A SHORT HISTORY OF THE EUROPEAN POST-WAR GAY AND LESBIAN MOVEMENT
Harry Oosterhuis, Jan Willem Duyvendak en Gert Hekma
After the leading homosexual movement in Germany and its branches in surrounding countries had been wiped out by the Nazis, gay emancipation had to make a fresh start after World War II. Succeeding to homosexual journals published in Weimar Germany, Der Kreis (The Circle) (1933-1967) was exceptional in surviving the war. In the 1950's this international cultural journal, that was edited by Karl Meier in Switzerland and could only be obtained by subscription, appeared in German as well as in French and English.
For homosexual men and women in Europe the 1950s were a period of repression. Male homosexual behavior was still illegal in several states, among others Great-Britain (until 1967), East and West Germany (until 1969), Austria (until 1971), Finland (until 1971), Ireland and Russia (both until 1993). More specific laws forbade and still forbid soliciting (in Great-Britain) or homosexual prostitution (Greece). The publication and distribution of gay and lesbian journals has often been extremely hazardous. In some other countries, like the Netherlands and France, the age of consent for homosexual men and women was higher than for heterosexuals, and in others this is still the case (Austria, Finland, Switzerland; only for gay men in Great-Britain, Greece, Ireland). In many countries, f.e. Great-Britain, the Netherlands and West Germany -- in the latter the Nazi-law on unnatural fornication was not repealed -- the number of legal prosecutions for homosexual offences and 'public indecency' even increased compared to the pre-war period. After two homosexual spies, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean had been exposed in England, homosexuals came to the fore as scapegoats of the Cold War. In general, the media reinforced the moral consensus by caricaturing homosexuals as immoral corrupters of youth and potential or actual traitors. They had to live a double life and could only express themselves in an underground subculture.
Before the 1960s reformist organisations advocating equal rights for homosexual men and women had to operate cautiously and discretely in order not to offend authorities and public opinion. Most successful was the Dutch COC (Cultural and Recreational Center), founded in 1946. Approaching leading figures of several political and religious groups, it tried to influence the outside world, while at the same time offering support and recreation to individual homosexual men and women. In its strategy, the COC was typical for homophile organisations which were founded in Denmark (1948), West Germany (1949), Sweden (1951), Belgium (1954), France (1954) and Great-Britain (1958). Politically they upheld a neutral position and by endorsing dominant values they tried to improve the image of homosexuals as respectable citizens, apart from sexual orientation not being different from heterosexuals. In the early 1950s the COC took the initiative to establish the International Committee for Sexual Equality, in which several national organisations participated and that organized some international conferences. However, in the early 1960s this committee withered away, mainly because most national organisations were too weak to make it survive.
In the second half of the 1960s the European homosexual movement received new impetus. Attitudes towards homosexuality changed, not so much because of the impact of homosexual activism, but more as a consequence of a relaxation of the moral climate in Western-European welfare states. Puritan moral codes began to crumble as a result of a long period of economic expansion and growing affluence. Possibilities for geographical and social mobility were increasing and facilitated individualism and alternative lifestyles. Changes in the pattern of family life and the increase in birth control facilities stimulated the supersession of procreation by affection and pleasure as the main purpose of sex. Around 1960 more and more professionals, politicians and clergymen began to doubt the effects of the criminalization and oppression of homosexuality and argued for a humanitarian attitudes. In England the publication of the Report of the Wolfenden Committee in 1957, proposing decriminalisation of homosexual relations between consenting adults in private, was a milestone. Only ten years later, a partial change in law was realized. At the same time, in the Netherlands, christian mental health care authorities argued that homosexuals should be accepted for the sake of social decency. Progressive christians contributed to a moral revolution, that laid the foundations for the reputation the Netherlands still enjoy nowadays for tolerance of homosexuality.
