The following is only a sample of the history that I have collected for the project. This research represents only a view of same sex love in Western Culture. As the project develops we will involve filmmakers from other cultures to bring their histories to the screen.
Sex In The First Democracy
Legend has it that in 514 B.C.E democracy was born when two lovers, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, led a rebellion that overthrew the Greek tyrant Hippias. That same-sex lovers should play such an important role in the development of Greek democracy is not incidental. The ancient Dorian culture relied on the process of initiation of boys by older men to teach the arts of sex, politics and war and this process was handed down through the generations.
There are many stories and legends in Ancient Greece that deal openly with same-sex love. Even Zeus, ruler of the universe, is smitten by the shepherd Ganymede and carries him off to Heaven. In the Iliad, Homer recounts how Achilles’ grief over the death of his male lover, Patroklos, led him knowingly to his death in order to gain revenge. And Jupiter was clever enough to turn himself into the guise of the goddess Artemis when he wanted to seduce the nymph Callisto.
Same-sex love was a prominent feature of Athenian society. In Plato’s Symposium there are lengthy debates on the merits of a man loving a boy as opposed to a woman. Aristophanes relates a legend of how the gods created sexual desire by cutting the early inhabitants of the earth in two, leaving each half forever looking for another half to complete itself. The best possible outcome for either a man or a woman he concludes, is a same-sex lover. The debate about the nature of love, the preference for the love of boys or the love of women, was a common feature of both Greek and Roman literature. These themes were carried through into the visual arts, particularly the vase paintings popular in Greece at the time.
There were also no laws against same-sex love activity in ancient Greece. One well-documented case, the trial of Timarkos in 346 B.C.E., demonstrates that it was no crime for a young man to have an affair with an older man. In fact it was desirable. However, Timarkos had accepted money in return for granting sexual favors. And, if he would sell his body, he could sell his vote and therefore could not be trusted. As a result he was prohibited from exercising his rights as a citizen in the senate.
Women had no such rights. The process of creating democracy from the citizen army had further removed women from playing an active role in politics as Greece developed. By the time Sappho was exiled to Lesbos in 604 B.C.E., women were clearly being marginalized. While there are frequent references to lesbian activity in literature, the contribution of women to Greek culture were rarely noted or, like Sappho’s poetry, destroyed.
What democracy there was in the Greek States came to an end after Philip of Macedonia’s victory in the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.E. It was at this battle that the fierce Sacred Band of Thebes, 150 pairs of lovers, died to the last man. Four years later Philip died under mysterious circumstances and his son, Alexander the Great, took his throne. Alexander was a brilliant general prone to drinking and violence. He had many male lovers, including his boyhood friend Hephaestion. After defeating the Persians, he picked up their habit of adding eunuchs to his harem for sexual pleasure. Before dying at only 32 years of age, Alexander created a vast empire stretching all the way to India, and inspired generals from Caesar to Napoleon.
That a man who so openly loved other men should be revered in our culture as the greatest general of all times is perhaps ironic. An irony matched only by the fact that he should also be the one to start unraveling the freedoms that were the hallmark of Greek culture which provided the basis for same-sex love to flourish. Alexander was the first to introduce the concept of a world-wide empire - a concept imitated by dictators throughout the centuries to come. Alexander also insisted that the Greeks deify him, bringing the power and control of state and religion together in one man’s hands. It was a concept not lost on Constantine 600 years later.
The views of the Roman Republic towards same-sex love, inherited from the agriculturally-based Etruscans, did not vary that much from those in Greece in the fifth century. Theopompus, a Greek historian, wrote of a trip to Rome in the mid-fourth century B.C.E. :
The servants bring in sometimes courtesans, sometimes handsome boys, sometimes their own wives. When they have taken their pleasure of the women or the men, they make strapping young fellows lie with the latter... They certainly have commerce with women, but they always enjoy themselves better with boys and young men. The latter are in this country quite beautiful to behold...
Same-sex love was also prominent in Roman literature. Catullus, Tibullus, Virgil and Horace all wrote homophile poetry, and Sextus Propertius, a poet of the first century B.C.E. wrote that he hoped his enemies would fall in love with women, and his friends with boys. Lesbian lovers were also reported in literature, although by men. As the late historian John Boswell noted;
Martial, for instance, describes a lesbian who can outdrink and outeat any man, plays at male sports, wrestles, can lift heavier weights than a man, and who “puts it to” eleven girls a day. Lucien portrays Megilla as shaving her head and boasting that she is “a man in every way”... Ovid tells a story of erotic love between two women ...
