Same-sex relations among men in Europe, 1700-1990


This article offers a general introduction to a history of European history of homosexuality and focuses mostly on Western-Europe as its history is best researched. Most sources come from Germany, France, England and the Netherlands which is the country of my own expertise. The perspective is constructionist: every period and culture have produced their own forms of same-sex desires.


Sodomy was the name, taken from the Bible, for an unmentionable sin that was defined as any lustful act which could not result in procreation within marriage. Since the 13th century, it was not only a sin but also a capital crime. Sodomy included extra-marital heterosexuality, non-vaginal sexual acts, all forms of same-sex behaviour, bestiality, masturbation and so forth. The best known examples of persecution of sodomy were directed against males having anal sex with other males. In some countries as Sweden, there were severe prosecutions against young men copulating with animals. Criminal cases of heterosexual, lesbian or onanistic sodomy have been rare in early-modern Europe. The same was in general also true for persecutions of male-male sodomy, but in some cities or states in certain periods many men have been sentenced for it. Examples are Italian cities just before 1500 and Spanish cities thereafter, and in the 18th century France, England and the Netherlands (Rocke 1996; Gerard & Hekma 1989). For the Dutch Republic and its predecessors, 32 capital punishments for homosexual sodomy are known for the period 1233-1679 and 12 for 1680-1729 (Noordam 1995). After 1729, there were about 200 executions for the same, the last being in 1803 (Van der Meer 1995). It is amazing to see that the 18th-century countries normally considered the most enlightened, as the Netherlands, England and France, saw such a harsh persecution of sodomites. The revolt against absolutism got some of its ferment by opposing the sexual digressions of the noble class, but this does not explain the rise in sodomy-cases concerning mostly men of lower and middle class. Just before 1700, King William III of England, stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, and Philippe d'Orléans, brother of the Sun King, had the reputation of being sodomites.

    There has been a spirited discussion on the history of sodomy, especially concerning the 18th century, to explain the rise of prosecutions and changes in representations. Many authors have claimed that the model of sodomy as a sinful act was replaced by the model of the sodomite as a sexual identity at that time. Traditional male sodomy was the anal penetration of a young boy by an adult man, the new sodomites were men of equal age. The traditional sodomite seduced both women and boys, and was considered to be masculine. The new sodomites had an exclusive interest in their own sex, and were considered to be effeminate. As the "fop", the promiscuous womanizer, had been the example of the feminine man before 1700, the sodomite replaced him as gender- and sexual deviant. A concept of sexual identity replaced a concept of unbridled lust and unmentionable sin. In the major cities of north-western Europe, this sexual identity expressed itself in subcultures with their own meeting places, languages, customs and so forth.

    The "model of the queen" as a sexual identity, it is argued, took over from the model of sodomy as a sexual act. Randolph Trumbach is the strongest promoter of this perspective. To support his thesis, he points to similar changes taking place at about the same time. Thomas Laqueur discovered a gender revolution just before the French Revolution, Roy Porter and Lesley Hall saw the emergence of sex education literature around 1700, onanism became a topic of heated debate and strict repression about 1750, and recently Isabel Hull uncovered major legal changes taking place in Germany around 1800. Trumbach assumes there has been a major cultural revolution around 1700, including a gender and sexual transformation. According to him, the gender and sexual regime that came into being at this time, still defines our beliefs and behaviours. Gay men are still queens.

    There are several major problems with this thesis. In the first place, it remains unclear when this new sexual identity came into being and if it has not witnessed major transformations. Both the late 17th and 18th century have been given as the birthday of the queen. Another problem is why, according to Trumbach, the "sapphists" only got a sexual identity a century later than the sodomites. Thirdly, the other changes did not take place at the same time as the queen was born. Trumbach gives 1700 as his birthday, but the debate on onanism and Laqueur's gender revolution took shape only after 1750. Some things changed about 1700, but what exactly and in which periods, remains under scrutiny. Moreover, different models can be operative at the same time. Boylovers continued to exist next to queens and sodomites.

    There are several points on the sexual desire of the queens that need to be analyzed. In the first place, there remains the question how exclusive the sexual object-choice of the sodomites was. Many of them were married and seemed to have had intimate relations with their wives. If the queen is a modern figure longing for equal and exclusive relations with other men, marriage should no longer be an option for him. But for most, it was. In the second place, the question of the sexual object should be settled. It seems likely that most queens desired the "normal" men who were in large numbers available for sex: man-servants, sailors, soldiers, messenger-boys. But as long as queens had these desires, their relations did not have the mutuality which characterises contemporary gay relations and so differed from them in an important way.

    Myriam Everard (1994) has suggested, in a study on 18th-century lesbianism that it was not the object of desire, but its measure that mattered before 1800. All people should restrain their desires, and not indulge in them. Tribades were persecuted for their unbridled indulgence in pleasures, and not so much for their object-choice. This was very different from the soulmates and amazons who felt love for women, but who controlled their desires, were not prosecuted and thus belonged to a very different category. Subsuming all these women identified women into the same category of lesbians is according to Everard mistaken because the relevant point of comparison was the measure of lust, not the choice of object. None of the types she discusses, may according to her be equated with the late 19th-century lesbian as psychiatrists defined her.

