hard times come to either
side--that will not be the time for hesitation to stand up in
defense against injustice and to march on to victory which will
surely be ours. Revelation and truth are like the rising sun in
the East--no power can force it out of its orbit. Slowly but
surely it rises to its glittering zenith!
"Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but in the not too distant
future the Women's Movement and Uranians will raise their
banners in victory! Per aspera ad astra! [Reach for the
'An injustice doubled'
In his 1905 book "Berlin's Third Sex," Hirsch feld estimated
that there were more than 1 million homosexuals--male and
female--in Germany; some 56,000 in Berlin alone.
The coffee houses, restaurants and beer halls for the "third
sex," however, were mostly frequented by males.
Hirschfeld did refer to a "dating agency" in 1905 for
lesbians. And he also described Ber lin "masquerade" parties in
which "many of the lesbians wear male costumes."
But the looming peril in 1910 of the extension of Paragraph
175 galvanized a broad range of organizations and
individuals--including leaders of the Homosexual Eman cipation
Move ment, and socialist and women's rights organizations--that
worked to stop the expansion of the penal code.
Leading activists of the fightback argued that the extension
of Paragraph 175 meant, "An inequality would not thereby be
eliminated, but rather an injustice doubled."
In 1911 The League for the Protection of Mater nity and
Sexual Reform, a politically conservative organization within
the women's movement, adopted a resolution which may be the
first statement by any women's rights group on homosexuality.
It denounced the proposal to criminalize lesbianism as "a grave
error." [The Homo sexual Emancipation Movement in Germany,
James D. Steakley]
On Feb. 10, 1911, the League held a meeting, at which
Hirschfeld also spoke, to discuss how to link the struggles.
The socialist newspaper "Forward" reported that the turnout was
so large that a second meeting had to be scheduled.
Next: The 'war to end all wars' derailed the
Reprinted from the June 17, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
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