Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

Most of us are aware of some of the LGBTQ+ rights groups active throughout the ’60s and ’70s — the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Metropolitan Community Church, etc. But these kinds of organizations existed before that — in fact, the very first one was founded near the end of the 19th century. That society was the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee or, in German, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee. Wikipedia abbreviates that to WhK, so I’m doing that too.

The Whk was founded on May 15, 1897 — three days before Oscar Wilde was released from prison for homosexuality (not a coincidence) — by Magnus Hirschfeld, a German-Jewish sexologist and physician. Founding members also included Max Spohr, Eduard Oberg, and Franz Joseph von Bülow. At its height, the WhK would have nearly 500 members in 25 chapters across Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Magnus_Hirschfeld_1929
Magnus Hirschfeld, 1929

Hirschfeld is probably going to get his own piece written about him at some point, because he keeps showing up in events from that time period as I research them — the man did a lot for the LGBTQ+ community, and not just in Germany! But the reasons he had for starting this organization were primarily that he noticed his homosexual patients were most likely to commit suicide, and he believed that was largely because society told them that they were unnatural, and criminalized them for their natural urges and desires. (Smart guy.) Spohr was a publisher and was one of the first, if not *the* first, to publish LGBT publications (although he does not appear to have been queer himself — just an early and important ally!). Oberg was a lawyer, and Bülow was a writer and former member of the German military.

Kurt_Hiller
Kurt Hiller

They were soon joined by Kurt Hiller — a writer, Adolf Brand — a writer, significant also for basically inventing that thing where a writer outs a politician who is anti-gay but is secretly engaging in same-sex behavior, and Benedict Friedlaender — a sexologist and anarchist. You should note, at this point, that between Hirschfeld, Friedlaender, and Hiller the WhK has a pretty significant Jewish membership. Queer Jews. In Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century. Think about how damn brave these people were considering what that country was building up to.

Jahrbuch_für_sexuelle_Zwischenstufen_-_1914
Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types

The main goal of the WhK was to repeal Paragraph 175, which was a specifically anti-gay piece of the penal code of Imperial Germany. They gathered over 5,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the law — some of the people who signed it included Leo Tolstoy and Albert Einstein. The WhK was also committed to educating the public and so they hosted lectures on topics about human sexuality and gender. The WhK strongly supported the idea of a third gender outside the gender binary — which is pretty revolutionary for Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The WhK also helped in criminal trials, defending accused homosexuals. Lastly, they published a journal called the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (or Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types) which is considered by many to be the first scientific journal to deal with sexual diversity. The journal was published on a regular schedule from 1899 to 1923, and then published a sort of haphazard schedule for another ten years after that.

In 1929, Kurt Hiller took over as chairman for Magnus Hirschfeld — Hirschfeld was about to embark on a world tour speaking about his theories about human sexuality. The organization persisted until 1933 when its base of operations, the Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, was destroyed by Nazis. Paragraph 175 remained in effect for another sixty years in East Germany, and was not repealed in West Germany until the two nations were reunited in 1994.

After World War II, there were efforts to reform the group. In 1949, Hermann Weber tried to restart the group — and even had the help of Kurt Hiller (who had survived being in a number of Nazi concentration camps before escaping to London). The group disbanded and then ultimately became the Committee for the Reform of Sexual Criminal Laws, which lasted until 1960. Hiller — after returning to Germany in 1955 — tried to resurrect the WhK in 1962, but was unsuccessful. Finally, in 1998, an organization was formed with the same name. The new incarnation of the WhK appears to still be around.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

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