As in Greece, there were no laws against same-sex love. Cicero, perhaps the leading authority on Roman law, once gave legal advice to a friend whose son had gone into debt because of his male lover. The man should pay the debts of the young couple because they were in Cicero’s words “united in a stable and permanent marriage, just as if he had given him a matron’s stola”. There were also no laws against male prostitution. On the contrary, it was taxed and had a legal holiday. The only recorded complaint against the practice during the Republic came from Cato in the second century B.C.E. who complained that prices were too high.
This open attitude towards sexual behavior continued into the first three centuries of the Empire. Julius Caesar was so open about his affair with the King of Bithynia that his partner in the consulship referred to him as the ‘Queen of Bithynia’ while Curio the Elder called him “every man’s wife and every woman’s husband”. Another telling aspect of Roman society was the number of romantic gay love stories in popular literature. Often these stories reflected real cases, such as the love of Emperor Hadrian for the young Antinous. When Antinous drowned, Hadrian was so moved that he had him deified.
In the fourth century, however, the atmosphere in Rome was starting to change as the Empire began to crumble and Rome itself came under attack. As Historian David F. Greenberg notes:
The crisis of the third century can only have strengthened tendencies to see life as meaningless or evil. Manichaeism, a dualistic religion that thought the sinfulness of sex and the evil of procreation, spread rapidly. Loosely organized groups of ascetic aristocrats leading lives of Christian chastity and prayer could be found in Rome before 300 and are known to have existed throughout the fourth century. The renewed military threat posed by the ravaging of Gaul in 406 at the hands of the Franks, Seuves, Vandals, and Alans, and the Visigothic sacking of Rome in 410, greatly enhanced the appeal of ascetic versions of Christianity and led to a flurry of conversions.
Prior to the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 313, there was no single doctrine preached by Christians. On the subject of same-sex love, Christ himself was conspicuously silent. However as Christianity became increasingly part of the government, church councils met to form a unified doctrine. This came about at a time of crises when many believed that the world was coming to an end and that everyone should renounce the world of the flesh to save their souls. Early Christians such as Origin castrated themselves to avoid temptation. The Act of The Apostles maintained that even married people should refrain from sex while the Acts of Paul and Thecla proclaimed that only virgins would be accepted into heaven.
In this frenzied climate, the church elders reached a compromise that would serve them well politically for centuries. They would organize a clergy that was celibate and protect the faith while allowing their members to have sex only when it served the needs of the state by producing offspring. All other sexual activity would be banned under pain of death, as was proclaimed by Emperor Justinian in the year 529.
And so the movement from tyranny to citizen democracy that had started a thousand years before was now reversed. The rights to freedom of expression that Greeks and Romans once enjoyed, including the right to sexual expression, were gone. With the suppression of sexual expression under the combined authority of church and state, the stage was set for the persecution of same-sex lovers for the next 1600 years.
The Return Of Ganymede
The move by state leaders such as Justinian and Charlemagne and church leaders like Paul and Augustine to repress same-sex love was not without its dissenters. Two of the most popular martyrs in early Christianity were the female saints Perpetua and Felicitas who died in each other’s embrace in Carthage during the third century. And Saint Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, wrote passionately to Ausonius on the subject of dying:
And when, freed from my body’s jail I fly from earth, Wherever in heaven our Father shall direct me, There also shall I bear you in my heart. Nor will that end, That frees me from my flesh, Release me from your love.
This undercurrent of romantic same-sex love survived within the clergy into the eleventh century. However, as Europe emerged from the middle ages, the Catholic Church attempted to extend its territorial limits through the Crusades while solidifying its home front through the Inquisition. The organization of the Inquisition by Pope Gregory in 1231 led to the prosecution of anyone seen to be outside the norm. Women were certainly a main target, and sexual deviance from the ascetic ideal could prove fatal. As Colin Spencer notes in his Homosexuality: A History:
No one knows how many witches were burnt, beheaded, hanged or whipped to death in the centuries from 1450 to 1793, the year in which the last ‘witch’ was burnt in Poland. Millions of women were accused in this time. An inquisitor at Como in Italy is quoted as saying that he burned 1,000 witches in one year (possibly 1523).
