Lesbian & gay movement blossoms
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 20
By Leslie Feinberg
“The legal situation of GDR [East German] gays improved considerably in 1968 with the elimination of Paragraph 175,” historian Jim Steakley concluded in his published research. He credited the abolition of the almost century-old Prussian anti-homosexual law to the pioneering work of Dr. Rudolph Klimmer, a gay communist physician.
This move, part of an overhaul of the criminal code, elevated the GDR to the same progressive level as Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which also decriminalized homosexuality in the mid-1960s. (Body Politic, December 1976-January 1977)
Writing in 1976, the Canadian researcher described an East German gay population characterized by long-term relationships, apparently more so than in West Germany or the United States. “The durability of such relationships may also reflect the relative lack of anomie and competitiveness in socialist society, yet the prevalence of gay couples is all the more striking in light of the fact that at 50 percent and still climbing, the GDR’s divorce rate is the highest in the world.
“Although it deserves a more detailed analysis,” he continued, “GDR citizens properly interpret the divorce rate as an index of women’s emancipation rather than social collapse. In any case, the gay couples are seldom burdened by the ideology of pure monogamy, and affairs on the side as well as casual sexual encounters are standard.
“Parks, beaches (where nude bathing is widespread), and other public places have never been the locus of police entrapment, and arrests for public indecency are virtually unknown.”
However, one last thorn of legal discrimination remained in the body of East German law. While the age of sexual consent was the same for same-sex and heterosexual minors, under the provisions of Paragraphs 150 and 151, homosexual adults penalized for relationships with under-age youths could be sentenced to three years behind bars, while heterosexuals only faced two-year sentences.
Steakley met with Klimmer during his research in the GDR. “Dr. Klimmer regards it as his greatest success,” he reported, “that these paragraphs explicitly contain a provision allowing prison terms to be suspended in favor of probation, and court practice shows that this option has been widely adopted in cases which do not involve assault or coercion.”
Before the GDR was overturned, even this legal inequity was removed.
Housing and employment, however, continued to be sites of struggles for equality after 1961. Partly this was due to lack of resources in the workers’ state that made the early goal of socialism–equal distribution–difficult to attain. And age-old prejudice was also an obstacle.
Steakley gave voice to the frustration of gays with the GDR’s governmental housing agency, which allocated space based on family size. This made it virtually impossible for single men to rent more than a studio apartment. But he did not examine this social crisis out of its economic context.
“Housing is still at a premium in the GDR, and it was only in 1975 that Berlin, for example, attained the per-capita level of housing that it had prior to World War II,” he explained, “In order to keep the country from sinking below its current zero population growth, the government makes no bones about rewarding childbirth; and while abortion and contraceptives are freely available, premarital sex and unmarried motherhood are promoted in pop songs.”
While the housing crunch Steakley described in 1976 constrained singles, he found that gays in East Germany were “optimistic that the GDR’s ongoing, high-priority construction program will open new options within the next decade.”
When examining the housing crisis in the GDR, it’s important to reiterate that, by law, rent could not exceed 10 percent of an individual’s income.
And when it came to jobs, Steakley stressed, “homosexuals are occasionally fired by a homophobic superior. But gays have successfully argued their cases in special GDR workers’ courts and had their jobs restored with back pay.”
Unlike a capitalist economic system, where wages are always in danger of being driven down by an “army of unemployed” competing against the employed, jobs are a right in a planned economy. Steakley stressed, “In a country with the right (not the obligation) to work and a serious labor shortage, job performance has become the sole criterion for hiring and firing.”
Flowering of lesbian, gay subculture
In his 10 pages of results of a study of the lesbian and gay movement in the GDR, published in 1989, researcher John Parsons explained that during the 1950s and 1960s an underground gay subculture had developed. But, he continued, “The 1970s and early 1980s were a time when this lesbian and gay subculture grew and flowered, creating a broad self-consciousness and assertiveness.” (OUT/LOOK, Summer 1989)
The Berlin Association for Homosexual Concerns (HIB) was established in the spring of 1972 by both women and men. They organized public and private discussion groups and programs, held film showings and book readings, and hosted speakers from the fields of medicine, psychology and sociology.
