Gay Liberation Didn’t Start at Stonewall

Ellie McFarland | @El_FarAwayLand

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The Gay Liberation Front chose June to be pride month in commemoration of Stonewall. During this time of year, due to the commemoration, people often say that Stonewall was the first action of modern gay liberation. However, this isn’t entirely true. It kickstarted much of the modern American gay rights movement. But even in the US action groups like The Daughters of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society fought for gay rights a decade before Stonewall. Worldwide though, the modern gay liberation movement originated in Berlin with the action of Magnus Hirschfeld and his organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee.

Homosexual Activity in the Ancient World

Before the widespread influence of the Catholic church, homosexuality and bisexuality were common or even expected traits. In Rome, bisexuality was the norm among both men and women. There are very few cultures that remained untouched by Abrahamic law and also held a violent aversion to homosexuality. It took a long time for gay liberation movements to appear because it also took a long time for anti-gay (specifically gay men) legislation to appear.

A Culture Wrecked by Nazis

Magnus Hirschfeld established Berlin’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897. Hirschfeld was a sexologist and saw the laws condemning homosexuals as not only immoral but unscientific. The committee existed in Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Sciences until the Nazis took power and destroyed it. Although the Committee fought to repeal anti-gay legislation, the Nazis stole a great deal of their research for use in their own despicable scientific experiments. The research published by the Institute for Sexual Sciences constituted a great deal of the books burned under Hitler’s rule because of their fervent support of sexual liberation. Or, as the Nazis referred to it, sexual degeneracy.

Old World Child Abuse

However, despite their rightful crusade against oppressive “anti-sodomy” laws like paragraph 175, some of their studies were morally questionable. The Institute for Sexual Sciences existed well before the 70s when the creation of firm ethical standards in science. The experiments which took place under their jurisdiction were not exactly kosher. They performed some experiments on both adults and children that we today would consider abusive beyond belief. And, without a doubt, they were. But they were also by no means unique. Other organizations, focused on other things, or even directly antithetical to gay liberation performed similar experiments of similar immorality.

The dingy history of the Institute for Sexual Sciences has led some far-right activists and commentators to say that the institute, rather than being a scientific center, was a veneer for pedophilic sexual abuse. Some have even suggested that because of their abusive science in conjunction with their gay activism, the two are irreversibly linked. Even, astoundingly, that the Nazis were actually right to burn their findings. This, however, is a vicious anti-gay lie. The association between pedophilia, abusive experiments, and gay activism was a deliberate one. Indeed, it ignores the routineness of such experiments in the international scientific community at the time. The routineness, which existed likewise outside of any activist group or coalition.

The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and Gay Safe Spaces

Setting aside the Institute for Sexual Sciences’ unethical experiments, we can’t dismiss the important work of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Through their century-long existence in Germany, they did manage to get paragraph 175 repealed in 1969, partially as a result of their activism. But in addition to their activism, which they only focused on paragraph 175, they functioned primarily as a safe space for homosexuals. They operated in conjunction with gay bars in Berlin and ran safe-houses for the persecuted. Berlin, which at the time was a haven for gay culture from the mid-1800s to pre-WWII Germany, is where most of the pre-Stonewall gay liberation action occurred. Really, it was somewhat of a San Francisco of pre-sexual revolution Europe. Berlin was where most of the “Degenerate Art” and artistic decadence thrived, and this hub of culture allowed for stirring social change.

LGBT History is More than Stonewall

This pride month and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall are two important events. They deserve to be celebrated with all the vigor of other liberation movements. But in our celebration of the American gay rights movement, it’s easy to forget where and why it originated. Gay liberation was born out of necessity, like every other civil rights movement. It is, therefore, a product of oppression. But it was allowed to manifest as a vivid party scene, emotive poetic salons, and a place of return and rest. It’s easy to see these movements as fragmented parts moving toward separate goals. In reality, though, the vast majority of these movements were greatly influenced by each other. The East and West coasts traded culture in America, and customs floated across the Atlantic.

The truth is, Stonewall is not where LGBT history begins. Stonewall is not where gay liberation begins. Gay people did not take the centuries of bigoted laws laying down, as we were lead to believe. The ignorance of gay history was deliberate. But looking into things such as the Scientific Humanitarian Committee is a deeply rewarding exploration of art, culture, ingenuity, oppression, and justice.


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