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Modern gay rights movement born in 19th century Germany, scholar says
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1 Mar 2011
Modern gay rights movement born in 19th century Germany, scholar says
by News Editor
Germans in the 19th century \"invented\" the modern gay rights movement and modern conceptions of homosexuality can be traced to an anti-sodomy law, a Maryland historian argues.

Same-sex erotic relationships are as old as humanity, but our modern understanding of what it means to be homosexual – and the earliest gay rights movement – started in nineteenth-century Germany, according to an article by historian Robert Beachy from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, US.

Paragraph 175 is a documentary film released in 2000, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and narrated by Rupert Everett. The film chronicles the lives of several men who were arrested by the Nazis for homosexuality under Paragraph 175, the sodomy provision of the German penal code, dating back to 1871.

The article, The German Invention of Homosexuality, which is published in a recent issue of The Journal of Modern History, summarises his forthcoming book, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, which is due out next year.

According to Beachy, modern conceptions of homosexuality began, ironically, with an anti-sodomy law. When the German empire was unified in 1871, the Imperial Criminal Code included a law prohibiting sexual penetration of one man by another. Questions about what types of activity should fall under the law spurred a sustained public inquiry into the nature of same-sex eroticism and sexuality in general.

\"As such, [the law] created the all-important context and stimulant for the evolution of the world\'s most expansive science of homosexuality,\" Beachy writes. And from that science emerged key components of the modern view of homosexuality, including \"the understanding of erotic same-sex attraction as a fundamental element of the individual\'s biological or psychological makeup,\" Beachy explains.

This new view of same-sex love was pioneered by German doctors who published early case studies of homosexuals in the 1850s. German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing released the first edition of his hugely influential Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, which included multiple case studies of homosexuals that supported this new position. Through his work, Krafft-Ebing became a vocal opponent of the German anti-sodomy law, stating that homosexuality \"should not be viewed as a psychic depravity or even sickness.\"

\"Down with §175\". Since 1973 the gay movement had openly been demanding the deletion of Paragraph 175. This 1973 poster uses the new left icon of a raised fist and calls on the reader to fight against discrimination in the family, the workplace, and in housing. The law, which was a provision of the German Criminal Code from 15 May 1871 to 10 March 1994, made homosexual acts between males a crime, and in early revisions the provision also criminalized bestiality. All in all, around 140,000 men were convicted under the law. -- Wikipedia: Paragraph 175

A remarkably free German press enabled these ideas to spread outside the scientific literature into popular books and encyclopedias, Beachy says. \"The encyclopedia entries suggested directly or implicitly that same-sex eroticism was a naturally occurring if uncommon phenomenon that affected a small percentage of the general population,\" he writes. \"The love that dared not speak its name, as Oscar Wilde put it, had many names, at least in German.\"

It was also during this time that world\'s first political organization advocating gay rights, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, or WhK), was formed. The WhK undertook a massive effort to reform the anti-sodomy law, mailing \"enlightenment brochures\" to thousands of politicians, religious leaders, doctors, and teachers and collecting thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the law.

The movement ultimately failed to dislodge the law, and German scientific inquiry into sexuality came to an abrupt end with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Nevertheless, Beachy argues, it was that law – and the inquiry and activism it inspired – that helped the modern understanding of homosexuality to take root.

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