    The sexual regime of Europe was also exported by its leading empires to other continents. Persecution of sodomy has made its ravages among the native people of the Americas, as Trexler (1995) has documented, but would also have taken place elsewhere. From another side, less repressive attitudes towards same-sex and gender-deviant behaviours among indigenous peoples of other continents became known in Europe, and were used by the "philosophes" as an argument to support decriminalization of sodomy and other so called sexual crimes. If "natural" people had such lenient attitudes in sexual issues, it meant culture had corrupted European morals. Nature became an important touchstone in moral discussions on sexuality.

The French Revolution

The harsh persecutions of sodomy were used by the "philosophes" of the Enlightenment as an example of what was wrong with the absolutist Ancien Regime and the alliance of state and church. Montesquieu stated that the most severe punishments were meted out for the most obscure crimes which were difficult to prove: witchcraft, heresy and sodomy. The philosophers proposed decriminalizing sodomy and replacing criminal prosecution with social prevention. There was a strong ambivalence among Enlightened philosophers regarding same-sex behaviours, as they still wanted to prevent it. Few authors endorsed pederastic loves as wholeheartedly as Sade did. He invited the enlightened authors to support hedonism in all its forms, from sodomy and prostitution to incest and rape, because these lusts are in nature and should know no social barriers. The argument of a biological instead of a divine nature directed thinking about sex from the late 18th century, as the examples of gender and onanism also indicate.

    After the French revolution, sodomy was indeed removed from the lawbooks in line with enlightened philosophy. Napoleon's penal code only included articles against public indecency and the corruption of minors. Both articles were regularly applied against same-sex acts. This major change in France had ramifications for many countries as they followed willingly or unwillingly the French example. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the French cantons of Switzerland, Bavaria all decriminalized sodomy in the early 19th century.

    Sodomy was removed from the criminal code and public indecency entered it. As Hull (1996) has underlined, arguments about sexual privacy did not exist before the late 1700's. Before, sexuality was a public matter of families, villages and the state. The Enlightenment brought not only a separation of state and church, but also of public and private. The state and its institutions were responsible for the public realm, and the "pater familias" for the private home where ideally the state should not interfere. Every citizen had the right to an unperturbed private life. Quite clearly, most men interested in same-sex loves and acts, had no access to private places and were more or less obliged to resort to hidden corners in public space as cottages, alleys and parks. Thus they were liable to criminal prosecution for public indecency. In the Netherlands, most cases of public indecency involved homosexual acts, whereas exhibitionism only appeared before courts in the late 19th century. Homosexual cases were then punished twice as harsly as exhibitionism, and four times more severely than heterosexual cases (Hekma 1987; 1989). In the early 19th century, Dutch courts persecuted same-sex acts under the new laws regarding public indecency as if they were still cases of sodomy (Van der Meer 1995).

    The Enlightenment altered criminological insights. Punishments after the fact should be replaced by prevention before the facts had come about. Sodomy might be decriminalized, same-sex desires should nevertheless be curbed by the promotion of heterosexual relations, in particular marriage. The state took as one of its aims propagation of its population. Marriage ought to be made easier for the lower classes in order to prevent unrestrained promiscuity of the young, while on the other hand the libertinism of the higher classes was denounced. The most clear case of sexual disciplining that started around 1800 was the politics of masturbation. Young men should restrain themselves from self-stimulation and reserve their sexual energy for marital coition.

    The French Revolution turned out to a great disappointment for all those who had believed in its slogan of "liberté, égalité et fraternité". But in the beginning, it spurred the hopes also of same-sex lovers. Some even wrote a kind of homosexual emancipatory tracts, as Sade's "Français, encore un effort" (1795), but there were other apologies for sodomy and buggery. These works had a highly ambivalent character, and were always anonymous. Pleas for equal rights for same-sex desires were based, for example on the argument that men should be allowed to have sex with each other as long as prostitutes were too dangerous because of venereal diseases, or had too wide vaginas. Such apologias were typical of the social transformations wrought by the French Revolution, and would not see the day of light afterwards for a very long time. Sade was sent to an asylum in 1801 and his works were forbidden for the next century and a half (Lever 1991).

    The sexual changes brought by the French Revolution not only had a major impact on the countries under French rule, but also on others. France became synonymous with social and sexual disorder, and the French novel with pornography. The enemies of France began to uphold a strict morality that stood in stark contrast with the lewdness that should have led to all excesses and abuses of the French revolution. England and Prussia were the prime examples of this moral strictness, but starting with Napoleon, France itself began to impose a sterner morality. In the Netherlands, the example of the presumed sexual excesses of the French Revolution and the subsequent popular uprisings that haunted France after 1815, remained a standard staple of sexual-political discourse till the beginning of the 20th century (Merrick & Ragan 1996).

    The death-penalty remained on the English lawbooks till 1861 and the last execution of a sodomite took place in the 1830's. Many German states removed the crime of unnatural lewdness from their penal laws during the 19th century, but with the unification of Germany in 1871, the Prussian criminal code was the model for the German one which retained the article which became the infamous number 175. Russia introduced a new law on sodomy in 1835. The early 19th century was for same-sex desires a period of regression and repression. The liberal revolution of 1848 brought a major change.

