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Pride & struggle a century ago

Rise of German Homosexual Emancipation Movement

By Leslie Feinberg

Winds of change will fill the banners of Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Pride this June, lifting them to new heights.

After decades of fierce and unrelenting struggle, same-sex love has been effectively decriminalized and many gains have been won. Organizing, rolling civil disobedience has helped push back state denial of equal rights of same-sex couples--a form of institutionalized discrimination that is a pillar of class society.

Millions of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans people across the United States will take to the streets in Pride events in cities and towns this June, as they do each year to recall and honor the 1969 Stone wall uprising against police repression. And millions of people of all nationalities, sexualities, genders and sexes will line the streets to applaud and cheer these celebrations of individual courage and collective struggle.

The 1969 rebellion in New York's Green wich Village was led by the most oppressed of the LGBT communities--people of color, teenagers, transgender and transsexual, homeless, impoverished and so marginalized in the work force that prostitution was the only source of income for many.

The uprising was the spark that ignited a large-scale movement. It galvanized quantitative fighting back into qualitative mass resistance.

It did not develop in social isolation. The Stonewall Rebellion--which marked the birth of what became the modern LGBT movement--rose in the wake of social upheaval against imperialist war and rampant racist repression.

Marchers will draw on the lessons of how the left wing of early gay liberation found its way into the anti-war movement, took part in and defended the national liberation struggles, helped develop women's liberation, and took part in labor battles from the shop floor to organizing in support of the Chicano farm workers' union drive.

If they look to accurate historical accounts, today's activists will also find that the young gay liberation movement received support from the most revolutionary sectors of the political left wing.

More than three decades later, revisiting this dynamic historical period of struggle is an activist contribution to today's movement.

But it is less known to many today that the Stonewall Rebellion launched the second--not the first--mass movement for LGBT liberation.

The first great wave of struggle to demand sexual and gender emancipation had taken place from 1869 to 1935. It began in Germany. It was a dynamic, expanding movement that grew to be international. And it left its mark on other social and political movements, as well as literature and the arts.

The history of the struggle in that period, as well, is rich with lessons.

Why not in France?

Why did the movement appear in Germany? And why in that epoch?

It's impossible to glean a broad understanding without examining the social and economic soil in which the German movement for sexual and gender emancipation was rooted.

The widespread, murderous counter- revolutionary pogroms against women, transgender expression and same-sex love carried out by the Catholic and early Protestant hierarchies had subsided as the Industrial Revolution began sweeping away the kingdoms of Europe.

The momentous revolution in France at the end of the 18th century--in which the downtrodden and disenfranchised of the cities, including many women, played a vitally important part--had uprooted the vestiges of the feudal power of the kings and the Catholic Church.

The French Revolution established a legal code, Napoleonic Code, which remov ed homosexual acts from the list of criminal offenses. Of course, state and church bias and demonization were not eradicated by formally removing the laws. Variations of sexuality, gender and sex continued to be subject to a political policy of divide and conquer. And a class-divided economy itself continued to pit segments of the work force against each other.

But the Napoleonic Code was the enlightened act of a young capitalist class that saw its role as righting the wrongs of feudal backwardness. And this decriminalizing of homosexual acts had far-reaching effects on other European nations.

Why did the French Revolution remove anti-homosexual statutes while the capitalist revolutions in England and the United States did not?

The French Revolution was later, and more thorough, for sure. But the French capitalist class also had to battle the powerful and tenacious Catholic Church and its ideology. That may have impelled the revolutionists to have to carry out a more thorough " of the Church's "moral" authority than in the other countries.

So why didn't a sexual liberation movement arise in France? Why in Germany?

Because anti-gay repression was much stronger in Germany.

Prussian expansion set stage for battle

Germany in the late 1800s had a powerful industrial base. But it was weakened by the remaining constraints of feudalism. Germany had few colonies as a result.

Other European powers were colonizing the world, plundering from Africa to Australia. Asia and Africa were conquered by the British, French, Dutch and Belgian imperialist powers.

In many of these cultures, women still enjoyed significant societal rights; variance in sex, gender and sexuality were accepted and respected. But with bullets and bibles, the imperial patriarchs of wealth at the pinnacle of capital's expanding power conquered militarily and ideologically with their cultural values and property relations.

In North America, the fierce clash between the expansion of slavery and the expansion of Northern industrial capital was about to break out in the bloodiest battle of the 19th century--the Civil War. The victory of the North would set the stage for U.S. capital to begin its merciless globalization in search of greater profits.

But Germany was not unified enough to be a colonial contender--yet. It was fragmented into almost 300 different countries.

While several of these had no laws against same-sex love, Prussia did. And it was Prussia that was devouring all the other German states except Hanover.

Next: The love that dared to speak its name

Reprinted from the June 3, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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