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.

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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.)

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Lemme tell you about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs — who I briefly talked about in discussion of Karl-Maria Kertbeny. He is considered by many to be the father of the modern gay rights movement — roughly a hundred years before the Stonewall Riots would push the movement into the mainstream.

Heinrichs, like Kertbeny, came up with his own words to classify human sexuality. His word for a man who desired men was “Urning” which I, for one, am glad is not the word that made it to the mainstream, but since it’s how he identified himself I’m going to use it here. The term, for those curious, comes from the god Uranus, who was male. Totally weak explanation, I know, but that’s what we’ve got.

Ulrichs was born on August 28, 1825. As a child, he recalled, he preferred wearing girl’s clothing, playing with girls, and stated that he had wanted to be a girl. At the age of 14, he had his first sexual encounter with another man — his riding instructor. He studied law and theology at Gottingen University, and then studied history at Berlin University. All told, he finished his formal education in 1848 after which he took a job as a legal adviser for a district court in the Kingdom of Hanover. He lost that job when his sexuality became known in 1857.

In 1862, he came out as an Urning to his friends and family, and declared that his feelings were biological, and natural. He penned five essays under a pseudonym “Numa Numantius” that explained all of this, before he began publishing under his real name. This, of course, meant he was constantly in trouble with the law — though, usually for his words, which argued for decriminalizing homosexuality, and not his sexual activities — and had to keep moving around Germany. His books were banned and confiscated in Saxony, Berlin, and the entirety of Prussia.

In 1867, after a brief imprisonment in Prussia, he moved to Munich. There, he spoke to the German Association of Jurists and urged them to reform the laws against homosexuality. This was the first time in history that an openly homosexual (well, Urning) person publicly spoke on behalf of LGBT rights.

In 1870, Ulrichs wrote and published a book called “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” which is particularly remarkable because of the close similarity it bears to the demands of the modern gay rights movement. In this book, Ulrichs vehemently decries not just anti-sodomy laws, but the unequal treatment of Urnings under the law. He calls sexuality a “right established by nature” and states that “legislators have no right to veto nature.”

In 1879, Ulrichs published his 12th book — entitled “Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love” and then went into self-imposed exile to Naples. He, apparently, felt he had done all he could for Germany and nothing had really changed. He continued to write prolifically in Naples, receiving an honor degree from the University of Naples. He died on July 14, 1895.

Ulrichs legacy would live on. Streets are named after him in Munich, Bremen, Hanover, and Berlin. (Berlin would go onto become something of a gay capital in Europe — as I think many of us know — in the 1920’s. I find it hard to imagine that that could have happened without Ulrichs.) In Munich each year on his birthday, a street party is held that includes lively poetry readings. In the city of L’Aquila, where his grave is, an annual pilgrimage is hosted.

The International Gay and Lesbian Law Association also awards the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award in his memory, recognizing those who have contributed to LGBT+ equality.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Karl-Maria Kertbeny

250px-Karl_Maria_Kertbeny_(ca_1865)One thing that makes talking about LGBTQ+ history difficult is that most of this history happened before we had the current understanding of human sexuality and gender identity — and also before we had the words we have now to describe it. So, today, let’s talk about the writer who created the term “homosexual”: Karl-Maria Kertbeny (born Karl-Maria Benkert.)

Karl-Maria was born in Vienna on February 28, 1824, but his family moved to Budapest when he was a child. He grew up to become a journalist, memoirist, translator, and human rights campaigner.

Karl-Maria was also closeted homosexual (except, of course, that word didn’t exist yet). In his youth, he befriended a young man who was also a closeted homosexual (they were actually just friends from what I can tell). This friend would go on to be extorted and blackmailed because of his affections, and would ultimately commit suicide. This event had a massive impact on Karl-Maria, who wrote later in his life that it gave him an “instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice.”

Karl-Maria went on to join the army and — in 1847 — he changed his last name to Kertbeny. (Why, I honestly couldn’t say. Why he left his first name unchanged is also a complete mystery. Neither of these questions, however, leaves me quite as confused as his mustache. What is that and why?) By 1868, he had settled in Berlin.

Although in his public writings, Karl-Maria claimed to be “normally sexed”, his personal diary was filled with an illustrious collection of veiled homosexual encounters. In these diaries, he also describes tremendous fear following the arrest of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was a correspondence of Karl-Maria, but is much more notable for essentially pioneering the modern LGBT+ rights movement.

Karl-Maria began writing extensively on the topic of homosexuality — claiming it was for “anthropological interest”. (I guess “anthropological interest” was the mid-19th century version of “no homo”.) On May 8, 1868, in a private letter, Karl-Maria first coined the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, although the words were yet to be used in public.

In 1869, Karl-Maria published the first of two pamphlets arguing against the Prussian sodomy law (known as Paragraph 143). In these pamphlets, he argued that consensual sexual acts were private and should not be subject to criminal law and — drawing on his own experiences — argued that the law itself was what had allowed his friend to be blackmailed, which led to his friend’s suicide.

He also argued, in these pamphlets, that homosexuality was actually an inborn trait, not something men chose out of their own wickedness (which was the common belief of the time. He was, along with Ulrichs and Heinrich Hössli, one of the first people to take this point of view.) It was over the course of these writings that the word “homosexual” was first used, as part of a system of defining sexual “types” without using derogatory language like “sodomite”. He also introduced the term “heterosexualism” for the attraction between men and women, “monosexualism” for masturbators, and a few other words that are still not widely used — but even if we ignored most of the words he came up with, he did set us up to have a comprehensive, descriptive way of talking about sexuality without degrading people who don’t fit into the “norm”.

After these pamphlets, Karl-Maria’s career faded. In 1880, he did contribute a chapter to Gustav Jäger’s “Discovery of Soul”. His chapter was taken out by the publisher, but his sexual terminology was still used throughout the book. Karl-Maria died on January 23, 1882 — two years later in Budapest, before any of his ideas would really take root.

In 1886, a German sexual researcher named Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed the terminology from “Discovery of Soul” for his own work “Psychopathia Sexualis”. This work became so influential that it caused Karl-Maria’s terminology to become the standard, accepted words that we still use today.

In 2001, Karl-Maria Kertbeny’s gravesite was located by a sociologist. The Hungarian LGBT+ community set about having a new tombstone put in place, and since 2002 it has been a tradition at Hungarian LGBT festivals to place a wreath on his grave.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)