Sexual Sciences and Homosexual Emancipation

According to Trumbach and Van der Meer, the sodomites of the 18th century had already experienced a kind of sexual identity which coincided with a gender inversion. This was made into a theory, first by the forensic psychiatrists C.F. Michéa in 1849 and J.L.Casper in 1852, and more systematically by K.H. Ulrichs from 1864 onwards. Michéa argued that "philopedes" were often effeminate men, whose gender inversion might be explained by the recent discovery of the rudiment of a female uterus in some males. His physiological explanation replaced older theories that same-sex acts were a result of sexual excess or onanism. The causal chain was changed. Earlier, a mental state led first to sexual acts and second to diseases that resulted from those sexual acts. Onanism led to enervation, exhaustion, blindness, suicide and so forth. Michéa now found physiological explanations for mental states and sexual inclinations. In older theories, sexual acts led to physiological changes, and in the new theories physiological anomalies induced sexual desires. In the same vein, Casper considered pederasty to be a mental hermaphroditism. For Ulrichs, uranism (his neologism for what would be named homosexuality in 1869) had to be explained as a "female soul in a male body". He came up with a kind of hormonal explanation. Uranism would develop in the womb in the early weeks of pregnancy in the same way as physical intersexual states.

    Homosexuality was no longer a result of cultural defects, but of bodily changes or innate capacities. The first important question now became how often it was inborn and how often learned. The balance moved slowly in the direction of physiological explanations. The second main question became that of whether it was a regressive or normal state. According to most medical specialists, it was a form of degeneration, fitting in very well with Morel's theory of degeneration (1857; Pick 1989). But for Ulrichs, uranism was natural and normal and should not be punished in the Prussian or German laws. Most psychiatrists followed in his steps and advocated decriminalization of unnatural fornication. But at the other hand, they also proposed pathologization of sexual perversion. Perverts should not be imprisoned, but hospitalized. The cure was however still a problem. In the early days of sexology, the bath and work cures that were used against sexual excess and onanism, were considered to be fitting for homosexuals as well. Later on, the best psychiatry had to offer was a change in sexual object choice, but few psychiatrists believed in this. The second best option was to help homosexuals to restrain themselves from homosexual acts. These cures were psychological, as there were no physical means to get rid of homosexual desires.

    The main proponents of the psychiatrization of homosexuality were to be found in Germany, France and Austria. Richard von Krafft-Ebing with his Psychopathia sexualis (1886) was the leading expert on sexual perversion. His book was subtitled "with special attention to sexual inversion" (which included both homosexuality and gender inversion). Many other authors had paved the way for him, in the first place Ulrichs, and also medical men from Germany, France and Russia as Westphal, Virchow, Moreau, Gley, Lacassagne, Lasègue, Binet, Ball, Chevalier and Tarnowsky. The Psychopathia sexualis became in its successive ameliorated and enlarged editions the standard work of the new science of sexology. It differentiated between qualitative and quantitative forms. The first included homosexuality, sadism, masochism, fetichism, exhibitionism, all new names devised by the new science. The second included nymphomania, satyriasis (excessive lust in males) and lack of desire. Most theories combined physiological and psychological elements in the explanation of perversion. The best example is Binet who coined the term "fetichism". All perversions were according to him forms of fetichism. They originated in a degenerative bodily structure and got their specific forms through, as he himself framed it, an accidental association of ideas: a strong impression combined with lust. Schrenck-Notzing used such psychological explanations to propose therapy for sexual perversion. But most psychiatrists stressed the importance of inborn factors to explain sexual perversion.

    Ulrichs used this theory to struggle against criminalization of homosexuality, but his fight was without result in the short term. Germany based its criminal law on the Prussian model, and homosexuality remained a crime. Only after his death, in 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld and others founded the first homosexual movement of the world in Berlin (Hingst 1997). Hirschfeld would become the main champion of the homosexual cause for several decades, till Hitler's rise of power. His theory was a more elaborated version of Ulrichs', and he also saw homosexuality as an inborn capacity of a minority of the population. He replaced Ulrichs' terminology of a female soul in a male body through a more enlarged theory of sexual intermediaries (Zwischenstufen). Hirschfeld's organization and theory did not remain uncontested. In France, Marc-André Raffalovich developed a theory in which he stressed the masculinity and the capacity of sexual restraint in uranians, and in Germany Elisar von Kuppfer, Adolf Brand and Benedict Friedländer opposed Hirschfeld's theory because he made the virile uranians they had in mind into miserable halfbreds. Sigmund Freud suggested alternative psychological explanations.

    Theorizing about homosexuality was part of a larger discussion on sexuality. It started with public health where the prevention of venereal diseases induced the medical regulation of prostitution. This policy was promoted by physicians and liberals, but it was opposed by christians, women and socialists. It resulted in a debate on relations between men and women, on pornography, incest, child abuse, and homosexuality. Another background for discussions about sexuality was the evolutionary theory of Darwin which placed procreation and heterosexuality in the centre of science and sparked off a political feeling for the need to promote heterosexuality. The movememt for eugenics was an example of such sexual politics. In these perspectives, homosexuality should be curbed as the German sexologists Max Dessoir and Albert Moll suggested. Learned homosexuality was to be combatted and persons with inborn homosexual inclinations had to learn to restrain their desires.

    An important result of all these discussions was a much enlarged visibility of homosexuality. Especially the homosexual scandals of the turn of the century, as Oscar Wilde in England in 1895, d'Adelswärd-Fersen in France in 1903 (Ogrinc 1994), Jacob Israël de Haan in Holland in 1904, and the biggest one, Eulenburg in Germany in 1907-1908 (Hull 1982; Steakley 1983) contributed greatly to the notoriety of homosexuality. Both Wilde and Eulenburg's friend, Kuno von Moltke, began the court cases that they lost in the end. Homosexual men went to court to file a complaint that homosexuality was attributed to them, and had to face as a result the fact that such accusations were grounded. No man how faintly involved in homosexuality, would after them file such a complaint as it would always be lost. The greater visibility made homosexually inclined men much more vulnerable. The scandals made also quite clear homosexuality was still something scandalous and abject.