In the newly emerging welfare states, especially in Great-Britain, West Germany, the Benelux and Scandinavia, a rapid growth took place in professional mental health care and social work. Therapies were introduced which differed not only from traditional religious approaches, but also from medical psychiatry. Homosexuality was no longer considered a sin, a crime or a sickness, but a more or less unfortunate condition that deserved compassion. This approach marked a fundamental change in social policy in European welfare states. Whereas before the 1960s homosexuals had been labelled as criminal and abnormal and had been excluded from the healthy and virtuous body of society, now professional strategies were directed towards self-acceptance and social integration.
After 1965 in several Western European states liberal-humanitarian reforms in the field of the family and sexuality were introduced, only France under the authoritarian Gaullist regime showing a different trend. The law concerning homosexuality was reformed in England and Wales (1967) and in West Germany (1969). Much publicity was given to the issue of homosexuality in these countries. Decriminalisation stimulated homosexual self-organisation. Next to the appearance of new homosexual journals and the rise of a commercial subculture in cities like London, Amsterdam, West-Berlin and Hamburg, more radical gay & lesbian groups could begin to force their way. A similar law reform in German Democratic Republic, shortly before the same happened in West Germany, did however not lead to the establishment of a homosexual movement or bar culture.
The early 1970s were a turning point in the Western European homosexual movement. The reformist homophile organisations that tiptoed through the liberal 1960s by stressing the need for discretion and respectability, were superseded by militant and more radical gay groups. Like the American Gay Liberation Front, which sprang up after the Stonewall Riots in New York, they advocated openness, defiance, gay pride and activism, and linked personal exploration with political activism. Gay and lesbian liberationist organisations came to the fore in Great-Britain, West Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. These groups started with public gay and lesbian activism and organized the first demonstrations. Relations between the new movements in the different European countries were at this time very weak or absent. Although some inspiration and rhetoric was drawn from the American example, all were distinctly rooted in the specific traditions of their national culture.
The British Gay Liberation Front was influenced by the Counter Culture and New Left and drew many ideological concepts from radical feminist analysis. In France the revolutionary climate of 1968 gave birth to the Comité d'Action Pédérastique Révolutionnaire (Committee for Revolutionary Faggot Action). In 1971, the FHAR (Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire - Gay Front of Revolutionary Action) was established, which stimulated on its turn the development of the liberation fronts in Belgium and Italy (FUORI, Frente Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano - Italian United Front of Revolutionary Gays). All these movements were dominated by students involved in activities of the extreme left. The more the political climate they were working in was polarized, and the more their parties were used to think in terms of revolutions -- as in France and Italy --, the more 'revolutionary' homosexuality became as well. In these Southern European countries, which were dominated by the family and machismo, the revolutionary attack against 'normal' gender roles followed the strategy of gender and sexual 'inversion': "our assholes are revolutionary", wrote Guy Hocquenghem, one of the founders of the FHAR.
In Germany the contested film Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt (Not the homosexual is perverted but the situation in which he lives; 1971) by Rosa von Praunheim gave occasion to several local groups, many of them, like the Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (Homosexual Action West-Berlin), marxist in orientation. In the Netherlands, radical student groups defied the reformist COC in the late 1960s, followed in the 1970s by 'Purple September', 'Lesbian Nation' and 'Red Faggots'. However, the Dutch COC, that adapted its policy to the new trend ('integration by means of confrontation'), survived the wave of radical gay activism whereas many other old organizations and newspapers, such as the Arcadie (France), Der Kreis (Germany/Switzerland), Vennen (Denmark), which refused to adapt to new social and political circumstances, vanished.