Events took a dramatic turn in 1307 when Philip IV of France used the Inquisition to attack one of the most powerful and richest orders of knights, The Templars. His motivation was to acquire the land and enormous wealth the Templars had amassed during the Crusades. His weapon against the Templars was the charge of heresy and sodomy. During what can be described as the first international show trials, the Templars were tortured into confessing and were publicly executed. The trials demonstrated dramatically the effectiveness of the charge of sodomy in attacking an enemy, no matter how powerful or well-placed. The same charge would be used against Edward II of England a few years later.
For thirteen years Edward II had carried on an affair with Piers Gaveston, even after his marriage to Isabella, daughter of Philip IV. After Gaveston’s death, Edward developed a relationship with Hugh le Despenser. Both men were gruesomely murdered by Isabella and her lover Mortimer. While Edward was vilified by many at the time, his burial place in Gloucester Cathedral was so popular with the people that enough money was soon raised from pilgrims to renovate the building. The charge of sodomy would continue to be used politically as a weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous over the next 600 years.
The rediscovery of classical Greek literature in the 1300's inspired one of the greatest periods of art and philosophy in western history, the Italian Renaissance. In fact, Italy during the Renaissance looked, politically at least, not unlike Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. There were many city states instead of one dominant authority and scholars such as Nicolo Machiavelli advocated republicanism. Even Michelangelo, who was supported by the Medici family, was a strong supporter of the Florentine Republic.
The revival of same-sex love as an integral part of the social and cultural fabric inspired many of the best known artists of the Reaissance including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cellini, and Caravaggio. The inspiration and motivation that Michelangelo received from his long-term relationship with the handsome young nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri illustrates this connection. On Michelangelo’s famous drawings of The Rape of Ganymede, James Saslow in his book The Return of Ganymede notes: “Publicly Michelangelo was offering Cavalieri an illustration of the kind of learned classical conceit both men appreciated, but he was also offering this particular myth as symbol of his personal feelings for Cavalieri.”
The return of the classics, with non-Christian subjects and nudity, physically portrayed the moral battle between Greek and Christian values. This revival was not without its cost and would not last as Saslow points out:
Although throughout medieval and Renaissance times sodomy was technically both sin and crime, its increasing social unacceptability is best illustrated by the contrasting legal proceedings against Leonardo and Cellini. In 1476, the twenty-four-year-old Leonardo, still merely an assistant to Verrocchio was able to escape a verdict in his sodomy accusation.... In 1557, the much older and more prominent Cellini received a four-year sentence for a similar affair, despite his favored position with the duke.
The reaction against this revival in Italy was led by the monk Girolamo Savonarola. He organized one of the first attempts at censorship in 1479 with what became known as the “Bonfire of the Vanities”, burning countless works of art. He railed against the sin of sodomy and in 1494 even attacked the priests in Florence: “Abandon, I tell you, your concubines and your beardless youths. Abandon, I say, that unspeakable vice, abandon that abominable vice that has brought God’s wrath upon you, or else: woe, woe to you!” However his actions so disturbed the authorities of the time, both the state and the church, that Savonarola was tried by an ecclesiastical court and himself burned at the stake in 1498.
The Renaissance in Elizabethan England also witnessed a period of intense artistic output related to the subject of same-sex love. Much of this activity was centered around the theatre where boys were recruited to play the roles of women. Shakespeare wrote sonnets to his young male lover and poets such as John Wilmot wrote more lustful verses:
Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wine, And, if busy love entrenches, There’s a sweet, soft page of mine Does the trick worth thirty wenches.
One of the most notorious characters of the time was Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was a prolific writer who brought back into vogue much of the homophile literature of ancient Greece and penned such famous lines as the offer from a shepherd to a lad “Come live with me, and be my love.”. He also wrote novels on historical gay characters including Edward II of England and Henry IV of France. He was accused of heresy, sodomy and treason in a sensational trial where an informer, Richard Baines testified that Marlowe had said that,“Saint John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma” and “that all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools.” Marlowe died in a tavern brawl at the age of 29 in 1593.
There are also stories of sacrifice and death among lesbians from this era. The charge of the ‘passing women’ became more common in the Renaissance. In 1535 a woman in Fontaines in France was burned for trying to pass as a man in order to marry another woman and the outlaw Moll Cutpurse and her gang, the ‘Roving Girls’, fascinated Jacobian London. Queen Christiana of Sweden also dressed as a man, and when she was forced to choose between abdicating or marrying, she choose the former. She wrote to her lesbian lover Ebba Sparre:
If you remember the power you have over me, you will also remember that I have been in possession of your love for ten years; I belong to you so utterly, that it will never be possible for you to lose me; and only when I die will I cease loving you.”