    Homosexuality not only became a topic of the media or psychiatry, it was also lived in the streets and bars of the large urban centres. Everywhere in Europe, homosexual subcultures flourished in the late 19th century as never before. In Paris and Berlin, drag balls attracted hundreds of homosexuals. Berlin may have harboured two dozens of bars, in Amsterdam the police had a list of about six (although very simple) bordellos for "sodomites". Everywhere streetlife was the most important part of the gay life, with public toilets and parks as the spots where sex was found and consumed. Information from psychiatric and legal records makes it quite clear that same-sex desires were easily satisfied everywhere in Europe. In Amsterdam, such crowded male places as railway stations and newscentres harboured rich possibilities. A Dutch naval officer had his autobiography published in a psychiatric journal and he made clear he had never a lack of sexual partners, on board nor on land. In all big scandals, male prostitution with a generous supply of soldiers, male servants, college- and messenger-boys played a role.

    The medical discourse of homosexuality got its most important material by way of forensic medicine from this subculture. Arrested homosexual men formed the mainstay of the psychiatric literature. Ulrichs was often quoted, because of his intimate knowledge of the uranian world. The medical discourse relied on this microcosm, but added meanings to it and enhanced its reputation by making it public and more respectable than ever before. Although the general trend was pathologization, the medical endeavours nevertheless meant an acknowledgement of homosexual desires. And thanks to the efforts of Ulrichs, Hirschfeld and others, a homosexual movement could offer a spark of hope for homosexuals who often had the feeling of being alone in this world.

Cultural life

At the same time, homosexuality was becoming a hot topic in cultural life. Firstly French authors as Balzac, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Verlaine and Rimbaud wrote about same-sex desires, and later Oscar Wilde in England, Willem Kloos and Louis Couperus in the Netherlands, Stefan George and Thomas Mann in Germany, and the circle around Diagilev in Russia took up the same theme. The period of 1890-1930 has been discussed as a gay time in culture (Meyers 1977), because after this first series of authors and artists, many others followed. Never since the Classical Antiquity, had homosexuality been so ubiquitous and central in culture, and its representation was strongly influenced by the decadent movement. The concept of decadence was again very akin to that of degeneration. But whereas degeneration implied pathology and cultural decline, decadence implied exploration of all senses and cultural refinement, bending the negative theory of degeneration to more positive uses.

    The literary examples of those times must have sent out a supportive message to the reading public of homosexual inclinations (Keilson 1997). Certainly authors as André Gide started to write unremitting apologies for homosexual desire. But this literature was of course not without critics, and some of these authors were strictly isolated. The fate of Wilde was something everyone wanted to prevent. E.M. Forster refused to publish his gay novel fearing the homophobia of the English literary establishment, but elsewhere authors faced less problems. Prime examples are Kuzmin in Russia, De Haan in the Netherlands, and of course Gide and Proust in France. They set the examples many minor writers and poets followed.

    There was some interaction between literature, sexology, the homosexual movement and society. Some authors based their approach on medical models of a third sex, as did Proust and Couperus. Others took the more virile and pederastic version, as did Gide. Society reflected back at the authors, some of them becoming implicated in homosexual scandals, as Wilde and d'Adelswärd-Fersen. Scandals were again the subject matter of novels and both Wilde and Eulenburg became characters in gay fiction. The homosexual movement used literature again as a way to promote its ideas, by reviewing the works of gay artists as gay literature, and sometimes by writing justifications in the form of novels. Eeckhoud in Belgium, and Exler in Holland are examples.

Travelling up and down

Already in the 18th century, the "grand tour" provided a possibility for North-Europeans to become acquainted with sexual pleasures of South-Europeans. The tradition of castratos and of boy-love made the south attractive for men from the north. Winckelmann left Germany and found enough joys in Rome never to regret too much the departure from his home-country. A little later the poet August von Platen fled Germany and found similar pleasures in Italy. Ulrichs also lived his last years in Italy, and the photographer Von Gloeden established himself in Taormina where he made nude pictures of the local youth. Just like Capri, this Sicilian town became a centre for homosexual exiles. Wilde visited both places, and d'Adelswärd-Fersen built a villa on Capri. Until the Second World War, Italy had a reputation of a sexual paradise for homosexual men from the north (Aldrich 1993).

    In the first place, this is of course a place myth, a result of cultural geography giving Italy a name of sexual freedom. Italians would later seek sexual freedoms that they could not find at home in the north, in Scandinavia, Amsterdam or London. But this sexual reputation had also to do with poverty and a different structure of sexual desires and gender relations. Most young and unmarried men in Italy, and specifically in southern Italy, seem to have been inclined to sexual pleasures of all kinds. For them, it was not a question of identity, but of a desire that could be expressed irrespective of gender. They had few qualms about sexual pleasures, as the guilt culture of the north had so much more.

    This culture of sexual pleasures where sexual identities are not declared, exists to this day along the shores of the Mediterranean. It makes coming out less important, and a gay movement is next to non-existent. Gay men remain part and parcel of their families, who will know about the sexual proclivities of their sons, but will not speak openly about it. Officially, gay sex is a scandal, but privately, it belongs to nature and nobody cares too much as long as the rules of secrecy and reserve are respected. Many men will be involved in sex with other men or third genders. As long as Anglosaxon culture sets the tone, such perspectives on sex will be defined as backward or oldfashioned, and have little chance to survive because they also miss the support they need to continue to develop. What in the end is probably a more sexual repressive system, the anglosaxon, will replace in the long run other systems that are less inhibitive.

