It might seem like LGBT equality is a relatively recent innovation, a progressive achievement that’s only come about in the last few years. But in truth, queer liberation has been an ongoing project for centuries, with a surprising bulk of the progress being made in Germany.
Centuries of Oppression
Let’s start with some context: for most of recorded history, the treatment of queer people has been truly vile. In the year 1007, the Decretum of Burchard of Worms established same-sex intimacy as a crime punishable by forced fasting.
In 1532, the Holy Roman Empire established the death penalty for homosexuality. A century later, Prussia (which included parts of what is today Germany) did the same, only decriminalizing it in 1794.
Early Signs of German Progress
Once homosexuality was decriminalized in Prussia, queer people began to speak out on their own behalf. An activist name Karl Heinrich Ulrichs spoke out for political reforms, urging lawmakers to further relax laws that punished queer people, adopting the term “urning” for those who were attracted to people of the same sex.
It was around this time that the term “homosexuality” was first used, in a German-Hungarian publication. A queer scene began to flourish in Germany, with openly LGBT art and nightlife concentrated particularly around urban centers. Various films depicting queer life were released, and an institute for the study of sexuality was established — but the rise of the Nazis soon destroyed hope of progress, knowledge, and freedom.
Violence Under Nazi Regime
Germany re-criminalized homosexuality in 1871, leading to a new wave of persecution. The burgeoning queer community soon found itself suffering like never before under Nazi rule, with around 8,000 people convicted every year. Many of those arrested were killed in concentration camps.
Those punishing laws continued even after the war, with homosexuality only decriminalized in 1968. (Still far in advance of the US Supreme Court ruling in 2004.)
After World War II, East Germany continued the crackdown on queer citizens, pushing for “moral reforms” that were in truth thinly-veiled pretenses for violence. Though citizens attempted to organize for queer liberation, the East German government took an active role in thwarting their efforts, censoring printed material or dispatching police to assault organizers.
West Germany enjoyed a few more advances. The military began allowing open service in 1990 — again, many years before it was allowed in the United States — and openly gay politicians served in the Bundestag. German television often featured same-sex romances as far back at the 1980s.
Still Lagging on Marriage Equality
Despite leading the world on many facets of queer liberation, Germany still doesn’t recognize the freedom to marry. Same-sex couples can get a limited civil partnership, but proposals to legalize marriage have languished.
That’s thanks in part to politicians like Angela Merkel, who have stood in the way of full national equality for LGBT Germans. Most German political parties have expressed support for marriage, but the coalition government remains reluctant. It’s a frustrating state of affairs for a country that has at times been at the forefront of global liberation — and at others, engaged in terrifying violence.
Hopefully, German leaders will recognize the moral imperative in moving forward with reforms, rather than sliding backwards into the country’s darkest moments in the past.
Featured image by fotografixx via iStock