A short gay history of Germany and §175

A short gay history of Germany and §175

Summary: Around the 1990s, queer history started to become a popular topic among researchers after emerging from feminist discussions. With over 30 years of intensive research, we’ll only be able to focus on a very small portion of the queer history of Germany for our pride series. Specifically, we used the German government’s own research on §175 from the Ministry of Education to provide an overview of laws that dictated how gay people were treated. All academic articles are open access and will be linked below for your convenience. 

An overview of homosexuality in German history

The first documentation of homosexuality in German history is from Novella 77 in the year 538 which bans sexual interactions between gay men. The reason given for this ban was that relations between gay men would cause starvation, plague, and earthquakes. 

In the Middle Ages, this ban turned into a death sentence for those caught, and until 1794, Article 116 of the Prussian Regional Court continued to uphold this death sentence for homosexual men. England also had a similar law that was only abolished in 1861. It’s important to note while homosexuality was no longer punishable by death, it was still criminalized after Article 116 was abolished.

When the National Socialists took power, they began bringing back these outdated practices by using existing laws like the 1872 established §175 which criminalized sex between men. They began following gay men with something called the Rosa Winkel which is an upside-down pink triangle used to categorize homosexual men who were then either sent to concentration camps or offered medical castration to avoid being sent away. The men who did manage to survive these concentration camps were then thrown in prison after being liberated by the Allies because of the existing §175 which criminalized sexual acts between men.

Throughout Germany’s history. homosexuality transformed from a death sentence with Article 116 into criminal behavior with §175 to a type of mental illness in modern psychology (§175 still existed, but was sometimes enforced less or changed depending on someone’s age). Just like in the United States, homosexuality was treated with various “medical” procedures like electric shock therapy and in the 1970s with brain surgeries. These procedures were only stopped after intensive protests and discussions by medical professionals who knew that sexuality couldn’t be changed through conversion therapy.

Throughout the decades, German researchers have attempted to understand why people exhibit homosexual behaviors from their relationship with their parents, traumatic experiences, hormonal disturbances, or even as recently as the 1990s with a “Homo-Gen” or homosexual gene. 

In the following section of the article, we will cover the different aspects that §175 played throughout the eras of German history.

Thanks go to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bindung for their extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

The influence of §175 from 1872 to 1933

As mentioned above, people were only allowed to exist as homosexuals for a brief period of time without facing the death sentence in the second half of the 19th century. Any intimate actions between homosexual men, however, were punishable by the German law §175 as mentioned above. This law existed from 1872 to 1994 and was used by the National Socialists to put gay men into concentration camps if they were suspected of having intercourse. 

While punishable by law, some academics sought to make punishment more strict especially after Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray caused his eventual imprisonment for violating public morality laws. The Germans took notice and published an academic article in 1895 titled “Die Beurtheilung des widernormalen Geschlechtsverkehrs” or The evaluation of abnormal sexual intercourse that attempted to draw attention to the issue and convince the German upper class to act. 

As a response to the sudden backlash, the first German homosexual movement was formed to fight against these growing sentiments along with §175 until 1933 when the National Socialists took power. From 1919 to 1933, there were also signs of a growing gay culture in German society with the serial magazine for gay men called Die Freundschaft that had pictures, erotic poems, stories, and other things. Unfortunately, many of the early editions were burned by the National Socialists leaving only a few editions of the magazine in existence today. For an overview of the history of the magazine, please see this article from Queer.de.

Thanks go to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bindung for their extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

§175 from 1933 to 1945

It might surprise you to hear that the anti-National Socialist movement was focused on gay men. Early communists believed that by eliminating gay men from society, they would also be eliminating the National Socialist movement. Because only wealthy gay men were able to avoid punishment under §175, it meant that the only gay men the working-class encountered were upper-class and often were politically very influential. Anyone without the financial resources to avoid political persecution either hid so well that no one knew of their sexuality, or were imprisoned.

As you might already know, this changed as §175 was made stricter in 1935 and gay men were systematically followed and prosecuted. Only a portion of these men were sent to concentration camps though with an option of medical castration being offered to some as an alternative to deportation. A record for how many gay men were medically castrated and if this was done willingly or not doesn’t currently exist in academic research. 

There were internal debates within the government at the time as to how strict the law should be against homosexual men with advocates for gender segregation pointing to bonds between men being nearly inseparable from homosexual behavior and racial purists pointing towards stricter laws. 

With the stricter laws, gay men were followed and put into concentration camps with the Rosa Winkel (upside-down pink triangle) while lesbians were categorized as “asocial” and discriminated against through the lack of women’s rights or rights to their own bodies. This element of female homosexuality is a continuous theme throughout German history until after World War II with feminist and queer movements in Germany forming that also included homosexual women.

After the concentration camps were dissolved, these homosexual men went into prison under §175 which upheld the criminalization of homosexual acts between men. 

