Pride & struggle a century ago
The love that dared to speak its name
By Leslie Feinberg
The love that had dared not speak its name
raised its voice in the 1860s in Germany. As its demands rose,
they were amplified by support from the revolutionary
groundswell of workers who were organizing and fighting to win
basic democratic rights.
From the first challenges to sexual oppression in the 1860s,
the left wing of the emerging socialist movement--those
revolutionaries who were fighting to shatter the manacles of
capitalism as well as the mental shackles of ideological
reaction--supported this strug gle against state repression and
for sexual liberation.
In 1862, a young lawyer named Jean Baptiste von Schweitzer
was convicted of a homosexual act in a city park. Von
Schweitzer was a member of the socialist German Workers
Association, headed by Ferdinand Lassalle. Some in the group
wanted to expel Von Schweitzer. But Lassalle defended him,
arguing that sexuality "ought to be left up to each person"
whenever no one else is harmed.
Not only wasn't Von Schweitzer expelled; he became president
of this socialist workers' organization after Lassalle's
The struggle for emancipation ratcheted up in the 1860s,
when a Prussian proposal for a harsh penal code made male
homosexuality an even more serious crime.
In 1864, a gay man in Germany began writing courageously and
prolifically against this law and in defense of homosexuality.
Karl Ulrichs was a civil servant in the small city-state of
Hanover. He knew that Prussia would soon absorb the city,
extending anti-gay legislation throughout Germany.
As early as 1862 he had coined the word "Urning" to describe
a male sexually attracted to other males, which he believed
derived from a kind of intersexuality in some brains. The
English translation is "Uranian." This term--based on a myth in
Plato's "Sym posium" that referred to a god dess of men who
love men--was picked up and used throughout Europe and
Despite being confronted with shock and outrage, Ulrichs
carried out a 30-year public campaign, mainly literary, warning
of the dangers of the repressive Prussian law and insisting on
justice for "Urnings."
In 1869, a Hungarian doctor wrote an open letter in defense
of gay rights to the minister of justice. While his last name
is known--Benkert--he wrote under the pseu donym Karoly Maria
Kertbeny. In 1868 he created the term "homosexuality."
Benkert pointed out that since the French Revolution and the
introduction of the Napoleonic Code, the momentum of history
was toward decriminalizing homosexuality.
He listed famous homosexuals in history like Shakespeare,
Newton, Michel angelo, Frederick the Great and countless others
and asked how much cultural history would have been squandered
by their imprisonment.
Benkert stressed that society had to escape from the
genocidal feudal campaigns that had claimed millions of lives.
He denounced the use of scapegoating and concluded that the
state had no business nosing around in people's sexual
In 1871, a Draconian anti-gay Para graph 175 was introduced
with no debate into the penal code of the Second Reich.
Fight against Paragraph 175 heats up
After 30 years of trailblazing work by Karl Heinrich
Ulrichs, Benkert and others, the first political movement of a
mass character for sexual and gender rights emerged in Germany
in 1896. The demand for sexual and gender emancipation
continued to draw backing from socialist leaders.
A year before the official emergence of this movement,
Eduard Bernstein, then a Marxist and a leader of the German
Social Democratic Party, wrote a defense of the gay British
literary figure Oscar Wilde in an important left newspaper.
Wilde's arrest and trial were an example of how anti-gay and
anti-transgender repression--in this case charges against a
feminine gay male--were intertwined in the minds of
Bernstein's article called on socialists to lead the way in
sexual reform, challenged anti-gay prejudice and rejected the
increasingly popular psychiatric theories that pathologized
The first gay liberation organization was born in Germany
two years later, in 1897. It was called the Scientific Humani
Its founder and notable leader throughout much of the
committee's 35 years was Magnus Hirschfeld--a gay Jewish doctor
who may have also been, like many other leaders of the German
movement, a cross-dresser. He coined the word "transvestite,"
did extensive research and produced germinal writings on the
subject of cross-dressing.
The Scientific Humanitarian Com mittee published a yearbook
that reported on movement activities. It also documented
literary, cross-cultural, cross-historical and scientific
studies on same-sex love and transgender.
The committee aimed to abolish Paragraph 175, raise social
consciousness and encourage sexually oppressed people to fight
for their rights. To achieve its goals, the committee held
regular public forums, organized speaking tours nationally and
internationally, and sent literature to other governments about
the need to decriminalize same-sex love.
The committee's main focus was a petition campaign, launched
in 1897, to collect signatures of prominent people demanding
the repeal of Paragraph 175.
Socialists of all sexualities unite
From its earliest days, the committee won support from
revolutionaries, who were at that time called Social Democrats.
In 1898, the committee took to parliament the signatures of 900
doctors, lawyers, educators and scientists calling for the
repeal of Paragraph 175. It was rebuffed.
However, the socialist minority in the German parliament did
support the demand. The great socialist leader August Bebel
took the floor, becoming the first major supporter to battle
for the petition.
Bebel, author of "The Rights of Women"--an early socialist
denunciation of the oppression of women under
capitalism--signed the petition, took copies to parliament and
urged others to add their names.
He argued that homosexuality was so widespread among all
economic classes in society that "if the police dutifully did
what they were supposed to, the Prussian state would
immediately be obliged to build two new penitentiaries just to
handle the number of violations against Paragraph 175 committed
within the confines of Berlin alone."
When Bebel made this speech, and subsequent ones, on the
parliament floor, the right-wing politicians booed. But
socialists greeted his defense of same-sex love with supporting
shouts of "Hear, hear!"
Hirschfeld himself was affiliated with the Social Democratic
Party from 1898 until the rise of fascism forced him into
Rise of a mass movement
The committee carried on a whirlwind of activity. In 1899 it
sent a letter to Roman Catholic priests asking them to take a
stand on gay oppression and gay rights, sent information to
parliament members, wrote to more than 2,000 daily newspapers,
placed ads in newspapers, sent 8,000 letters to top
administration and police officials, another to public
prosecutors, and 8,000 copies of the petition to judges.
More than 6,000 prominent people, half of them doctors,
signed the petition. Others included Albert Einstein, Leo
Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Kathe Kollwitz, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann
and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Well-known socialists of that period, including Bebel, Karl
Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding, Gerhardt Hauptman and Eduard
Bernstein, also signed.
In 1905, during another debate on Paragraph 175, the
committee went back to parliament with more than 5,000
signatures. The Center Party, a right-wing group with strong
support from the Catholic Church, led opposition to reform.
Again it was a socialist--Adolph Thiele-- who argued on
behalf of gay rights. But the move for reform was again
In 1907 more than 2,000 people attended a public debate on
But this pinnacle of organizing was followed by a period of
reaction that drove many supporters underground and forced
activists to keep a lower profile. The opening shot of this
anti-gay witch hunt was a highly publicized scandal about
alleged gay activities by a number of high German political
figures who were forced to stand trial.
In 1910, at the height of anti-gay frenzy, the parliament
began to debate extending Paragraph 175 to include lesbian acts
Next: Lesbians on front lines of fight for
Reprinted from the June 10, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
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