Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The First Gay Rights Movement



The Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humaenitares Komitee, or WhK) began in May 1897 in Berlin to work for the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, issued in 1871, one of the first laws specifically targeting same sex people. WhK also worked for the full social and cultural acceptance of gay men, lesbians, and the transgendered. The founder of WhK was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld above, and appearing in the photo below seated on the right at a costume party for friends and colleagues (even so suffocatingly repressive a society as Wilhelmine Germany apparently did little to diminish the gay capacity for partying). This was the very first organized movement to decriminalize and to depathologize sexual minorities.

It has always struck me in all the arguments over homosexuality, especially in the Anglican Communion, how ahistorical and abstract those arguments become. There is always the assumption, even among LGBTs themselves, that this is something still so radically new, or freakishly novel. Most LGBTs (and their enemies) have heard about the Stonewall riots of 1969, and the popular movement (or more accurately, movements) that came out of them. I doubt very many of them are at all familiar with WhK and Magnus Hirschfeld. In my experience, they are mostly known to academics and history buffs.
The idea that same sex attraction is not an illness or a crime, but a legitimate natural variation is not at all new. It goes way back in history. A gay man wrote,
God made our natures full of love;
Nature teaches us what God taught her.

What we are is a crime, if it is a crime to love,
For the God who made me live made me love.

That was not written by some blogger for Changing Attitude or Integrity last week. It was written by Baudri de Borgueil in the early 12th century (thanks be to the late John Boswell for recovering all this stuff from historical oblivion).
Same sexuality was a contentious issue in the Renaissance (I highly recommend Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships; Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence). It was not argued among the humanists, but in the streets. Ecclesiastical crackdowns on "sodomy" were frequently met with resistance, and sometimes armed uprisings and violent reactions (just ask Savonarola, who's execution fire was lit by the father of a boy he had executed for "sodomy.")
The witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries saw wholesale massacres of gay men and lesbians. The term "faggot" became a term of abuse for gay men since "sodomites" were tied up like bundles of wood, or "faggots" to be thrown on the fires of witches and heretics.
The 18th century saw a return of resistance with the "Molly house" riots in London, and the creation of spousal models of same sex relationships in Britain and in The Netherlands.

This is not a new issue. There is a whole history there available for anyone who cares to look. It's been around long before +Gene Robinson, or Stonewall, or the Kinsey Report, or anything like those.
Without reverting too much to Professor Blanchard mode, maybe it would be useful to take a look at some of that history in modern times before Stonewall happened. I think some historical context would be very useful for these arguments.

4 comments:

MadPriest said...

My goodness! Is that frank in the middle of the front row of the second photo?

Counterlight said...

So the Mad One does read this thing!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, never apologize for Professor Blanchard. I love your lessons. Why not share your valuable knowledge with the rest of us?

johnieb said...

Thanks for mentioning John Boswell and his work. Though it was remote from the field of History I returned to a few years afterwards, I heard him lecture in West Hartford in 1985 and got him to sign my copy of his *Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality*.