The Renaissance was a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in Europe. Events such as the plague which which killed as many as one-third of entire populations, the rise of Protestantism, the failure of the crusade, the rediscovery the Classics and the countless wars waged almost incessantly, upset the Catholic orthodoxy that had been created in the high middle ages. The hegemony that the Church had established at a great price was now being challenged by advances in science and the alternative worldview expressed by Greek culture.
However the advances in freedom of sexual expression made during the Renaissance were soon undermined by the religious conflict of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1542 Pope Paul III centralized the court of the Inquisition in Rome. The Council of Trent was convened in 1545 to reimpose a Catholic orthodoxy and the Counter-Reformation was in full swing. Not to be outdone, the
Puritans gained control of England in 1649 and imposed their own version of the Inquisition, closing all theatres, alehouses, brothels, and traditional village sports.
Same-sex love, swept up in the struggle for freedom of expression so evident in the Renaissance, could be suppressed but not erased. An extensive underground sexual network was emerging in the major cities of Europe. This movement would be fundamentally different from what had existed before and would soon be given a new name: homosexuality.
The Invention of Homosexuality
In September of 1731, twenty-four men in Holland were executed (burned at the stake after strangulation) for sodomy. Over 230 trials were held in that decade with scores of prominent citizens fleeing for their lives. The trials, however, also revealed that an extensive underground existed in Holland with connections throughout Europe. Same-sex brothels and taverns flourished throughout the continent in the 18th and 19th centuries and a well-defined sub-culture existed - complete with recognition codes and meeting places.
In England, these taverns or meeting places were called Molly Houses. During a trial in 1726 an agent for the Society of Manners, Samuel Stevens, reported what he had found in one of his visits to a Molly House owned by Margaret (Mother) Clap:
I found about 40 and 50 men making love to one another, as they called it... They would hug, and play and toy, and go out by couples into another room on the same floor to be married, as they called it.... Some were completely rigged in gowns, petticoats, headclothes, fine laced shoes, furbelowed scarves, and masks; some had riding hoods; some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats and petticoats.
While the Molly Houses seemed to flourish, the efforts to close them were severe and the punishment for those who were caught were horrific. As Colin Spencer notes in Homosexuality: A History:
The pillorying of a group of mollies would so excite the mob assembled around the Old Bailey that by noon all the businesses of the sessions was halted and the shops from Ludgate Hill to the Haymarket would be closed. In the pillory the mob had to endure the rage and fury of the people armed with sticks, bricks, stinking fish heads, offal, dead cats and rotting vegetables. From 1720 to 1740 mollies stood in the pillory almost every week.
This violent reaction to same-sex love that occurred in Europe was exported around the world through imperialism. In America, the first execution for sodomy took place in what is now Florida in 1566. More executions were to follow. Richard Cornish, for example, was hanged in Virginia in 1625 and Jan Creoli, a black man, was choked and then burned for sodomy in Dutch Manhattan in 1646. Laws in several colonies were revised to add lesbian activity as a capital offence. It was not until the American Revolution that there appeared some solution to the problems posed by this persecution and that lay in the separation of church and state. Civil laws no longer needed to be framed by the ascetic philosophy of the Dark Ages. However, at first, liberal reformers of the 18th century offered little quarter. Thomas Jefferson proposed the following changes to the laws of Virginia in 1779:
Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.
The French Revolution followed the American in separating church and state and when the Napoleonic Code was introduced, there were no laws in it that referred to same-sex activity. In the Netherlands, the Code was adopted after annexation by Napoleon in 1811. It followed a curious period from 1792 to 1798 that saw 12 women prosecuted for same-sex activity, apparently due to a series of novels on women who dressed as soldiers in order to go to war or as sailors to go to sea.
In Germany the underground network of same-sex lovers finally surfaced due to the struggles of one man, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was a pioneer activist who fought to repeal Germany’s infamous sodomy law, Paragraph 175. He believed that there was a ‘Third Sex’ whose members he called ‘Urnings’ and he demanded their rights:
I am an insurgent. I rebel against the existing situation, because I hold it to be a condition of injustice. I fight for freedom from persecution and insults. I call for the recognition of Urning love. I call for it from public opinion and from the state.
