The right to love: A brief history of LGBTQ+ Rights in Europe

, by Annika Pietrus

The right to love: A brief history of LGBTQ+ Rights in Europe
Credit: Pixabay, Creative Commons

For this year’s UK LGBT+ history month, The New Federalist is taking the opportunity to look back on historical moments and iconic figures in the European fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as exploring contemporary LGBTQ+ politics and filmic representation.

February is LGBT history month in the UK. It provides a great opportunity to travel through time to discover the history behind the rainbow in Europe. From persecution to recognition, from pushed to the margins, to agents of change: the LGBTQ+ community has a rich story to tell.

From Ancient Greece to Nazi Germany

In ancient Greece, amorous relationships between men were no secret, and were often colourfully described. The Romans were surprised to read what ancient Greek men had written about their lovers, and then blamed their relationships on too much exercise and not enough clothing. During the medieval to modern ages, European countries introduced laws against homosexual relationships that were driven by religious dogma and nationalist traditionalism. The Catholic Inquisition prosecuted people engaging in same-sex relationships and punished them with the death penalty. After 1800, pseudo-scientific studies added further stigma to the already stigmatized and did not improve the possibility of recognition and equal rights. One exception to this rule, which was way ahead of its European neighbours, is France. In 1791, during the French Revolution, the French Penal Code was rewritten. With it, came the decriminalization of homosexual relationships. However, this was not the impact of drastic societal change that suddenly accepted same-sex relationships; it was rather the passive result of a new penal code that ignored victimless crimes. Other countries eventually followed suit, as Italy decriminalized same-sex relationships in 1890, Poland in 1932 and Denmark in 1933.

Another important development took place in Germany, a mere four months after the country’s unification. Paragraph 175 was brought into being, a division of the German criminal code which punished male homosexuals with prison terms. Voicing strong objection against this treatment was physician Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who collected around six thousand signatures in an attempt to revoke it. Fighting against further criminalization of female homosexual acts, Dr. Hirschfeld set up the Institute for Sex Research with Arthur Kronfeld, a German psychiatrist, in the aftermath of World War I. One of the Institute’s famous works consisted of the first successful gender reassignment surgery. Lili Elbe, now known to many as the protagonist of the movie the ‘Danish Girl’, was the first person who underwent this surgery successfully.

However, advancements in the work of the Institute and the progress of decriminalization were brought to a stark halt by the political events of the 20th century. As dictatorships under Hitler, Franco and Stalin gripped the European continent, members of the LGBTQ+ community were once more in danger of prosecution and abandoned without equal rights. Homosexual men and women were seen as ’a-social’ by the Nazis, enemies of the ‘Aryan’ master race due to the fact that the attraction to the same sex meant they were not producing children for the Third Reich. Members of the LGBTQ+ community were put into concentration camps and suffered greatly at the hand of the Nazis. Messages of hope during this time came from: Iceland, where decriminalization took place in 1940; Switzerland, where the law changed in 1942; and Sweden, where a socialist-led wartime coalition government decriminalised homosexuality on 1 July 1944.

From Second World War Europe to Equal Rights Movements

After the Second World War, a slow change in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community took place. Despite conservative mainstream ideas, clubs discreetly opened their doors to promote social mobility to gay members through readings, excursions, or conferences. A major push for the rights of gay men and women took place in 1951 through the foundation of the International Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE) in Amsterdam. The Committee organized transnational activism to ensure an improvement in equal rights for gay and lesbians and requested that the United Nations include the rights of sexual minorities in the Declaration of Human Rights.

The Committee wasn’t fighting on its own for long and formed strong allies all over Europe. In 1968, various social uprisings took place all over the continent and groups fighting for homosexual rights - based on the US example of LGBTQ groups protesting and demanding equal rights - formed. During the decade, marches for equal rights took place across Europe in cities such as London, Paris, Antwerp, and Berlin, shining an unprecedented light onto the rights movements of the homosexual community.

In the decades following the 1960’s, the rainbow flag was adopted as an acronym for the LGBTQ community and the overall presence of its members was increased and accepted. What hindered the progression of social acceptance for members of the LGBTQ+ community was the AIDS virus. This previously unknown virus induced a health crisis that spanned from the Americas to Europe. With little knowledge about the virus, gay men were singled out and made responsible for the transmission of AIDS. Sensational reporting and already existing prejudices merged into a toxic cocktail of stigmatization which contributed to poor uptake of testing, treatment, and care services. To date, uptake of testing is still determined by whether people are socially stigmatized, which is connected to the ability to access health care services without shame.

In 1993, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, a ground-breaking victory for people who struggled for centuries for the simple right of recognition. This decision was one of many steppingstones that opened a gateway to discuss other minority groups, such as transgender women and men. A triumph for these men and women was the achievement of the Association Beaumont Continental, which fought against pathologizing transgender people. The case was won in France in 2010.

Increasing awareness of the need to protect human rights of transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community in general is a development that has formed in the 21st century in Europe, as well as globally. Civil rights, such as marriage, are possible in 18 European countries, among them Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. This is a reason for celebration, but it is also a reason to reflect on the division that exists between Eastern and Western Europe when it comes to the treatment and equal rights of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Poland was reported by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association to be worst country in the EU for LGBTQ+ people due to hateful rhetoric and violent attacks. Countries such as Hungary have also recently shown equal signs of brutal attacks and spiteful rhetoric, where political parties with anti-LGBTQ ideology have gained power.

History proves that social change is marked by a long road ahead; nevertheless, it is crucial to highlight the issues that impact the lives and rights of so many people who, due to their identity, have been under attack for centuries. LGBT history month is a month of pride, celebrating just how far members of the community have come and the social changes they initiated. At the same time, it is a month to learn about history and to reflect on values of inclusion rather than division – as well as look to the road ahead for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe.

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