    Another important question regarding sexual exchange has been raised by Ann Stoler (1995). Focusing on Europe has made us forget, she suggests, that the leading countries were colonial empires which may have influenced their handling of sexual perversion. She surmises that the theories of degeneration and sexual inversion were based not only on the acquaintance with sexual and criminal subcultures at home, but also with "primitive" people in the colonies. The models of psychiatry could well have been influenced by colonial expertise, and the sexual politics at home reflected the disciplining of "exotic" tribes (compare also Bleys 1996).

Repression of homosexuality

It took some time before the countries that had abolished the crime of sodomy, reconsidered sexual crimes. Major changes took only place in those countries that still had sodomy-laws and where there continued to be a discussion on the abolition of the crime or on the penalties. In England, the law was not abolished, but in 1861 the death-penalty was replaced by penal servitude (Weeks 1977). Some German states abolished this crime as Württemberg in 1839 and Hannover and Braunschweig in 1840 and other states reduced the maximum penalties (Stümke 1989).

    Towards the end of the 19th century, both prostitution and its medical regulation came under attack. Now stricter sex laws were enacted everywhere, not only against prostitution, but also regarding the age of consent, pornography and homosexuality. The prime example are the English laws of 1885 that regulated prostitution, but also included the so called Labouchère-amendment that forbade all sexual relations between men both in public and in private. The Dutch laws against immorality of 1911 included a similar array of new articles, forbidding at the same time the public selling of contraceptives and pornography and homosexual lewdness between adults (above 21 years) and minors whereas the heterosexual age of consent was 16 years. This law targeted both sexes. Finland was exceptional in specifically criminalizing lesbianism (Löfström 1994). In England, women were left out of anti-homosexual legislation because women were not assumed to know about perverted sex or to indulge in it.

    Not only did laws become stricter, the same was true for the interpretation of the law. Thus the German High Court ruled in the 1880's that not only anal penetration, but also sexual acts that were like penetration, such as intercrural intercourse, fell under article 175 (Hutter 1992). In the Netherlands, public indecency was defined in 1886 in such a way that it also covered indecencies committed in private with other persons as unwilling spectators. In France, courts ruled that the article on the corruption of minors that in the beginning was only used in cases of prostitution, also criminalized all persons who had sex with minors.

    So the sex laws became stricter at the moment the discussion opened. It might be a rule of European sexual history that as soon as moralities seem to loosen up, laws become stricter. It indicates the deep ambivalence, if not anxiety about sex, in European culture. As soon as some freedoms are gained, stricter laws immediately enclose the newly won liberties. But it is clear that in most respects the general trend is toward more freedoms, not only for homosexuals and lesbians but also for straight women and men. Child-loving is the main exception (Kincaid 1992).

Dark ages

The late eighteenth and nineteenth century witnesses the emergence of greater sexual freedoms and so did the Russian revolution of 1917. Till the early thirties, most progressive sexologists considered the Soviet-Union as a good example of progressive sexual politics. Indeed, contraception, abortion and divorce became more generally available. But prostitution, and soon also homosexuality were repressed. In the early thirties, the Soviet-Union changed its sexual politics completely and now stressed the necessity of propagation. Homosexuality and abortion were forbidden again, and divorce and contraceptives became rare again.

    The Soviet-Union exemplified the new hopes of the twenties, and the disappointments of the thirties. After the First World War, Europe came back from the trenches and many people had a feeling "never again". Berlin and Paris became cities of pleasure where few people worried about politics. But soon politics of both the extreme right and left would set the tone, and the spectre of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others would haunt the hedonists of the gay twenties. Isherwood's and Spender's novels on Berlin clearly describe this ambivalence of dancing on the edge of impending disaster.

    There is no doubt that Hitler's rise to power in 1933 set in motion not only the Holocaust, but also the most horrible disaster of gay life in this century. Homosexuals were more fervently prosecuted under the Nazis than ever before. Some 10.000 German homosexuals ended up in a concentration camp where about 60% died (Lautmann e.a. 1977). The politics regarding homosexuality was however not one of extermination, as for Jews and Gypsies, but one of reintegration. German gay men could better be made capable of straight sex and procreation, than be simply killed. In camps, efforts were undertaken to change the sexual orientation of homosexual men. Also, many men who were prosecuted or killed for homosexuality, were so for other reasons. Ernst Röhm, the commander of the SA, was killed in 1934 not for his homosexuality (known to Hitler long before), but for opportunistic political reasons. Hitler wanted to get rid of a man who had been helpful with his rise to power, but who had become an obstacle to deals with generals of the army and captains of industry. Nevertheless, homosexuality and the sexual abuse of young men made good arguments to legitimate the murder on Röhm, his consorts and others who had nothing to do with Röhm or homosexuality.