In the 1970s, the growth of the West European gay movement was accompanied by fragmentation. Internal conflicts about the priority of personal versus social action or cultural activities versus political activism and lobbying, between men and women, about political strategy (integration versus seperatism), and disputes about feminism, transvestism, pornography, pedophilia and sado-masochism, resulted in dispersal. In some countries as France and Germany, separate gay & lesbian organizations continue to exist to this day and still block pragmatic coöperation. At the same time increasing specialisation and institutional integration took place: gay groups sprang up in political parties, churches, trade unions, social work and universities. European cooperation was stimulated by the International Gay Association (IGA, later ILGA) founded in 1978. Annual gay parades were institutionalized at the end of the 1970s. Although most gay & lesbian liberation groups were small and shortlived, they had impact on both homosexuals and society. With the expansion of gay community and commercial subculture, homosexuality had become a public and political issue. More and more the idea gained ground that not homosexuality in itself, but social attitudes towards it were the problem. In some countries like the Netherlands and Denmark the struggle for anti-discrimination laws began. In fact, almost all Western-European countries showed a development towards liberalization of morals, in particular among younger generations.
Rejection of homosexuality by age group (percentage saying homosexuality can never be justified - a rating of 1 on a scale from 1 to 10)
Age Neth. Denm. Germ. Engl. Fran. Belg. Spain Irel. Italy U.S.A.
18-24 11 18 26 31 28 42 38 41 50 55
25-34 13 28 31 30 29 43 41 48 51 57
35-44 19 32 40 38 53 47 57 54 65 64
45-54 23 45 43 40 62 53 67 76 72 77
55-64 39 47 58 67 67 62 67 79 81 78
65+ 52 54 70 72 76 66 80 87 81 78
total 22 34 42 43 47 51 56 59 63 65
(Source: World Values Survey, 1981-1982; cit. in Inglehart, 1990:194)
In the first place it is remarkable how many people in all countries still adhere to the most negative opinions about homosexuality. But apart from this similarity, striking differences in the opinions come to the fore. Explanations for these disparities have to take cultural, religious and political factors into consideration. Economic conditions do not have an unequivocal influence since both relatively poor (Ireland and Spain) and rich (United States) countries are conservative. A certain level of prosperity might be a necessary condition for an individualization of life styles, it does not always help the emancipation of homosexuality.
With regard to the North-South difference in Europe -- with France in an intermediate situation --, religious factors seem to play a role. Although Catholicism is not by definition an obstacle for sexual liberation (compare for instance the progressive impetus by Roman Catholic clergy in the Netherlands) and neither for sexual pleasures, the position of gays and lesbians is at best ambiguous in catholic countries: next to the Southern European countries, Ireland and Poland may serve as clear examples. The United States show however, that the the most important question is not which belief people adhere, but how serious they take it. The more religious a country, the more negative the opinions regarding homosexuality.
With regard to the Southern European countries another aspect is important as well. If, namely, sexual culture is far more defined by gender than by sexual orientation, a gay world and identity are much less likely to develop. The traditions of the family and machismo impede the deployment of a seperate homosexual world. Homosexuality takes quite often the form of gender inversion, while many supposedly straight men partake in occasional homosexual encounters. Cultural traditions have their impact upon identities and, consequently, upon possible roads towards emancipation.
The example of France at the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s shows that if political opportunities are present, not only changes in the legal position of gays and lesbians may occur but shifts in the opinion of the population at large come to the fore as well, even in a catholic country. Strong local organizations of gay and lesbians in Italy and Spain are another indication that the development of movements and of subcultures is not always hindered by machismo or Catholicism, but depends also on social and political conditions of the immediate environment.
The beginnings of gay and lesbian groups in the former socialist countries as East Germany, Hungary, Czecho-Slovakia and Yugoslavia since the early eighties, suggest this point as well: the support and facilitation by parts of the broader society were an important condition for the development of a homosexual movement and a visible subculture. In other parts of Eastern-Europe, homosexual movements only started about 1990. In the former Soviet Union, where opportunities and social support were lacking, the "Gay Laboratory" that did develop at an earlier time in Leningrad, was broken up by the police. Only after liberalization set in, gay and lesbian movements could commence and enter the turmoil of politics of sexuality with quite radical statements, f.e. the Moscow gay group of Kalinin defending pedophilia and bestiality. Gay and lesbian movements have begun in many places in Russia but have to face extreme hostility of the general public.
