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An Ode to the Gay Liberation Movement in Europe

Source: Flickr

Being European is a privilege. Peace, economic freedom, equality, prosperity; these are the undisputable core attributes of the European experience. Or at least they used to be.

As the start of the new decade has clearly shown, none of the political benefits of a democratic society can be taken for granted. The Russo-Ukrainian war swiftly turned a “continent of peace” under Pax Americana into a battlefield of diplomatic turmoil. Hungary’s steady descent into autocracy showcased the fragility of underkept democratic systems, while Covid-19 posed as rebirth of nationalistic sentiments and rejection of globalization.

So, if abortion rights in the US can be fully stripped back, and if all political liberties of Hongkongers can disappear with one single piece of legislation, and if the Taliban rule can tyrannically reclassify women as property, all within the span of two years…what guaranties the longevity of LGBTQI rights we enjoy today?

Time and time again, we witness history repeating itself. It is clear to see that decades of uphill struggles women and people of color (amongst others) have endured don’t safeguard their safety and legitimacy in many (or even most) parts of the society. With this in mind, it is within reason to assume challenges for the LGBTQI community are on the horizon. To safely come out of that storm, a deep dive into the history of the queer struggle is of upmost importance, in order to learn from the past, while ensuring freedom for the future generations.

Centuries ago, romantic and sexual relations between men were no secret, especially within the society of Ancient Greece. However, to infer no discrimination was present would be ludicrous, as slavery and oppression of women were the standard, which explains the lack of representation of relationships amongst women. One exemption came with Sappho, one of the few female poets from the ancient world, whose heartfelt and often erotic poems depicted her desire of women. Her significance is undoubted, and clearly present in our everyday life, as the word “lesbian” has its origins at the birthplace of the timeless poet, the Aegean island of Lesbos.

An institution, which turned out to be the greatest obstacle of the queer community, soon emerged. With the rise of Christianity came the harsh persecution and punishment of gay men. “Legislation promulgated by Justinian in the early 6th century reiterated the death penalty for male homosexual repeat offenders.” (“Christian Intolerance of Homosexuality”, D. Greenberg and M. Bystryn, American Journal of Sociology, 1982)

The Middle Ages brought about the complete erasure of queer individuals throughout Europe, charged with religious and traditionalist dogma. This leaves us with little to no information about millions of lives affected by such cruel laws over a period of almost 10 centuries. Nowadays, infamous historical figures, like Joan of Arc, symbolize the existence of people “outside the norm” during such oppressive times.

The next milestone in the fight for LGBTQI rights occurred in 1791, during the dramatic period of the French Revolution. Rewriting of the French Penal Code is regarded as the first ever legal act of decriminalization of homosexuality. Although the omission of the “sodomy” clause from the previous version came without the public approval, it did set a standard for future law-making in Europe and beyond. Prior to the three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, homosexuality was never recognized as a criminal offense. In 1795 the Sodomy Laws of Russia, Prussia and Austria came into effect, but were abandoned as soon as Poland regained its independence in 1918. Another unlikely (according to today’s standards) example of legislation in favor of queer individuals is the legalization of homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire (now Türkiye) in 1858.

Up until the mid-19th century, the fight for queer rights was passive, without any direct action or resistance. A German physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, changed that. As a founder and chairman of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (WhK), the first LGBTQI emancipation organization worldwide, he spearheaded the movement fiercer than anyone before him, adapting into the role of an activist. The Committee published educational books, distributed movies and brochures, and presented petitions aimed at appealing the German Penal Code. Since the actions were of great effect, the organization quickly spread nationwide and abroad, creating branches in Sweden, The Netherlands, Austria etc. As the liberation struggle became pervasive, a need of an international body presented itself, and in 1921, Doctor Hirschfeld founded the World League for Sexual Reform in Berlin. “By the end the League claimed 190,000 members worldwide, including 182 individual members (in 1930); the rest belonged to organizations. The German National League for Birth Control and Sexual Hygiene brought in 20,000 members. Other corporate members were the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, and the League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sex Reform.” (“The World League for Sexual Reform: Some Possible Approaches”, R. Dose, University of Texas Press, 2003)

Hirschfeld is not only celebrated for his work as an activist, but maybe even more so as a surgeon and care-provider. He is the first known doctor to have performed a successful sex reassignment surgery on trans women: Dora Richter in 1931, and Lili Elbe in 1930, whose life story has been depicted in the critically acclaimed movie – “The Danish Girl”.