    The situation for homosexuals was perhaps less dangerous in fascist Italy or Stalinist Russia, but there they had also to fear for their lives and loves. The Soviet-Union reintroduced anti-homosexual laws in 1934. Also in other countries in Europe the situation worsened for homosexual men. Not only Germany, but even earlier in Denmark, the castration of so called sexual criminals was made possible. In the Netherlands, some 250 men involved in criminal cases were castrated between 1937 and 1967. They complied with this infraction of the integrity of their bodies to prevent prison sentences. They bought freedom through corporeal violation. Many more men have undergone this operation under pressure from families, peers and priests. In the same period, the number of men prosecuted for homosexual crimes increased and continued to increase until the fifties, while the intervening years of war saw a decline in the number of prosecutions. In the Netherlands, it was said that for homosexuals, the war had not ended in 1945. The situation only started to loosen up halfway the fifties. The same was true for other countries. This is very clear for Germany where homosexual men who had been imprisoned under the nazis for homosexual crimes, had no right to "Wiedergutmachung", and remained in some cases imprisoned after the war had ended. Liberalization would come in most countries only slightly before or during the sixties.

    Castration was not the only means to combat homosexuality. In these years, a repressive psychiatry also tried to change the sexual orientation of gay men, and supported the claim that homosexuality could be cured. In the Second World War, psychiatry started to be used for military selection. Not only insane men, but also homosexuals were refused entry in the army. The idea that homosexuality was a disease made major inroads in the general population. For some gay men, this might have been a consolation, but in general it offered not much progress because the medical model of disease did not replace the older models of sin and crime. The effect of psychiatry did not counter, but added to the effect of religion and justice. Many gay men of this generation were obliged to see a doctor or a psychiatrist which certainly did not help them in coming to terms with their sexual orientation, to say it friendly.

    Suicide has always been a topos that went along with homosexuality. The typical gay novel of the early 20th century has a main character who starts with innocent feelings for his own sex, and slowly discovers the social disapproval of same-sex desires. In some cases, he will come across medical texts or homosexual apologies that explain to him what homosexuality is about. In most cases, this sets the stage for his downfall through criminal prosecution, blackmail or other forms of social rejection. In many cases the end of the story is suicide. The first gay movie, Anders als die Andern (1919) follows closely this plot. But suicide was also a life occurrence for many gay men, starting with "Fighting Mac"[Donald] and Krupp, and continuing with René Crevel, Alan Turing and many others. It is still a theme for many contemporary gay and lesbian youth.

    With minor exceptions, the period 1933-1955 was a dark age for homosexuals everywhere in Europe. Only Sweden, remaining outside the Second World War, liberalized its anti-homosexual laws in 1944. Spain and Portugal had become fascist at the end of the thirties, and remained so into the seventies. This closed off the little space that existed for homosexuals in Spain in the early thirties when an artist as Federico Garcia Lorca wrote plays and poems on homosexual love. The start of the Cold War soon after the War saw the rise of anti-communism in the west, and although communism itself was highly anti-gay, anti-homosexuality was part and parcel of anti-communism and MacCarthyism. 

Gay Liberation

The Swiss organization the Circle (Der Kreis) was the only movement to survive the Second World War. Shortly after 1945, new homosexual movements started in the Netherlands (COC 1946), Denmark (Forbundet 1948), Sweden, Germany (1951) and France (Arcadie). In the fifties, a short lived international organization existed, the International Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE). The task these movements had to face, was grand as they had to struggle against both criminal laws and social prejudice. But with the sexual revolution of the sixties, the homosexual emancipation movement had everywhere in Western-Europe their smaller and greater successes. Many countries abolished anti-gay legislation and the visibility of homosexuality in the media increased enormously. Many psychiatrists no longer saw homosexuality as a disease, but suggested to accept it on an equal basis with heterosexuality. It started in some cases with the economic argument that curing all homosexuals would be too expensive, while the chance of successful therapy was small (Adam 1987; Salmen & Eckert 1989; Girard 1981; Martel 1996).

    A major influence came however from social sciences, and from across the Atlantic. Europe had set the tone for the discussion on homosexuality for ages, but after the war, the main contribution came from the United States. Kinsey (1948) did the first comprehensive survey of the sexual life of American males and females, and it appeared that 4% of the males had an exclusive sexual orientation on their own sex, and 33% of the males had experienced homosexual sex. These numbers came as a shock for both American and European public opinion. These data were used both in favour and against homosexual emancipation. Kinsey himself made very clear that anti-homosexual legislation was out of date and failed to restrain the high level of homosexual activity among men. In the United States, his work came just before an anti-sexual backlash of which he himself became a victim: he lost his research grants.

    In Europe, Kinsey's work contributed to a liberalization of sex laws. First in England, and later in the Netherlands, government committees discussed the laws on prostitution and homosexuality and came out in favour of decriminalization. Thus happened in the liberal sixties, respectively in 1967 and 1971. Interestingly, in England the number of men prosecuted for homosexuality increased after the abolishment of some laws, but apparently the police now pursued more actively men for such remaining crimes as public indecency and soliciting. Other countries also began to decriminalize homosexuality. The German Democratic Republic did so in 1969, and the Federal Republic of Germany followed two years later. France had witnessed a new anti-gay law in 1961, as senator Calvet introduced an article against the so called "social plague" (fleau) which was directed against homosexuality. Only with the rise to power of the socialists in 1981, were most anti-gay laws abolished in France. Spain did the same after Franco's death in 1975 and the subsequent democratization.

