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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 death.

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 England.

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 lives.

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 prosecutors.

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 same-sex love.

The first gay liberation organization was born in Germany two years later, in 1897. It was called the Scientific Humani tarian Committee.

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 exile.

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 defeated.

In 1907 more than 2,000 people attended a public debate on Paragraph 175.

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 between women.

Next: Lesbians on front lines of fight for liberation

Reprinted from the June 10, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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