German and Austrian Pioneers in LGBT Rights

Although we tend to think of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement as a modern, fairly recent phenomenon, the advocacy of homosexual rights goes back to the nineteenth century in Austria and Germany. Two pioneers in the field were the Austro-Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny (who coined the word “homosexual”) and the German Magnus Hirschfeld (who invented the term “transvestite”). We’ll learn more about them and others below, but first let’s compare several European countries in the area of LGBT rights.


Pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) in 1929. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The treatment of homosexuals in Europe, socially and legally, varies greatly by country. Only nine of Europe’s nations have legalized same-sex marriage. The Netherlands was the first European country to do so (in 2001). Northern European nations tend to be more progressive in LGBT rights than southern and eastern European lands. Here are some examples:

Being gay or lesbian is largely accepted in Germany, with most of the population feeling that sexual orientation is a non-issue. Berlin had an openly gay mayor (Klaus Wowereit) for many years. Legally, however, Germany has not been a leader in gay rights. But on June 30, 2017 that changed when the German Bundestag (parliament) voted in favor of same-sex marriage (“Ehe für alle”). Ironically, the CDU/CSU party of Angela Merkel, which had long blocked a vote on the issue, was encouraged by the chancellor to proceed with a vote. Although Merkel herself voted no, the marriage-equality law passed with 393 yes votes versus 226 no votes, meaning that 75 CDU/CSU members voted in favor of the new law.

Klaus Wowereit

Klaus Wowereit served as Berlin’s mayor (SPD) from 2001 until 2014. He “came out” prior to the 2001 mayoral elections. He is known for his now famous phrase: “Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so.” (“I’m gay, and that’s a good thing.”)
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A special type of civil union existed for gay and lesbian couples for many years, but it was not really equal to marriage in several respects, including taxes. In May 2013 a high court decision on so-called “tax-splitting” (Steuersplitting) required the German government to allow homosexual couples to combine their incomes for tax purposes, just as heterosexual couples could do. This reduced the difference between a gay civil union (eine eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften, “a registered life partnership”) and a “normal” heterosexual marriage, but it was still a “separate but equal” status. (Tax-splitting was already legal in 13 of Germany’s 16 states before the court’s ruling.) Many Germans had already called for doing away with this legal distinction before the recent marriage-equality vote.

The main roadblock in Germany had long been the political resistance from Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU party, which is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Germany’s other major parties all supported equal marriage rights. Even Merkel’s own former coalition partners, the FDP, came out in favor of gay marriage. Now Germany has joined the growing number of nations that allow same-sex marriage – unless a possible court challenge from opponents is successful.

Germany’s smaller neighbor to the south is a predominantly Catholic, conservative country. Same-sex male or female sexual activity has been legal in Austria since 1971, and civil unions (registered partnerships) for same-sex couples were introduced in 2010. (But not same-sex marriage; only about one in two Austrians is in favor of same-sex marriage.) Adoption was limited to heterosexual couples only, but that changed in 2016. Homosexuals are not prohibited from the armed services. Austria still has a lot of room for improvement in LGBT rights, but the homosexual lifestyle is apparent and largely accepted in Vienna, Graz and many of Austria’s other larger cities – despite conservative political opposition in some quarters.

France was in the news in 2013 because of its passage of a same-sex marriage law and the controversy that arose because of it. Today most people wonder what all the fuss was about. Even though few French people attend church, it is a Catholic country with many people opposed to gay marriage and gay rights. Nevertheless, France now has equal marriage rights, whether you’re gay or straight.

Until 2016 Italy had no laws or provisions granting gays and lesbians any equal rights. Being gay in Italy still carries a definite stigma, and homophobia is generally acceptable. Mussolini sent gays to live on an Italian island because Italian fascism was “virile.” It was thus “impossible” for homosexuality to exist in a fascist regime, especially an Italian one. But since 2016 Italian law recognizes civil unions for gay or lesbian couples. Although there is still no gay marriage in Italy, a gay marriage performed abroad can now be recognized by the Court of Cassation. Since 2014, same-sex couples also have been allowed to adopt a child in Italy.