The period that followed suit can only be described as petrifying, as Hitler’s regime had brought about ideas of complete annihilation of all gay men, while treating lesbians and trans persons as a-social and in need for psychiatric treatment. The offices of the Committee and the League and all documentation inside were burned to the ground, and all patrons arrested. Throughout the Second World War, between 5 000 and 15 000 (disputed) gay men were charged based on Paragraph 175 of The German Criminal Code, and sent to concentration camps, where they were often treated even more cruelly than other prisoners. Forced castrations, mutilations and participation in “scientific” experiments was the norm. Once the camps were liberated by Allied Forces, instead of being freed, gay men were simply transferred to other prison wards, in which they remained until 1956, when The Paragraph 1975 was outlawed.

During the war, all but one publication of queer content was halted. The Circle (Der Kreis), a Swiss gay magazine, survived the Nazi regime, and continued publishing new editions, domestically and abroad, until 1967. The Circle was in line with the ongoing Homophile Movement of the 50s and 60s, which aimed at showcasing queer people as discreet, dignified, and respectable. Regardless, it shut down due to extensive competition with a plethora of Scandinavian magazines, whose popularity was ever-increasing due to their “racier” content.

While the a-political approach of the Homophile Movement did yield some positive outcomes for the LGBTQI community, the conservative political scene of the post-war period didn’t lend itself to timid undertakings, and in the light of the Stonewall Uprisings in the US, a new, more radical course of action took hold.

The Gay Liberation Front is a movement transcending borders, with separate groupings in the US, Canada and the UK. The British branch engaged in peaceful demonstrations, protesting, and rioting. The newly out and radicalized community made itself known in all walks of life. The French and Germans also took their dissatisfaction to the streets. HAW (Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin) and FHAR (Front homosexuel d'action révolutionnaire) made themselves known as anti-heterosexism groups, and offered unseen visibility to the gay liberation movement in mainland Europe. Trailblazers such as Peter Tatchell, Maurice Cherdo, and Albert Eckert are some of the first outed politicians whose names could have been seen on the election polls during the 70s and 80s.

The newly made progress was sadly stopped in its tracks by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which heavily hit the queer community, especially gay men. The false categorization of the disease as “the gay sickness” undid years of hard work and brough massive waves of stigmatization of STI testing and treatment, which can still be felt today.

As silver lining, the horrendous mistreatment of the LGBTQI community resulted in even stronger public awareness of the issue and reignited the desire for combat. “In the face of this mobilization, from 1989 onwards the European Parliament encouraged its member states to decriminalize homosexual relations and recognize same-sex unions. In 1993, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Since then there has been a convergence in the fight being led by sexual minorities, which have gradually been joined by trans and intersex movements, a fact that is reflected by the new acronym LGBTQI.” (“Gay Rights and LGBTQI Movements in Europe”, R. Schlagdenhauffen, EHNE Sorbonne University, 2020)

Today, the European Union is committed to ensuring safety and equality amongst all its citizens, including the LGBTQI community, in line with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. While same-sex relations are legal throughout Europe, the recognition of other essential rights varies. Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 European and 14 EU-member countries, with the newest addition of Slovenia, being the first Eastern European country to officially equalize marriage rights for all its citizens.

Yet, deterioration of queer rights is present. Anti-LGBTQI legislation has been passed in numerous countries, masked under outrageous ideas of “protecting” children from “abnormal” sexual expressions. Notable EU countries which have passed such heinous laws are Hungary and Poland.

Regardless of such extreme cases, the quality of life of LGBTQI people has dramatically improved over the past few decades, thanks to the leverage EU institutions hold. The LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025 has been drafted to map out the future actions of European governments. Such actions, however, have to withstand the rising forces of nationalism and populism, as well as some political figures who pose a direct threat to queer equality, like the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, or the president of Hungary, Victor Orban. It is our duty to pay tribute to the past, salute to the present, and fight for the prosperity of the future.

“Soon the day will come when science will win victory over error, justice a victory over injustice, and human love a victory over human hatred and ignorance” – Magnus Hirschfeld


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