Steakley added an important point about the class character of the association. “Unlike most gay organizations in West Germany, the HIB is largely made up of workers and professional people rather than students.” Two of the three members of the steering committee belonged to the Communist Party.
Parsons noted the role of women. “Parallel with these efforts, lesbians and feminists were organizing their own discussion groups centered on questions of women’s liberation.”
He added that although public discussion focused on male same-sexuality, “One fact that is striking, however, is that lesbian and gay cultural institutions and friendship circles in East Germany historically have been integrated much more across gender lines than those in either West Germany or the United States.”
Steakley, writing closer to the period of the formation of HIB, said that while the organization waited until 1976 to apply for state recognition, “it by no means had an underground status during its first four years.”
In its first year, the group approached the Ministry of Health to request public meeting space. But the HIB delegation angrily withdrew its request after a psychiatrist offered to turn those weekly meetings into group therapy.
So the group turned to the national labor union–the FDGB. Steakley reported, “The FDGB was unable to provide rooms but urged the HIB to continue its search, noting that gays had legitimate concerns and should not be required to continue meeting in private homes.”
He added that activists protested a lack of protection from anti-gay bashers to the Berlin police “and the HIB got a positive response.”
The group also lodged complaints with city administrators when one of Berlin’s gay bars was closed in 1975. “Protests to municipal authorities brought assurances that the measure was not intentionally anti-gay but part of a larger urban renewal program designed to enhance the capital’s ‘cosmopolitan character’ which would soon lead to the opening of several new bars ‘for every taste.'”
And Parsons pointed out that during the 1970s, a number of gay-identified clubs and cafes opened up in major East German cities.
Answering the “Rat Man”
On June 1, 1976, HIB organized a very successful forum publicly sponsored by the Urania Society–a public education agency.
The event, a talk by Dr. Peter G. Klemm entitled “Sex Roles in Socialist Society,” filled the meeting hall to capacity. Of the 500 who attended, only an estimated one-third were gay or lesbian.
Klemm’s speech and the discussion that followed demonstrated a progressive current in a raging polemic against the work of Dr. Gunter Domer, a Berlin endocrinology researcher dubbed “Rat Man” by HIB activists.
Dorner claimed to be able to produce “homosexual” or “heterosexual” litters of rats based on injecting pregnant rats at different stages in the gestation period. Steakley emphasized, “Dormer’s experiments raise the specter of pregnant women being tested for hormonal ‘normalcy’ and given booster shots if the results indicate that the fetus is ‘homosexual.'”
East German gays and lesbians recalled all too well that under capitalism, the fascist eugenics wing of biological determinism rose to power with Nazism. But in the GDR, Dorner’s theories and the faction of science he represented did not prevail.
Klemm argued against drawing broad generalizations about human sexuality based on animal research. His eloquent elaboration of this position, clarifying even today, appeared in a 1975 article in Fur Dich, a women’s magazine with the largest circulation in the GDR.
“It is one of many human achievements to have liberated sexuality from its function as biological reproduction and to have made it into an independent source of pleasure and life enrichment. Once we have acknowledged this and accepted the fundamentally human, and therefore social, function of sexuality, we must also grant that the source of pleasure cannot be set by biological criteria; the ‘wrong’ taste in pleasure cannot be declared a ‘sickness’ in need of treatment.
“Homosexuals suffer only in an intolerant milieu! Homosexuality is a form of ‘deviance’ only in terms of traditional sex-role concepts! Any halfway imaginative heterosexual couple deviates from the ‘natural’–e.g., the sexual behavior of rats–just as much as a homosexual couple.
“It is therefore quite proper to doubt whether the problem of bi-, homo- or hyposexuality can be actually solved with a shot of hormones in the fourth month of pregnancy, or even should be. Changes in the traditional concept of sex roles are certainly the more correct and above all the humane approach, and these remarks are intended as a contribution to that goal.” (Body Politic)
Steakley concluded in 1976 that these views by Dr. Klemm were “a sample of the progressive psychological standpoint which is becoming increasingly influential in the GDR. It is perhaps significant that the founding of the gay movement has come since 1971, when the government announced that the GDR had achieved the level of a ‘developed socialist society’ and could now begin to lay the groundwork for the transition to communism.