In 1865, he attempted to form the first organization for sexual rights, the Urning Union. In 1867 he was shouted down at the Congress of German Jurists while trying to present his views. “I acted fearlessly” he later recounted,”but my heart was pounding”. He wrote numerous pamphlets including “Researches On The Love Between Men” and in 1869 founded a magazine. His work also included prodding leading medical and scientific researchers into examining his third sex theory. Ironically, it was at Ulrichs’ suggestion that the famous sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing compiled his hundreds of case studies in his tome Psychopathia Sexualis. Colin Spencer describes the results:
He was a Roman Catholic so held the simple view that sex was perverse if it was non-procreative. His case studies included sadism, masochism, and various fetishisms, while the vocabulary used to discuss all these subjects expanded to include ‘transvestism’ and ‘necrophilia’. Krafft-Ebing thought that homosexuality more often than not went with transvestism, and that both were a sign of degeneracy. He also cast a distinctly morbid light upon lesbianism, which he associated with insanity due to cerebral anomalies... a “functional sign of degeneration”.
Krafft-Ebing’s work quickly became the bible for the medical community throughout Europe and America. And because of it, many doctors came to same solution that Jefferson had proposed - castration. Although in this case not as a criminal punishment but as a medical cure. Ulrichs retired to Italy in 1880 a bitter man. His term ‘Urning’ did not survive. But one of the people he inspired, Karl Kertbeny, proposed a word that did, ‘Homosexuality’.
In England a very different rebel was to emerge. In 1885 Parliament passed an anti-homosexual amendment, the Labouchere Amendment (often referred to as the ‘Blackmailer’s Charter) to criminalize any sexual conduct between two men in public or in private.
The law figured prominently in the trials after Oscar Wilde’s failed libel action against the Marquis of Queensberry. When it became clear to Wilde that he was in serious legal trouble, he had the opportunity to flee to the continent as many had before him. However Wilde decided to stand his ground. His final statement to the court reflects his belief in himself and his love for Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas:
The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an older man for a younger man as there ever was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare ... on account of it I am placed here now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.
Wilde’s conviction sent shockwaves through Europe. As Jeffrey Weeks points out in his book, Coming Out:
The Wilde trials were not only the most dramatic, but also the most significant events, for they created a public image for the homosexual, and a terrifying moral tale of the dangers that trailed closely behind deviant behaviour. They were labeling processes of the most explicit kind ...
By the end of the 19th century, control of sexuality had become the responsibility of the scientific and medical professions rather that the church. In creating a category of people known as homosexuals, those authorities had also inadvertently provided same-sex lovers with a common identity. In the twentieth century this identity would become the rallying cry for a full-fledged political movement for sexual liberation.
The Politics of Sex
In 1926 Radclyffe Hall, already a successful English author, approached her lover of many years, Una Troubridge with a question. She wanted to write a lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, but would not do so if Troubridge would not agree, since it might adversely affect her own life. Troubridge’s answer represents a dominant theme of gays and lesbians in the 20 th century:
I told her to write what was in her heart, that so far as any effect upon myself was concerned, I was sick to death of ambiguities and only wished to be known for what I was and to dwell with her in that place of truth.
By 1900, the movement toward democratic government was well established in the west. The women’s movement had started and their campaign for universal suffrage was underway. And while homosexual behavior was still criminalized, the penalties had been drastically reduced. Oscar Wilde, after all, was not hung or pilloried, but sentenced to two years in jail. The battle that now engaged was to implement the promise of both the American and French revolutions and bring equality and civil rights to everyone, including women, lesbians and gays, and blacks in the States. As Wilde noted to criminologist George Cecil in 1879, “but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act would do any good.”
The most prominent advocate for action on repealing anti-homosexual laws was Magnus Hirschfeld. In Germany, Hirschfeld worked tirelessly in the first two decades of the century to educate the public about homosexuality and abolish Paragraph 175 of the German penal code. He founded the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee in Berlin in 1897, established an extensive collection of books and collected artefacts on the history of homosexuality.
Part of Hirschfeld’s success was in working with feminist groups to advocat greater freedoms for both women and gay men. The early feminist movement included many lesbians as Anna Rueling noted in her public address in 1904 titled “What Interest Does The Women’s Movement Have In The Homosexual Question?”:
Considering the contributions made to the women’s movement by homosexual women for decades, it is amazing that the large and influential organizations of the movement have never lifted a finger to improve the civil and social standing of their numerous Uranian members.
