Movement for Gay Liberation Began Well Before Stonewall


Many tend to think that the gay liberation movement did not begin in earnest until the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York-the now infamous event when patrons of the gay and lesbian bar stood up and fought back against an attack by police.

As important an event as Stonewall proved to be, however, it was not the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Authors John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, in their book “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement,” argue that Stonewall should be viewed rather as the 100th anniversary of the GLBT movement. Below is a synopsis of the forgotten chapter of GLBT history that they present in their book.

While gays and lesbians have of course been engaging in politics and struggle since the beginning of our species, Lauritsen and Thorstad hold that the modern gay liberation movement began in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

During this time the government of the unifying German state began a debate on a new legal code. It represented an attempt to unify the new German nation under a single legal code, and though no such laws had been on the books previously, one of the proposed new laws was one that would make homosexual acts illegal.

This spurred Karoly Maria Kertbeny, a German-Hungarian writer, to write an open letter in 1869 pleading against the adoption of this new law. Karoly’s letter represented a bold act, and though the anti-gay law was subsequently approved in 1871, a torrent of letter writing and pro-gay literature distribution followed.

The gay community was awakened and called to come out into public to defend itself. Out of this arose the first openly gay rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee.

The new organization sought to unite “Uranians,” as some gays then called themselves, and to organize a campaign seeking to overthrow the new anti-gay legislation. The committee began issuing an annual publication, “Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types,” and took upon itself three goals: (1) to abolish the anti-homosexual law, (2) to enlighten public opinion on homosexuality, and (3) “interesting the homosexual himself in the struggle for his rights.”

The main vehicle the new organization used for all three of these goals was a petition drive, which was launched that same year. The petition, which called on the German government to repeal anti-gay legislation, quickly won the support of thousands. An aggressive campaign to send materials to each and every judge, politician, and newspaper in Germany was also launched.

And while the campaign had its ups and downs-such as an anti-gay backlash in 1907 following several sensational trials against homosexuals-the degree of support the committee received was unprecedented in any other country.

Foremost amongst the allies of the new movement was the Social Democratic Party of Germany-a party that at the time included socialists of almost all stripes, from reformists to revolutionaries. Particularly outspoken on the question was August Bebel, one of the most respected leaders of the Social Democrats, who railed against the anti-gay law in the German parliament.

Some have argued that the support of the Social Democratic Party accounted to a certain extent for the political space for the gay rights movement to grow in Germany.

The coming of World War I, and the ensuing restrictions on civil rights that took place in almost all belligerent nations, forced the Scientific Humanitarian Committee to largely cease operations. After the war, though, and the crushing of an attempted socialist revolution in 1918-19, the committee reorganized itself and formed a united front with other German gay and lesbian groups.

It also launched the Institute for Sexual Sciences, which came to contain a huge library, and organized classes on sexuality. It’s motto became “per scientiam ad justitiam” (justice through science).

At around the same time the committee decided to commit time and resources to taking the struggle for gay rights to countries outside of Germany. Magnus Hirschfeldfor, the leader of the committee, toured several European countries and helped to launch the World League for Sexual Reform.

The response they got was varied. In many countries the gay and lesbian movement was still very much underground. Anti-obscenity laws in the United States, for example, made even the mentioning of the word “homosexual” a potentially legally punishable offense (though such laws didn’t prevent some figures, such as Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, from speaking out).

In some countries, such as Britain, where a branch of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee was established and support was again provided by various socialist and working-class organizations, state repression necessitated a much more modest movement that was able to be develop in Germany.

An notable exception came from the new workers’ state in Russia. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Russia became the first nation to legalize homosexuality.

The new Bolshevik legal code contained within it the concept that if there was no victim, there was no crime. This unprecedented championing of sexual freedom gave hope to gays and lesbians the world over.

The new revolutionary state also become an active participant in the World League for Sexual Reform, and sought to educate the world as to why it held the views it did on homosexuality.

It should be noted, however, that the political position taken by the Bolsheviks did not constitute a full-blown endorsement of the ideas of gay liberation. In fact, some Bolsheviks held less than enlightened views on homosexuality, but still believed that it was a scientific question, not a legal one. This position was still head and shoulders above that of any other state of the times.

Unfortunately, the 1930s would usher in a dark age for the gay and lesbian movement, both in Germany and in the USSR. Following the coming to power of Adolph Hitler in 1933, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and similar groups were quickly smashed. Leading up to 1933 SHC meetings were frequently attacked by Nazi lynch mobs, and its leaders were often assaulted and beaten.

The Institute for Sexual Science was seized, and its library destroyed in a massive book-burning orgy. Following 1933, partisans of the movement who didn’t flee early on soon found themselves in the new fascist concentration camps.

In the USSR, following the death of Lenin and the defeat of Leon Trotsky by Joseph Stalin and his bureaucratic clique, the Russian government’s attitude towards homosexuality began to change. These changes came about bit by bit.

Initially, Stalin’s government took the position that homosexuality need not be illegal, but should be actively discouraged. This position was even presented at one point at a World League for Sexual Reform conference. This took place at the same time that Stalin began taking away many of the gains that women had made in Russia since the revolution, such as legal and free abortions and contraceptives.

By the mid-1930s, Stalin had unleashed a full-fledged offensive against gays and lesbians. When the new USSR constitution was written up for example, Stalin personally intervened to have a provision added that from now on any one caught and convicted of having committed a homosexual act would be sentenced to eight years of hard labor.

The Stalinists’ homophobia was so deep that gay-baiting was initially one of their main attacks upon Hitler’s fascist movement. Official state propaganda (and even writings by the novelist Maxim Gorky) denounced the Nazi movement as being led by homosexuals and representing politics based on sexual deviancy.

Using many of the same arguments Hitler used to persecute gays and lesbians in Germany, Stalin’s campaign for “proletarian morality” snuffed out sexual freedom in the USSR.

It would end up taking the international gay and lesbian movement decades to recover from the twin blows delivered by Hitler and Stalin-leaving it to the 1960s & ’70s generation of activists to revive the movement.

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