Thanks go to the Harry Oothuis for his extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

§175 in East Germany until 1989

Most homosexual men and women were limited to meeting in cafés to form a queer subculture. This was not especially unique to East Germany as many of these cafés were documented to be popular spots for queer people to meet before and during the era of the National Socialists. 

While §175 was no longer being enforced starting in 1968, things were still not equal. It wasn’t until the 1970s that both lesbians and gay men are documented to have come together to fight for equal rights – something quite different from West Germany as these movements were separated into the feminist movement and the gay liberation (men only) movement. The East Germans formed the Homosexuelle Interessengemeinschaft Berlin (HIB) or the Homosexual Interest Group Berlin. The group held protests and speeches until they were forced to dissolve in 1980.

The members who still wanted to fight for equal rights then joined with church organizations in East Germany which were also being discriminated against at the time. This group was systematically watched by the Stasi with documents now existing in archives accessible online. This wasn’t, however, a breaking point as people began noticing how many homosexual men and women were fighting for socialist causes. The Humboldt University in Berlin published a paper in 1985 elaborating on this: „Zur Situation homophiler Bürger in der DDR“ (About the situation of the homosexual citizen in East Germany” and during the same year, a conference was held on the psycho-social aspects of homosexuality.

In 1988, a law was passed against the discrimination of homosexuals due to the more tolerant atmosphere. This, however, was still being controlled and monitored by the political elite. It’s unclear how East Germany would have differed from West Germany with respect to queer culture if they had continued to remain separated.

Thanks go to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bindung for their extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

§175 in West Germany until 1989

While in 1957 the laws criminalizing homosexuality in East Germany were rarely upheld, the West German government held fast to their Christian beliefs and continued to uphold §175. It wasn’t until a change in government in 1969 that decriminalized homosexual acts between men over 21 years old and men over 18 in 1973. Although, according to the German government’s website, there was still official discrimination in the Bundeswehr, or Germany’s army. 

§175 was still being enforced against younger men until 1994 when it was abolished by the German government.

Thanks go to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bindung for their extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

AIDS and queer movements after 1989

It’s important to jump back a bit to how the developing queer movements from the East and West came together in Germany to build on the momentum of the Stonewall Riots in the US in 1969. Since both gay men and women were already organizing in East Germany and two different movements formed in West Germany, they came together to host the first CSD or Christopher Street Day (inspired by the name of the street where the Stonewall Riots took place) in Bremen and Berlin in 1979.

Gay culture was developing quickly due to the decreased enforcement of §175 with movements like the “Sich-Zeigen” (Show yourself) that thematized queer people coming out to friends and family while cinema and media began taking on queer stories. 

Popular media about queer culture in Germany can be found on the Goethe Institut.

Right when queer culture was flourishing in Germany, the AIDS epidemic hit with CSU politician Peter Gauweiler calling for the internment of all infected homosexuals. Fears of a new wave of discrimination due to the virus were surfacing while organizations like Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe formed to give free tests to those who might be at risk while keeping their identities anonymous. These organizations still exist today and are still providing anonymous tests for HIV to both German and non-German citizens.

While many gay men in Germany did die during this time, it wasn’t as extreme as in the United States. The numbers stabilized in 1985 with people taking more caution which some attribute to Germany’s criminalization of homosexuality for most of its history. To illustrate this, 0.6% of the US population, 0.4% of the French population, 0.2% of the British population, and 0.1% of the German had HIV in 1990. 

In 1996, Germany began to offer medical therapy for those with HIV which meant a new type of life after infection was born. People were no longer faced with an eventual death once they tested positive. 

Thanks go to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bindung for their extensive research on queer history in Germany. You can find this citation along with the online PDF below for more information.

In November 2010, an American study was released about PrEP, a drug that can prevent HIV infection in those who might have come in contact with the virus or are living with a partner who is HIV positive. So far, France, Norway, Scotland, Belgium, and Portugal offer PrEP in their healthcare system at either a small cost or completely free. Germany has added a study for PrEP in 2019 to see if the numbers of infections go down if offering the drug for free before they’ll officially make it a part of their public healthcare system. 

Being queer in Germany today

After §175 was abolished in 1994 and gay marriage was passed in 2017, it has had a major impact on which rights gay couples have access to. There is still a lot of work to be done from making it easier to have two legal parents of the same gender to gay men adopting children, to making sure that discrimination against gay couples isn’t used through differing terminology like Lebenspartnershaft (life partnership) and Ehe (marriage). Even things like Monkeypox being attributed to gay men’s relationships is a strong reminder that we’re still in the process of reaching equal rights. 

Again, while this is an incredibly condensed history of being queer in Germany. We’ve taken the time to look at academic articles and put together some of the biggest events from historical research to give an overview of German queer history. If you want to learn more, there are many resources available in your local library which might have English options. 

References

Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (2010): “Homosexualität

Harry Oosterhuis (1994): “Reinheit und Verfolgung

Mike Laufenberg (2019): “Queer Theory: Identitäts- und Machtkritische Perspektiven auf Sexualität und Geschlecht

More useful information about §175

LSVD’s history of §175