The lesbians in Germany were able to succeed, however, where Hirschfeld had failed, by blocking an attempt by the government to include offences against lesbians in Paragraph 175. They also published an exclusively lesbian paper, The Girlfriend: Weekly For The Ideal Friendship. Berlin was a thriving centre of gay and lesbian bars and clubs, rivaling Paris with its salons run by Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.
Another centre of lesbian and gay culture in the twenties was Harlem in New York’s Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance produced a vibrant subculture where black and white, lesbian, gay and straight could mix.
Blues legend Bessie Smith, who had to hide her girlfriends from her violently jealous husband, also made her contribution to the plea for understanding in songs such as The Boy In The Boat :
When you see two women walking hand in hand, Just look ‘em over and try and understand:
They’ll go to those parties - have the lights down low – Only those parties where women can go.
You think I’m lying - just ask Tack Ann – Took many a broad from many a man ...
Hirschfeld’s influence was also felt in the States. During the First World War a young American named Henry Gerber was introduced to Hirschfeld’s theories. In 1924, he organized a group of his friends and received a charter for The Society For Human Rights. The society was short-lived; the police closed it down in 1925. Gerber continued to promote the cause on his own into the 30s writing letters and warning of the dangers that facism posed to Europe.
A branch of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was established in Amsterdam in 1911. The first political homosexual rights group called the C.O.C. was set up in 1930 and started publishing their paper Levensrecht. During World War II the organizations were closed down but the Dutch police refused to cooperate with the SS in rounding up gay and lesbian activists. Gays even formed a unit in the resistance movement and took part in one of the most successful raids in the war, the blowing-up of the SS information centre.
The C.O.C. was quickly reorganized after the war and the movement made its first political project Levensrecht, in 1948. Its members worked effectively to neutralizing police and political opposition. By the early 60s they had effectively confronted the church opposition to homosexuality and the first gay marriage was televised.
Germany did not experience the same evolution. Just months after Hitler became Chancellor in Germany, Hirschfeld’s Institute was raided on May 6, 1933. Hirschfeld himself was in Paris and was stunned when he went to the cinema one night and saw the news reels of his life’s work being torched. The footage of this book burning has often been shown, although no mention is made of what books are being burned.
A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler purged his long time friend Ernst Roehm, the leader of the ruthless S.A. and a well-known homosexual. Richard Plant observed in his book The Pink Triangle :
But the real meaning of the Roehm affair escaped even seasoned observers. Namely, that under Hitler wholesale murder had become a permissible principle of state. This principle, embodied in the Roehm purge, was to have enormous and hideous implications for contragenics of all types - Jews, leftists, homosexuals, liberals, clergymen, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Precisely one year after the Night of the Long Knives, and shortly before the anti-Jewish laws were announced in Nuremberg, stringent new laws concerning homosexual conduct among men were promulgated... The crusade against those dangerous contragenics, the homosexuals, was on.
It is not clear how many thousands of gay men and lesbians were shipped off to the camps. A political prisoner who survived six years of Buchenwald, Eugen Kogon, wrote of the fate of homosexuals in the camps in his book The Theory And Practice of Hell :
Homosexual practices were actually very widespread in the camps. The prisoners, however, ostracized only those whom the SS marked with the Pink Triangle. The fate of the homosexuals in the camp can only be described as ghastly.... If anything could save them at all, it was to enter into sordid relationships within the camp, but this was as likely to endanger their lives as to save them. Theirs was an insoluble predicament and virtually all of them perished.
For those who did survive, the ordeal did not end with the war. Homosexuality was still a crime in both East and West Germany. Richard Plant adds:
Moreover, some American and British jurists of the liberation army, on hearing that an inmate had been jailed and then put into camp for homosexual activity, ruled that, judicially, a camp did not constitute a prison. If, therefore, someone had been sentenced to eight years in prison, had spent five of those in prison and three in the camp, he still had to finish three years in jail after liberation.
Russia presents an interesting comparison with events elsewhere in Europe in the same period. By the end of the 19 th century there was an active homosexual underground operating in Russian cities. Composer Peter Tchaikovsky was actively gay, as Simon Karlinsky pointed out in his essay Russia’s Gay Literature And Culture: The Impact of the October Revolution :
The diaries also describe the composer’s visits to lowly Moscow taverns that were apparently gay hangouts. Mikhail Kuzmin’s novel Wings and Nikolai Kliuev’s poetry mention, respectively, a Saint Petersburg gay bathhouse patronized by men of all classes, and gay farmers and farmhands whose lovemaking Kliuev immortalized in some poems.
