Gay rights movement born in 19th century Germany, scholar says

Feb 28, 2011

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.

The article, "The German Invention of Homosexuality," is published in a recent issue of The Journal of Modern History. Beachy's book on the subject, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Knopf), 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."

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 to take root.

Explore further: Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

More information: Robert Beachy, "The German Invention of Homosexuality." The Journal of Modern History 82:4 (December 2010).

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Eighteenth century writings of first gay activist discovered

Apr 25, 2007

Excerpts from a 258-year-old book written by what is thought to be the first ever advocate for gay rights have been discovered by a University of Manchester academic. Dr Hal Gladfelder from the School of Arts, Histories and ...

Recommended for you

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

18 hours ago

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

21 hours ago

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

Six Nepalese dead, six missing in Everest avalanche

At least six Nepalese climbing guides have been killed and six others are missing after an avalanche struck Mount Everest early Friday in one of the deadliest accidents on the world's highest peak, officials ...