“Not just experts but gay people from all walks of life are playing a role in the broad, democratic discussion of the socialist personality and sexuality, feminism and the future of the family.”
That was East Germany in the 1970s. But by the 1980s, efforts by the Com munist Party and the state created a historic milestone for same-sex emancipation.
Next: 1980s East Germany: stunning social gains in workers’ state.
Reprinted from the Nov. 11, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
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Early resistance to state repression
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 29
By Leslie Feinberg
Originally Published Mar 23, 2005 1:39 PM
In the inhospitable social climate of the Cold War, struggles were taking root in the U.S. that would later flower in the gay and trans liberation movement of the late 1960s.
How was it possible, some may wonder today, for gays to have resisted and organized in the 1940s and 1950s when state repression and a reactionary ideological offensive were at their height?
In the war between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, the relationship of forces may change many times, but those under siege never cease to find ways to struggle for their freedom.
Much of the history of the struggle for homosexual and gender and women’s rights in the decades of greatest political repression has been buried under the reactionary weight of the Cold War propaganda machine. Under standing how the early stirrings of the homophile movement of the 1940s and 1950s began serves to arm today’s movement, which has much greater opportunities for resistance against political reaction.
Also, the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion and the mass political wave of struggle it unleashed can seem almost accidental or episodic without a general overview of the acts of resistance and attempts to organize that preceded the four-night-long uprising.
The choice of language to describe these earlier decades is difficult. Similar words may be used to describe sex, love and affection with regard to different historical periods, economic classes, nationalities, ethnicities and regions. However, the ways people saw themselves and each other and the ways medical authorities, police, courts and military brass categorized and criminalized people and their behaviors have undergone many changes.
The world of same-sex love among many blue-collar and oppressed people in the first half of the century in the U.S. was intertwined with gender and sex variance—or what today might be referred to as transgender and transsexual. It’s also hard to separate bisexuality from the exclusive expression of same-sex love in early periods.
Here “LGBT” will be used, not to stamp the past with a modern acronym that has come to symbolize a united front coalition of sexuality, gender and sex minorities, but to show the inability to parse the population into distinct categories.
Centralizing force of capitalism
The rise of the 1940s and 1950s homophile movement itself is hard to fathom without taking into account the awakening of LGBT people in the 1920s and 1930s. Material developments in life under capitalism made this not only possible in those early decades of the 20th century, but necessary.
By the end of the 19th century, Northern industrial capital and banking had consolidated its victory over the Southern slave-owning landed aristocracy. The overturning of Black Reconstruction through lynch “law” and Jim Crow fascist conditions had brought a violent end to an unfinished revolution. This created huge shifts in the population from agriculture to urban areas in search of jobs. In these vast, anonymous cities and port towns, with same-sex boarding houses and parks and piers, nascent LGBT subcultures took shape.
U.S. capitalism, unable to satiate its hunger for profits through domestic expansion alone, emerged as an imperialist power, exporting war for empire and profits to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. A decade and a half later the world’s imperialist powers dragged the workers into a gory struggle over redividing the world’s colonies in the first World War.
The military deployment and wartime industry also pulled massive numbers of women and men from rural areas, small towns and cities into same-sex living conditions and new social conditions that broke down the old order.
It was workers’ revolution that scared the imperialists into finally ending the war. The Cold War really began in the U.S. after the workers and peasants of Russia rose up in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and established the first lasting workers’ state. The revolution reverberated around the globe, lifting the heads of laboring and oppressed peoples in every part of the world.
The communist government in Russia immediately struck down the anti-homosexual laws. In the U.S., however, the capitalist government made LGBT people one of the early targets of repression, along with communists, anarchists, trade unionists and immigrants.
Military witch hunt
In the spring of 1919, the brass at the Newport Naval Training Center covertly sent a group of young enlisted men into the base and the nearby community to lure “sexual perverts” and bring back evidence about “immoral conditions.”
After entrapment had provided the necessary “evidence,” naval and municipal officials rounded up more than 20 sailors and 16 civilians. They faced naval and civilian trials.
It was one thing when the dragnet ensnared enlisted sailors, mostly from the working class. But when a prominent minister from the Episcopal Church of Newport got caught in the nets, and civilian and later military officials forced him to stand trial, all hell broke loose.
“Protests by the Newport Ministerial Union and the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island and a vigorous editorial campaign by the Providence Journal forced the Navy to conduct a second inquiry in 1920 into the methods used in the first investigation,” historian George Chauncey Jr. wrote.
“When the inquiry criticized the methods but essentially exonerated the senior naval officers who had instituted them, the ministers asked the Republican-controlled Senate Naval Affairs Committee to conduct its own investigation.”
The Republicans agreed, eager to attack the Democratic administration.
The Senate committee issued its report in 1921. It exonerated the minister. Although the report, Chauncey noted, “expressed deep anti-homosexual loathing, it condemned the conduct of the highest naval officials involved, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the 1920 Democratic vice-presidential candidate.” (“Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era”)
Smoke, lilies and jade
The mass migrations to large cities, port towns and military bases in the 1920s and 1930s had created the basis for larger and more concentrated subcultures.
Chauncey provides evidence that LGBT life flourished more in the first third of the 20th century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, than it did after World War II.
He described same-sex love and gender variance in New York, one of the capitals of LGBT life, as “a working-class world, center ed in African American and Irish and Italian immigrant neighborhoods and along the city’s busy waterfront, and drawing on the social forms of working-class culture.”
The most visible, organized and eloquent LGBT expression in the pre-World War II era came from the Black movement in the United States.
As the Great Migration from the South to the North burgeoned into Black urban capitals, LGBT expression became a part of their histories.
Thousands attended LGBT balls in Harlem, Chicago, Baltimore and Wash ing ton, D.C., which were widely reported on in Black community newspapers.
In New York the balls were held at the Rockland Palace, the Astor Hotel and Mad ison Square Garden. The most famous was the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Har lem, which dated back to 1879. The majority of those who attended were working class. About 800 took part in 1925; 1,500 in 1937. Attendance peaked at 8,000 in 1937 before police raids shut it down.
Harlem was the heart of one of the great cultural and political high-water marks of U.S. history—the Harlem Renaissance—which ran from the end of World War I in 1918 until the capitalist depression.
This flowering of literature, art, music and political organizing—all of which was influenced by aspirations for national liberation and hope for an end to dreams deferred, sparked by the socialist revolution in Russia—also gave voice to LGBT concerns.
Richard Bruce Nugent, a self-identified gay man, published the classic “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” in 1926. It was the first known work by a Black author clearly about same-sex love. He said about LGBT life in Harlem during that period, “Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closets.”
Next: German Homosexual Emancipation Movement inspired 1920s U.S. organizing.
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Rise of German Homosexual Emancipation Movement
By Leslie Feinberg
Winds of change will fill the banners of Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Pride this June, lifting them to new heights.
After decades of fierce and unrelenting struggle, same-sex love has been effectively decriminalized and many gains have been won. Organizing, rolling civil disobedience has helped push back state denial of equal rights of same-sex couples–a form of institutionalized discrimination that is a pillar of class society.
Millions of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans people across the United States will take to the streets in Pride events in cities and towns this June, as they do each year to recall and honor the 1969 Stone wall uprising against police repression. And millions of people of all nationalities, sexualities, genders and sexes will line the streets to applaud and cheer these celebrations of individual courage and collective struggle. The 1969 rebellion in New York’s Green wich Village was led by the most oppressed of the LGBT communities–people of color, teenagers, transgender and transsexual, homeless, impoverished and so marginalized in the work force that prostitution was the only source of income for many. The uprising was the spark that ignited a large-scale movement. It galvanized quantitative fighting back into qualitative mass resistance. It did not develop in social isolation. The Stonewall Rebellion–which marked the birth of what became the modern LGBT movement–rose in the wake of social upheaval against imperialist war and rampant racist repression.
Marchers will draw on the lessons of how the left wing of early gay liberation found its way into the anti-war movement, took part in and defended the national liberation struggles, helped develop women’s liberation, and took part in labor battles from the shop floor to organizing in support of the Chicano farm workers’ union drive.