After the October Manifesto of 1905, Nicolas II was forced to open a parliament and inspired many gay and lesbian writers to publish homophile literature. Both Kuzmin and Kliuev wrote gay novels and poetry while Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal wrote two lesbian novels Thirty-Three Freaks and The Tragic Zoo. By 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power. As Karlinsky noted:
The seizure of power by Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917 was hailed by many then (and is still often regarded) as an enhancement of the rights gained by the revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. But as far as rights (including gay rights) and personal freedoms are concerned, the October Revolution was actually a reversal and a negation of the two earlier revolutions rather than their continuation.
Although homosexual activity was not criminalized in the 20s in the USSR, it became clear that the authorities considered it a disease or mental illness and made it clear that those who wanted to advance in the state or in art had better get married. By the 30s, this view became entrenched. Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet filmmaker, was called on the carpet after his openly gay behaviour, while filming in Mexico in 1930-32. As Karlinsky writes:
The Soviet government blackmailed him into returning to Moscow by threatening to disclose his private life. Before he was allowed to make another project, he had to submit to the Soviet cure-all for homosexuality: marriage. His friend and assistant Pera Attasheva volunteered to go through the ceremony, although they never lived together.
On December 17, 1933, the Soviet government declared a law criminalizing homosexual activity. It was the same law that Hitler had introduced seven months earlier. Maxim Gorky wrote in Pravda that the new law was a “triumph of proletarian humanitarianism”, claiming that the legalization of homosexuality had been the main cause of Fascism.
What was most noteworthy about the moves by Hitler and Stalin to curtail homosexuality was the new premise that it was not a moral issue, but a question of anti-state behaviour that had to be controlled. To dictators of the left and right, homosexuality had become treason. But it was not just dictators who saw the advantage of denying sexual freedom as an easy route to power. In the United States the Cold War led to the witch-hunts from 1950-1955 that were orchestrated by Senator McCarthy. Thousands of gay men were hounded from their jobs in the civil service as sexual deviance and communism somehow became intertwined. And in England between 1945 and 1955, prosecutions for homosexual beheviour rose from just under 800 to more than 2,500 annually, leaving a trail of broken homes, suicides, failed businesses and ruined careers.
By the 1960s many people were starting to question the high price they were paying in loss of civil liberties to maintain the arms race and the Cold War. The Civil Rights movement provided an important rallying point for those concerned about civil liberties and many gay men and lesbians worked for Martin Luther King. The Feminist movement was also reborn and, as in the past, lesbians played an active part. There were also attempts at forming homosexual rights movements in America, in particular, the Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay in 1950. The society published a newsletter and organized a conference with 500 participants. However the Society, and the issue of lesbian and gay rights remained marginalized.
All that was to changed on a hot June night in 1969 in Greenwich Village, on Christopher Street, at the Stonewall Tavern. A typical police raid got out of control and the patrons - gay men and lesbians and drag queens - started a pitch battle with the police that raged for three nights.
Almost overnight, a gay political movement was born, spreading across North America and Europe. In the 70s, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front in England and publications like the Body Politic in Canada accelerated the rate of change. Laws criminalizing homosexual behaviour in many countries were taken off the books, the medical and psychiatric professions rewrote their policies, and political parties changed their platforms. In an increasingly open climate religions have reexamined their teachings about same-sex love, with varying degrees of resistence.
In the 80s, the AIDS crisis brought the political issues facing the gay and lesbian community into sharp focus. Massive media attention brought the community into the mainstream, leading to a greater degree of social acceptance.
As in ancient Greece, stories depicting and even celebrating same-sex love once again have surfaced openly in popular culture, disseminated more widely than ever before through literature, project, television and other forms of mass media.
At the beginning of the new millennium we pause to reflect upon the lessons of the last 2500 years. While the final chapter of our story has yet to be written, it is clear that the fate of sexual minorities, like other minorities, will never be secure until there is a deeply-rooted consensus throughout society that tolerance of diversity and freedom of choice are cherished ideals, essential to the good of all in a free and democratic world.
Copyright © 2014 Out of History Productions Ltd.