    A main question has been what could explain the sudden success of gay emancipation, and more broadly, of the sexual revolution. It has been argued that a humanistic mental health approach made it easier to accept sexual diversity, especially where the churches joined this movement, as was the case in the Netherlands. Here, it were precisely catholic and protestant mental health specialists who liberalized sexual attitudes with regard to masturbation, premarital sex and homosexuality: not sinning could be very unhealthy (Oosterhuis 1992). It has been argued that the gender and sexual revolution of the sixties was made possible by a change from a culture of production to a culture of consumption. The amount of free time increased rapidly and there was more money to spend on pleasure activities. With regard to sex, the availability of the pill and other contraceptives and of penicillin as a solution for venereal diseases made the sexualization of society easier. The obligation of virginity became a harassment. The explosion of a youth culture in the sixties, a result of a birth peak after the Second World War, helped promote the sexual revolution very much. Gays immediately picked up the chances they got to liberate and amuse themselves.

    With the successes of the sixties and seventies, the homosexual equal rights movement was replaced by more radical gay liberation movements. The main argument against equal rights was that this presumed still the normativity of heterosexuality. "Not the faggot is perverted, but the society that represses him" run a German slogan and was the title of a movie directed by Rosa von Praunheim. In Holland, the homosexual movement struggled for integration in society. But the meaning of integration changed. Whereas it earlier had meant that homosexuals should follow in the steps of heterosexuals, later it stood for the acceptance of homosexuals as they were. It brought up the question how a unrepressed gay man looked like which was as impossible to answer as the similar question of feminism: what does a woman want? The politics of integration were replaced in a large part of the gay movement by a politics of sexual difference under the influence of Parisian philosophers.

    Paris had been the hotbed of radical sexual politics in the late 18th and 19th century, and it was once more in the late sixties and seventies. Poststructuralism and postmodernism paid lavish attention to gay liberation. Deleuze and Guattari (1972), and their gay follower Hocquenghem (1972), defended sexual transgressions and free-floating desires. Foucault passed from the historical hermeneutics of sex to an eulogy of gay sadomasochism. Their criticism of the sexual politics of their time were influential in gay movements all over Europe that dispersed in a multitude of forms, from gay groups in political parties and at the universities, to gay journals and health groups.


Not only the gay movement, but also the gay subculture left its underground world and came into the open. For Amsterdam, the growth of the gay bar culture started in the fifties when the first large gay discos were opened and sexual specialisation started with a gay leather bar. This bar culture became possible as homosexuals underwent an identity change. Whereas formerly many homosexual men cultivated their feminine qualities and desired "normal" men or trade, since the fifties they started to cultivate normalcy and to desire their equals, other gay men. Before, the main hangouts of the subculture had been red light districts, tearooms and parks, but beginning in the fifties, bars, saunas and other more private institutions took over. Public space had been the best place to find trade, now these private clubs made it possible to find other gay men for love and sex in a hidden world where no straights were present. Since the fifties, gay culture became in a certain way less integrated as less "normal" men participated in it. But the gay men who did, had more sex because they had more opportunities in gay saunas, bars and discos. The relational model changed from a model derived from the prostitutes' world, a short sexual contact of client and whore, to a model derived from marriage, an enduring loving relation of a couple. Inequality was replaced by an ideal of equality, and the idea that a gay couple should consist of a "male" and a "female" partner, became ludicrous (Hekma 1992).

    Whereas the social status of marriage diminished, gay men started to aspire to the bond of a coupled life. Psychiatrists could conclude that the best cure for homosexuals could well be to stop with a promiscuous life of furtive sex, and enter a loving same-sex relation. They closely followed the changes taking place in the gay scene. But before or besides their coupled life, many gay men continued to enjoy a promiscuous lifestyle. With the development of leather bars, saunas and sex parties this random promiscuity could be easily realized because it was an exclusively male world. Hedonism was on the verge of becoming the basis of the gay lifestyle. Sex and love were separated in gay circles and a sexy friend for one night did not endanger a longstanding love. Anguish about venereal diseases was removed because of the general availability of antibiotics as a cure, and the worst forms of social rejection that had prevented men from entering the gay world of pleasure, had disappeared. In fact, gay men may well have been the group that has profited most of the sexual revolution. Gay sex was in many cases still a crime in the sixties, but in the seventies all negative labels were reversed: it was no longer a crime, sin or disease. The gay world became a space for sexual pleasure. The straight world has not seen a similar development, but was to the contrary in the late seventies confronted with debates on sexual violence, incest and assault with men as perpetrators and women and children as victims. While sex was becoming easy in the gay world, it became increasingly fraught with problems among heterosexuals.

Disease and Disaster

But gay men had soon to confront a major disaster. The gay health groups that had come into existence in the late seventies, were a blessing in disguise in the early eighties when AIDS struck the gay community. AIDS started in the United States, so the Western-European countries could prepare themselves learning from the first American experiences. But few governments did much to learn lessons from America and its politics, in themselves highly prejudicial and ineffective. Discussion of so called risk groups (the four h's: homosexuals, Haitians, haemophiliacs and heroin-addicts) made clear that little would be done as long as AIDS had made no inroads in the "general" population. Both the right wing regime in England and the left wing regime in France did little to prevent the spread of the epidemic. The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden saw a cooperative effort of the gay movement and medical authorities to combat the disease and to help the patients. In France, not only the state was negligent, it took some time for the gay movement to see AIDS as a disease and not as a bad trick or a new form of medicalization of homosexuality that was played out against gay men. Independent of politics, nearly everywhere in Western Europe gay men were most afflicted by AIDS. Spain and Italy were exceptions on this rule, having large populations of drug addicts being struck by the epidemic.

