Few people today know the history of the gay rights movement. Most people would be surprised to discover that the struggle for sexual and gay liberation has been thoroughly interwoven with the history of the socialist movement.
One high point for both movements was in Germany from the late 19th century through to the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. The fate of Germany in this period determined most of what was to follow till the post-war period.
Gay politics was one aspect of this – and the German socialist movement played a crucial role in the fight for gay rights.
Germany’s socialist party, the SPD, was the largest Marxist organisation of its time, a mass party with a wealth of cultural and social functions as well as political ones. It had influence throughout the working class and almost functioned as a society within a society.
The SPD had many faults, its creeping conservatism and reformism being among the most obvious. But when it came to campaigning for gay rights, the party had a magnificent record that shames most political parties today.
Male homosexuality had been outlawed in the kingdom of Prussia in the 1860s. In 1871 this prohibition was extended across the newly unified nation-state of Germany, in the notorious paragraph 175 of the country’s penal code.
In 1897, the campaigning doctor and gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld set up the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned for the repeal of paragraph 175.
The committee and Hirschfeld became the centre of the gay movement from this time right through to the 1930s. In all they did they depended on the backing of the SPD and later the KPD, the German Communist Party.
Hirschfeld himself and his organisation were moderates and had ideas about homosexuality that we would now consider rather strange.
He believed for example that gay men and lesbians formed a “third sex” that combined physical and emotional characteristics of both male and female.
He argued that gay people should not be blamed or punished for their actions, as it was a natural aspect of being a member of this third sex.
Hirschfeld launched a petition against paragraph 175 which reached the German parliament on 13 June 1898. He found that the SPD was that only party to support his campaign.
August Bebel, a leading SPD activist, took the petition into the German parliament and argued for gay reform – the first instance of gay reform being argued in any parliament. All leading SPD figures signed the petition.
The party’s newspapers covered the campaign widely, with leading articles on the “sex question” that argued that moral attitudes were historically variable.
The petition campaign led to a debate in parliament in 1905 with the SPD on one side and all the other parties on the other.
The SPD split in 1917 over support for the First World War. It became a reformist organisation, while revolutionaries who would go on to form the Communist Party (KPD) supported the October 1917 Russian revolution and argued for a total transformation of society, including full gay liberation.
Hirschfeld remained in the SPD and founded his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin in 1919. This was the famous Weimar period with its gay subculture. In the 1920s the KPD was awash with ideas on liberation and new ways of living.
Wilhelm Reich, a pupil of pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, joined the KPD and argued for a total liberation from all bourgeois ideas, including sexual inhibitions.
Like Hirschfeld, Reich had ideas about sexuality and psychology that we would now consider confused. But this was a period of experimentation and a search for liberation with the Communists at the centre of such campaigns.
During the struggle for gay rights in this period, Hirschfeld found that his campaigns were supported by the Communists, while the SPD’s support was more hesitant.
All of this changed with the rise of Stalinism in Russia and the Nazis in Germany. The fate of both the gay and socialist movements was determined by the failure of Germany’s revolution during that period.
Hirschfeld’s institute was burned down by the Nazis on 6 May 1933, in one of their first acts after Hitler seized power.
Luckily Hirschfeld himself was out of the country at the time. He died in exile in 1935. Shortly afterwards, gays joined the socialists, trade unionists and Jews sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis.