A Little Bit of Queer History Repeating
By: Alex Falck
Recognize this photo?
You probably do; it’s a powerful and widely-used image of Nazi censorship. But to some, it also represents the progress of previous generations, and their violent erasure. You may have read a little about its connection to queer history on Facebook or Teen Vogue, but there is more to be gleaned here than the obvious lesson of the danger far-right movements pose to gender and sexual minorities.
The Fight for Queer Equality in Weimar Germany
In her excellent book Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis, Laurie Marhoefer traces Germany’s LGBT rights movement from its rise following World War I to its destruction by the Third Reich. Prior to the German Revolution of 1918-1919, which supplanted the monarchy with a new parliamentary democracy, German culture was already experiencing a liberalization of gender and sex roles. Science was playing a larger role in society, there was a strong women’s movement, and a small but persistent gay-rights movement had been active since the late 1800s. Still, it seemed like an abrupt change had taken place. Germans felt that “the war, the Revolution, and the new democracy had ushered in ‘a new age’ of gender and sexuality.” (Marhoefer, 26)
Censorship rules were relaxed, allowing gay and trans publications to be distributed for the first time. (At the time, transvestite was an umbrella term for cross-dressers and transgender people; I’ll be using the word trans to convey the same meaning.) Books and magazines helped many readers realize their own gender and sexual identity, raised their political consciousness, and directed them to gathering places where they could meet others like themselves.
By the mid-1920s, some people were beginning to distinguish between sexuality and gender expression and between gender expression and gender identity (i.e., that a man who enjoys dressing in women’s clothing is not the same as a trans woman). Queer identities were studied and discussed within and outside the queer community; language was coined, redefined, debated and discarded.
Magnus Hirschfeld, a world-famous biologist and advocate for gay and trans rights, co-founded the first gay rights organization—the influential Scientific Humanitarian Committee—in 1897 and later established the Institute for Sexual Science. He argued that homosexuality was a rare but naturally-occurring condition, not an immoral or degenerate one (the word degenerate is significant, as I’ll discuss shortly). After he broke with the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1929, his former colleagues Arthur Kronfeld, Richard Linsert and Kurt Hiller argued that science was not a necessary part of gay-rights advocacy (remember Hiller’s name, it’ll come up later, too). They advocated a position grounded in individual rights and bodily autonomy, which by its nature was more radical than Hirschfeld’s purely science-based approach. By 1931, gay rights had made so much social progress that when high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Röhm was outed in the press, the scandal fizzled. Despite the Nazis’ homophobia, being gay was no longer scandalous.
Normally, the next paragraph is about how it all went to shit after the Nazis rose to power, but wait…
Let’s step away from the narrative of good queer activists vs. evil Nazis and reckon with the imperfections of the movement and its leaders, because there’s a lot more to learn than the obvious lesson that far-right movements are dangerous to marginalized communities.
Failures and Faultlines
Respectability politics dominated the Weimar Republic’s LGBTQIA rights movement. Bourgeois advocates and publications argued that, as citizens, gay and trans people had the right to exist in public spaces, but as citizens entitled to public space, they were responsible for dressing and acting in ways that were “restrained, respectable, and civic-minded.” (Marhoefer, 64) Working-class and impoverished queer people, particularly sex workers, were marginalized and excluded from the mainstream movement.
Hirschfeld himself supported that exclusion. As mentioned above, he argued that gay people were not degenerate, but he still upheld degeneracy theory. That is, he
attributed general conditions such as mental instability and poor health to certain types of behaviours, such as having an “immoral lifestyle.” Implicit in this notion of hereditary moral pathology was that certain social groups such as prostitutes, criminals, the poor, and the insane, were morally defective and represented a regression in human evolution. (Billinger)
In fact, Hirschfeld believed that nature intended homosexuality as a sort of prophylactic against degeneration. He thought that gay people carried degenerate genetics and, if pushed into heterosexual relationships, would bear degenerate children. Allowing gay people to live as themselves would prevent them from reproducing and thus improve the moral and evolutionary health of society.
You see where this is going?
Hirschfeld’s work for gay liberation was directly related to his belief in degeneracy and eugenic theory. Many people point out that these were popular, mainstream beliefs endorsed by most scientists of the time and that Hirschfeld did not support racial eugenics or forced sterilization. That’s good to know, but Hirschfeld’s belief in eugenics shouldn’t be downplayed; the fact that he argued against homosexuality as degeneration but continued to promote the concepts of degeneration and eugenics demonstrates a lack of imagination and intellectual rigor. His personal experience of homosexuality led him to reject the idea that gay people are degenerate, but he failed to extend that critical examination to other supposedly degenerate conditions or the concept of degeneracy as a whole.
Remember Hiller, who disagreed with Hirschfeld’s approach to gay rights? He believed first and foremost in the right to bodily autonomy. From his point of view, sex workers’ rights and gay rights were part of the same fight. When Germany’s anti-sodomy law was repealed in favor of a law criminalizing male prostitution, Hiller argued “that the repeal was but an illusion of liberation.” (Marhoefer, 113)
Like Hirschfeld, Hiller’s politics were born of personal experience. “He loved various men with whom he had close, chaste friendships. He paid other men for sex.” (Marhoefer, 113) And like Hirschfeld, Hiller’s seemingly-radical politics were limited by his failure to critically examine his own biases. He disdained non-normative gender presentation and wrote of his disgust for effeminate gay men, trans people, and intersex people.
Looking Past Your Own Nose
Hirschfeld and Hiller’s short-sightedness is demonstrative of a problem that has long plagued social justice activism: many activists fight against their own oppression but fail to critically examine other oppressive systems. Gay white men have upheld racism and misogyny, straight black men have upheld misogyny and homophobia, lesbian feminists have upheld transphobia, and so on.
When our political consciousness begins and ends with our own experience, we are not only complicit in the oppression of others, we also weaken our own liberation movements. Firstly, we exclude people whose interests align with ours, thus making the movement smaller. Secondly, by failing to understand that all oppression is interconnected, the oppression we fail to fight will inevitably come back to bite us in the ass. You better believe that Nazis relied on degeneracy and eugenic theory to justify their extermination of queer people, Hirschfeld’s quibbling be damned.
One final lesson:
Don’t underestimate the self-awareness of the far-right. From 1929-1933, the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (Nazi Party) deliberately toned down its rhetoric in order to gain broader appeal. Prior to 1929, their propaganda was marked by rabid screeds that blamed “immorality”—including homosexuality, transness, prostitution and feminism—on a vast Jewish conspiracy. Their extreme antisemitism and salacious focus on sex brought them just 2.6% of votes in the 1928 parliamentary elections. Starting in 1929, Nazi Party propaganda instead focused on economic and political complaints with only brief and vague references to morality, deliberately imitating the mainstream conservative press.
This ruse ended with the passage of the Enabling Act of 1933 on March 23 of that year, which transformed Hitler’s chancellorship into a dictatorship and turned the country over to Nazi control. On April 6, 1933, the right-wing German Students Association called for a celebratory burning of “un-German” literature in cities across the country. Exactly a month later, students in Berlin ransacked Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science and carted away the contents of its library and archive. Four days later, on May 10, they threw the materials onto bonfires in Berlin’s Opera Square.
Alex Falck is a Teen Services Librarian at the Chicago Public Library and volunteer librarian at Brave Space Alliance, an organization focused on the needs of trans people of color. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck