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
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
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
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
But it is less known to many today that the Stonewall
Rebellion launched the second--not the first--mass movement for
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
Why not in France?
Why did the movement appear in Germany? And why in that
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
So why didn't a sexual liberation movement arise in France?
Why in Germany?
Because anti-gay repression was much stronger in
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
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
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