Sexology, Legal Activism, and the Question of Queer Patriotism in Germany, 18701970

AHA Session 82
German Historical Institute 1
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 4
Central European History Society 4
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Williford C (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Lauren Kaminsky, Harvard University
Robert Beachy, Yonsei University

Session Abstract

The remarkable—though incomplete—success of the various European and North American LGBT rights movements over the last few decades has generally been predicated primarily upon legal arguments that stress the individual’s right to do as she pleases with her own body and in the privacy of her own home. But for many decades, and particularly in Germany, the forefront of what we today would call LGBT activism rested not upon lawyers, but upon sexologists. Although many sexologists contributed to the medicalization and stigmatization of homosexuality, others—several of whom were themselves queer—believed that the proliferation of knowledge discovered through a rigorous science of sex would be the best and most effective means of securing homosexual liberation.

This panel seeks to address the AHA theme of "Loyalties" by examining the various ways in which German sexologists from 1870 to 1970 advocated for legal changes for sexual minorities. It focuses in particular on the question of how sexological reformers in Germany framed their scientific-legal activism with respect to the idea of improving their country. In other words, to what extent did they see sexual reform as an act of patriotism (in addition to other reasons for seeking reform)?

In the decades between the formation of the Wilhelmine Empire and the first half of the Cold War, the German government—regardless of which German government we speak of—typically regarded sexual minorities as unnatural and unreliable citizens. Even in the best of times, men who had sex with other men lived in fear of arrest and blackmail. At the worst of times, sexual minorities were cast as enemies of the state. Activism that sought to overturn laws that criminalized same-sex sexual activity thus implicitly contained a substantial critique of German government and society, because it demanded a redefinition of what it meant to be a good German citizen. One might expect that many queer activists in these years would regard their government and nation with bitterness—as, indeed, many did. And yet, many sexological reformers saw their activism not only as providing needed liberation for sexual minorities, but also as something necessary for the improvement of the German nation. This history raises the question of what it means to be a queer patriot in a time of legal oppression. What does it mean to work to improve the nation when doing that work might cast one as a criminal or traitor? In German history, such questions are commonly asked of the Nazi era, but the research that will be presented in this panel suggests that they are just as necessary in other periods as well. Examining such questions from the perspective of queer scientific legal activists offers an important case study for examining the tensions and opportunities inherent in advocating for minority rights.

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