Before the collapse of the communist system, some countries did not criminalize homosexual practices (Albania, East Germany, Poland) or had a higher age of consent for homosexuals (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary), while others forbade homosexual practices (Soviet Union, Rumania, and in Yugoslavia Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia). After the collapse, some countries changed their laws, especially Russia and Czechoslovakia.
Nowadays, most European countries have their gay & lesbian movements: from Turkey to Iceland and from the Baltic States to Portugal. Albania and most new developing states from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia remain the most remarkable white spots on the European map. Only in Russia, the Baltic states and Slovenia gays and lesbians became publicly visible. Whereas Russia decriminalized sodomy, the other states of the former Soviet Union do not seem to have done so (*: geldt dit ook voor de Baltische staten: Harry vraag Cees Waaldijk). In the countries where the Eastern Orthodox church has a strong influence, the situation for homosexuals is in general worse than in countries with catholic traditions (compare conservative Serbia and Rumania with more liberal Slovenia, Kroatia and Hungary). Ljubljana in Slovenia has had its part of gay and lesbian activism, whereas Serbia and Rumania continue to criminalize and persecute homosexual behavior.
The dependency of gays and lesbians on social conditions can also be illustrated by the divergent reactions to the Aids epidemic. In the 1980s, Aids caused a moral panic in Western countries where the position of gays and lesbians was still rather weak: it gave occasion to some right-wing backlashes in Great-Britain, West Germany and France. In Great-Britain police harassment and censorship continued and the Thatcher government, trying to prohibit local authorities from 'intentionally promoting homosexuality' (the notorious Clause 28), forced the gay movement on the defensive. At the same time, in most Western European countries the Aids crisis contributed to more public frankness about gay sexuality and cooperation between the government and homosexual organizations. Hardwon gay rights were not repealed. But again, the British parliament did not succeed last February to lower the age of consent for gay men (before 21; now 18) to the one for straights and lesbians (16).
A new development for the gay and lesbian movement has been the growing importance of international organizations, in particular the European Union and the European Parliament. In some cases, legal fights that were lost in the home country (Northern Ireland), were won before the European Court of Human Rights. The movement is hardly prepared for this struggle, as the European institutions are hardly prepared to discuss gay and lesbian rights or to stop harassment of homosexuals in the working place, on cruising grounds or of gay and lesbians journals.
Nowadays, the situation of the gay and lesbian movement can be largely described in positive terms, certainly if we compare the European to the American or Asian situation. At the same time, many countries in Europe have still a long way to go for equal rights, especially in Eastern Europe. In no country the legal rights of gays & lesbians are the same as those of heterosexuals. Moreover, even in the most liberal countries, the visibility of gays & lesbians in politics, education, and other social institutions is very limited, whereas prejudices about gays and lesbians still abound. Western culture continues to have an ambivalent attitude toward sex and nowhere simply endorses gay & lesbian pleasures. Queer activism will remain for a long time a necessity in a culture that only can envision sex as something natural, private and love-related. But homosexuality is for the larger part a cultural artefact that has to come out of its hidden closet to show its sexual prowess.
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Absolute Numbers of Participants in Gay Pride Marches in the Netherlands, France and England
year France Netherlands England
1976 - - 200
1977 - - 1.000
1978 - - 1.200
1979 - 5.000 8.000
1980 3.000 6.000 3.000
1981 10.000 6.000 2.000
1982 8.000 4.500 3.000
1983 8.000 8.000 ?
1984 3.000 8.000 1.000
1985 4.000 4.000 8.000
1986 1.000 5.000 10.000
1987 5.000 6.000 11.000
1988 1.500 7.000 29.000
1989 4.000 15.000 20.000
1990 1.500 10.000 20.000
1991 5.000 15.000 25.000
1992 5.000 15.000 35.000
1993 10.000 20.000 30.000