Gay Rights movement
Political and Social Movement
gay rights movement, also called gay liberation movement, civil rights movement that advocates equal rights for LGBTQ persons (i.e., for lesbians, gays [homosexual males], bisexuals, transgender persons, and queer persons);
seeks to eliminate sodomy laws; and calls for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ persons in employment, credit, housing, public accommodations, and other areas of life.
(Although the term gay is commonly used in reference to homosexual males,
it is also used more generally to refer to homosexual males together with some or all other orientations within the LGBTQ community. This article will use the term in the latter sense.)
The beginning of the gay rights movement
Before the end of the 19th century there were scarcely any “movements” for gay rights. Indeed, in his poem “Two Loves” (1894), Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas
, Oscar Wilde’s lover, declared “I [homosexuality] am the love that dare not speak its name.”
Homosexual and bisexual men and women were given voice in 1897 with the founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee; WhK) in Berlin.
Their first activity was a petition to call for the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the Imperial Penal Code (submitted 1898, 1922, and 1925). The committee published emancipation literature, sponsored rallies,
and campaigned for legal reform throughout Germany as well as in the Netherlands and Austria, and by 1922 it had developed some 25 local chapters.
One of the founders of WhK was Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1919 opened the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft),
which anticipated by decades other scientific centres (such as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, in the United States) that specialized in sex research.
He also helped sponsor the World League of Sexual Reform, which was established in 1928 at a conference in Copenhagen.
Despite Paragraph 175 and the failure of the WhK to win its repeal, homosexual and bisexual men and women experienced a certain amount of freedom in Germany
Outside Germany other organizations were also created. For example, in 1914 the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology was founded by Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis for both promotional and educational purposes,
and in the United States in 1924 Henry Gerber, an immigrant from Germany, founded the Society for Human Rights, which was chartered by the state of Illinois.
Despite the formation of such groups, political activity by homosexuals and bisexuals was generally not very visible.
Indeed, gays were often harassed by the police wherever they congregated. World War II and its aftermath began to change that.
The war brought many young people to cities and brought visibility to the gay community.
In the United States this greater visibility brought some backlash, particularly from the government and the police: the government often fired gay civil servants
, the military attempted to purge its ranks of gay soldiers (a policy enacted during World War II), and police vice squads frequently raided gay bars and arrested their patrons.
However, there was also greater political activity among gays, aimed in large measure at decriminalizing sodomy.
Gay rights prior to the 20th century
Religious admonitions against sexual relations between individuals of the same sex (particularly men) long stigmatized such behaviour, but most legal codes in Europe were silent on the subject of homosexuality and bisexuality. The judicial systems of many predominantly Muslim countries invoked Islamic law (Sharīʿah) in a wide range of contexts,
and many sexual or quasi-sexual acts, including same-sex intimacy, were criminalized in those countries and made subject to severe penalties, including execution.
Beginning in the 16th century, lawmakers in England began to categorize sexual relations between males as criminal rather than simply immoral. In the 1530s, during the reign of Henry VIII, England passed the Buggery
Act, which made sexual relations between men a criminal offense punishable by death. In England and Great Britain, sodomy remained a capital offense punishable by hanging until 1861. Two decades later, in 1885, Parlia
ent passed an amendment, sponsored by Henry Du Pré Labouchere, that created the offense of “gross indecency”
for same-sex male sexual relations, enabling any form of sexual behaviour between men to be prosecuted (lesbian sexual relations—because they were unimaginable to male legislators—were not subject to the law).
Likewise, in Germany in the early 1870s, when the country was integrating the civil codes of various disparate kingdoms, the final German penal code included Paragraph 175, which criminalized same-sex male relations and made them subject to penalties including imprisonment and loss of civil rights.
particularly during the Weimar period, between the end of World War I and the Nazi seizure of power. In many larger German cities, gay nightlife became tolerated,
and the number of gay publications increased. Indeed, according to some historians, the number of gay bars and periodicals in Berlin in the 1920s exceeded that in New York City six decades later.
Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power ended this relatively liberal period. He ordered the reinvigorated enforcement of Paragraph 175, and on May 6, 1933,
German student athletes raided and ransacked Hirschfeld’s archives and burned the institute’s materials in a public square.
The gay rights movement since the mid-20th century
Beginning in the mid-20th century, an increasing number of gay organizations were formed. The Cultuur en Ontspannings Centrum (“Culture and Recreation Centre”), or COC, was founded in 1946 in Amsterdam.
In the United States the first major male organization, founded in 1950–51 by Harry Hay in Los Angeles, was the Mattachine Society (its name reputedly derived from a medieval French society of masked players,
the Société Mattachine, to represent the public “masking” of homosexuality), while the Daughters of Bilitis (named after the Sapphic love poems of Pierre Louÿs,
Chansons de Bilitis), founded in 1955 by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in San Francisco, was a leading group for women. In addition, the United States saw the publication of a national gay periodical,
One, which in 1958 won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enabled it to be mailed through the U.S. Postal Service.
In Britain in 1957 a commission chaired by Sir John Wolfenden issued a groundbreaking report (see Wolfenden Report) recommending that private homosexual liaisons between consenting adults be removed from the domain of criminal law;
a decade later the recommendation was implemented by Parliament in the Sexual Offences Act.