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Pride & struggle a century ago

Lesbians on the front lines of fight for rights, liberation

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 life-long punishment."

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 1900s.

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 leaders.

'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 itarian Committee.

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 2004)

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 homosexuals.

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 numerous battles."

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 fought."

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 stars!]"

'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 struggle

Reprinted from the June 17, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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