    In the beginning, the most horrifying scenarios were developed, suggesting an annual increase of the number of AIDS-cases of 400%. This was of course an impossible prediction because it meant the gay population would be wiped out in some years, notwithstanding the fact that many gay men changed their sexual behaviour shortly after the beginning of the epidemic. Moreover, many gay men did not have to change their sex lives at all because they were not promiscuous or had no interest in unsafe sexual practices. Soon, it appeared that the epidemic could quite well be curbed. Because of the quick response of the gay community and medical authorities and the prompt acceptance of safe sex techniques by most gay men, AIDS made not the major inroads in the European gay world that had been expected. It is an interesting question if the straight world would have been able to change its sexual behaviours as quickly as gay men were able to do. From the available research, the difficult communication about sex between men and women would probably have impeded easy acceptance of safer sex in straight circles.

    AIDS has had many results, and an interesting one has come from the sex surveys that have been done because of AIDS. Since Kinsey, the number of gay men has alternately been stated as 4 or 10%, depending how many borderline cases were included. But recent research points to a much lower number of about 1-4% of the male population, and even less for females, with quite few border cases (van Zessen & Sandfort 1991; Spira 1993; Wellings 1994). The expectancy had been that the growing acceptance of homosexuality should have induced more people to claim gay and lesbian identities, but this has not been the case. The most convincing explanation is that Kinsey's sample was biased, and had included too many gay men as this was a great interest of his. Of course, also the latest data are debatable, although all surveys point to a lower percentage of homosexuals than Kinsey found.

A New Fin-de-Siècle

AIDS was and is a disaster in the gay world, and has left there major cavities as many of its inhabitants died of AIDS. The development and growth of a hedonistic gay world was impeded for a decade. It helped the creation of a new kind of gay lesbian movement, in the beginning responsible and prudent, later aggressive and violent. Act Up with its slogan "silence = death" paved the way for radical organizations as Queer Nation. France and England especially witnessed this radical development, while Holland completely missed it. In many places, AIDS organizations, as the French AIDES, took a distance from the gay movement, although they consisted mainly of gays and lesbians and offered help mostly to gay patients.

    The struggle against AIDS has often been understood as a struggle for monogamy. But civil laws did not include gay relations and offered no possibilities for gays and lesbians to formalize their bonds or acknowledge their familial connections, especially with regard to children that had come out of earlier marriages, artificial inseminations, adoption and so forth. In the early nineties all over the Western world gays and lesbians started to demand equal civil rights, especially with regard to marriage. This struggle has been partly successful in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, but nowhere the full rights and duties of marriage have been given to gay men and lesbian women. This implies that much is left to be regulated, as housing, pensions, assurances, legacies, adoption, and so forth. The value of monogamy has risen and is often promoted because of AIDS, but the group that is most touched by this epidemic, has no access to the institution that belongs to monogamy.

    The targets of the gay movement did not change in all countries from criminal legislation to civic rights. In England, there is still a different age of consent for gays and straights, and soliciting is still forbidden. In 1995, there was a parliamentary debate on the age of consent. The end result was a reduction of the age of consent for gay sex from 21 to 18 years, which continues to be unequal to the heterosexual age of consent of 16 years. For a decade England has also had clause 28 forbidding state institutions to promote homosexuality, or to present it as equal to heterosexuality. Elsewhere, the main struggles are against social oppression and rejection. The disappearance of clear targets has weakened the gay movement, as a comparison between the Netherlands and England can clarify. In England, there is a much larger mobilization of gays and lesbians for Gay Pride Marches and similar events than in the Netherlands. New aims, such as the right to marry or to adopt children, have met in the Netherlands with disapproval for different reasons among large sections of the gay public.

    Many gays and lesbians have simply no desire to marry. In the nineties, the gay world is thriving again and clubs, saunas, parties and dark rooms cater to a large public that looks for safe, vanilla as well as kinky sex. The institutions of hedonism are visited by gay men, but lesbian women and straight people follow in their steps. Especially the interest and participation of (lesbian) women in kinky sex and perversity means a major shift. Whereas women had earlier little space to play in earlier generations, now they do it and enjoy what the shift in gender dichotomy means. Women can take male sexual positions, and men female. To my understanding, it is still more difficult for men to take female positions than the reverse, as may be clear from clothing habits and drag behaviour.

    After the fall of the Iron Curtain, gay and lesbian emancipation got very rapidly a foothold in Eastern-European countries. East-Germany, Czechia, Russia, the Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia saw the development of quite successful movements whereas the situation in Slovakia, Croatia and Albania remains difficult, while Rumania continues to be the only country to have explicit and elaborate anti-gay legislation. In other countries, surprisingly also in Russia and Serbia, anti-homosexual articles were abolished. As most nations have become member of the Council of Europe, they will face great difficulties to (re)criminalize homosexuality as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden (Waaldijk & Clapham 1993). Most countries saw also a rapid development of a gay subculture over the last years with bars and journals. The outcome of all these developments is for the moment still far from clear.


Gay men and lesbian women have in most European countries combatted ideas that homosexuality is a sin, a crime or a disease with some success. Nowhere it is a crime in itself any more, although the pope is still clinging to the idea that the behaviour is sinful. Since the AIDS-epidemic, few people continue to defend the idea that homosexual ambitions are pathological. But nowhere equality is reached, and everywhere continue to exist strong prejudices against gays and lesbians. In the Netherlands, considered to be liberal in this respect since decades, half of male adolescents consider male homosexuality as filthy. Nowhere has the normativity of heterosexuality been broken.


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