If they look to accurate historical accounts, today’s activists will also find that the young gay liberation movement received support from the most revolutionary sectors of the political left wing.
More than three decades later, revisiting this dynamic historical period of struggle is an activist contribution to today’s movement.
But it is less known to many today that the Stonewall Rebellion launched the second – not the first – mass movement for LGBT liberation. The first great wave of struggle to demand sexual and gender emancipation had taken place from 1869 to 1935. It began in Germany. It was a dynamic, expanding movement that grew to be international. And it left its mark on other social and political movements, as well as literature and the arts.
The history of the struggle in that period, as well, is rich with lessons.
Why not in France?
Why did the movement appear in Germany? And why in that epoch? It’s impossible to glean a broad understanding without examining the social and economic soil in which the German movement for sexual and gender emancipation was rooted.
The widespread, murderous counter-revolutionary pogroms against women, transgender expression and same-sex love carried out by the Catholic and early Protestant hierarchies had subsided as the Industrial Revolution began sweeping away the kingdoms of Europe. The momentous revolution in France at the end of the 18th century–in which the downtrodden and disenfranchised of the cities, including many women, played a vitally important part–had uprooted the vestiges of the feudal power of the kings and the Catholic Church.
The French Revolution established a legal code, Napoleonic Code, which remov ed homosexual acts from the list of criminal offenses. Of course, state and church bias and demonization were not eradicated by formally removing the laws. Variations of sexuality, gender and sex continued to be subject to a political policy of divide and conquer. And a class-divided economy itself continued to pit segments of the work force against each other.
But the Napoleonic Code was the enlightened act of a young capitalist class that saw its role as righting the wrongs of feudal backwardness. And this decriminalizing of homosexual acts had far-reaching effects on other European nations. Why did the French Revolution remove anti-homosexual statutes while the capitalist revolutions in England and the United States did not?
The French Revolution was later, and more thorough, for sure. But the French capitalist class also had to battle the powerful and tenacious Catholic Church and its ideology. That may have impelled the revolutionists to have to carry out a more thorough ” of the Church’s “moral” authority than in the other countries.
So why didn’t a sexual liberation movement arise in France? Why in Germany?
Because anti-gay repression was much stronger in Germany.
Prussian expansion set stage for battle
Germany in the late 1800s had a powerful industrial base. But it was weakened by the remaining constraints of feudalism. Germany had few colonies as a result.
Other European powers were colonizing the world, plundering from Africa to Australia. Asia and Africa were conquered by the British, French, Dutch and Belgian imperialist powers.
In many of these cultures, women still enjoyed significant societal rights; variance in sex, gender and sexuality were accepted and respected. But with bullets and bibles, the imperial patriarchs of wealth at the pinnacle of capital’s expanding power conquered militarily and ideologically with their cultural values and property relations.
In North America, the fierce clash between the expansion of slavery and the expansion of Northern industrial capital was about to break out in the bloodiest battle of the 19th century–the Civil War. The victory of the North would set the stage for U.S. capital to begin its merciless globalization in search of greater profits.
But Germany was not unified enough to be a colonial contender – yet. It was fragmented into almost 300 different countries.
While several of these had no laws against same-sex love, Prussia did. And it was Prussia that was devouring all the other German states except Hanover.
Next: The love that dared to speak its name
Reprinted from the June 3, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
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Can we stop calling China a communist state, now, please? This is what barely-regulated capitalism actually looks like, in practice.
The evident disarray of Chinese policymakers, combined with a growth of labor unrest and discontent fueled by events such as the Tianjin warehouse explosion, is stoking concerns in corporate boardrooms and imperialist governments over the political stability of the regime, on which they have relied to ensure high profits based on poverty-level wages and intense exploitation of Chinese workers.
Any wonder why the left faction of Syriza split from the party?
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ decision to call snap elections is a calculated maneuver aimed at establishing a new political framework for pushing through deeply unpopular austerity measures.
In the hours after Tsipras announced that he was resigning and calling the new elections, statements from European officials make clear that the decision was carried out under the direction of Greece’s European Union (EU) creditors. Tsipras’ Syriza party is expecting to be able to win the elections held next month and to form a new government, perhaps with one or another pro-austerity coalition partner.