Spain, even though it is a predominantly Catholic country like Italy, has some of the most progressive LGBT laws in Europe. Although “sodomy” was once punishable in Spain by being burned alive, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1979. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain since 2005. Adoption by same-sex couples is also allowed. As in many countries, gays and lesbians are not always socially accepted in Spain, but homosexuals can serve openly in the army and the Guardia Civil (police). They can also be judges or priests. Sports, particularly football (soccer), is one area where gay acceptance still has a way to go. But Spain has anti-discrimination laws protecting homosexuals in all areas of life, from employment to hate speech. Spain has come a long way, baby, since the repressive days of the Franco dictatorship, when homosexuality was a crime.

Historically, even in the US and the UK, homosexuality (aka sodomy or buggery) was a crime. Today most modern industrialized nations have done away with such legal discrimination, but not Russia. Although male homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in 1993, Russian lawmakers, with Vladimir Putin’s encouragement, recently passed a strong “anti-homosexual-propaganda” law that Putin signed. Same-sex marriages and civil unions are illegal. There are no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in Russia. Moscow’s top court has even ruled that no gay pride parades may be held in Moscow over the next 100 years. Only 14 percent of Russians support the idea of same-sex marriage. It’s not exactly a rainbow coalition.

Eastern Block (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia)
Reflecting some of the same attitudes found in Russia, the former Soviet Block nations in eastern Europe tend to have a negative view of homosexuality. In most cases there are no laws granting protection to gays and lesbians, much less equal standing under the law.

EU Countries with Marriage Equality (since year) – as of July 2017
*Legal recognititon of same-sex marriage performed abroad
Belgium (2003)
Denmark (2012)
Estonia* (2016)
Finland (2017)
France (2013)
Germany (2017)
Ireland (2015)
Italy* (2016, civil union)
Luxembourg (2015)
Malta* (2014)
Netherlands (2001)
Portugal (2010)
Spain (2005)
Sweden (2009)
United Kingdom
England, Wales (both 2014);
Scotland, Gibraltar (both 2016)
Source: LGBT Rights in the EU (Wikipedia)

The LGBT Pioneers
Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, a few pioneers, most of them gay themselves, began to investigate and write about homosexuality and advocate for gay and lesbian rights in Europe. Before this time the word “homosexual” did not even exist. That sort of person had long been known derisively as a “sodomite” or “pederast.”

Austrian-born Karl-Maria Kertbeny invented the term “homosexual.”
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Schwul, the German word for gay or queer, also dates from the 1800s. But Germany’s largest national lesbian and gay association, known as the Lesben- und Schwulenverband in Deutschland (LSVD), was not founded until 1990 in Leipzig, in what was still the GDR. (The German Democratic Republic was no better in its treatment of homosexuals, but the GDR abolished Paragraph 175 from East German law in 1988, six years before reunited Germany did.) The new organization soon supplanted the West German Bundesverband Homosexualität (BVH), which disbanded in 1997. At first the group was just der Schwulenverband in Deutschland, but it expanded to include lesbians in 1999. The LSVD, today based in Berlin and Cologne, has been politically active, and it takes credit for getting same-sex civil unions legalized only ten years after its founding. Germany also has the Heidelberg-based Lesbian Ring (Lesbenring e.V.), founded in 1982 to promote the interests of lesbians at the national and state level. Like the LSVD, the Ring is a member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).

Das Schwulenmuseum – No Lesbians
For whatever reason, gay men are more politically active and have been much more likely to “come out” than lesbians in Germany. Unlike gay men, there are few examples of openly lesbian women in German public life. A rare exception is Karin Wolff, former Minister of Education for Hesse, who came out in 2007. Berlin’s Schwulenmuseum is mostly about homosexual men, with very little related to lesbians, reflecting the museum’s name, “Gay Men’s Museum.” In 1986 the popular soap opera “Lindenstraße” showed the first gay kiss on German TV.

Below you’ll find biographical summaries of some of the pioneering people who have researched and advocated for the LGBT community. We begin with the man who coined the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in 1869.

Karl-Maria Kertbeny (Benkert, 1824-1882)
Born in Vienna, Austria on February 28, 1824, Karl-Maria Benkert’s family moved to Budapest, Hungary when he was still young. In 1847, at 23 years of age, he changed his last name to Kertbeny (Karl-Maria Kertbeny or Károly Mária Kertbeny). He worked as a journalist, travel writer and book author. In 1869 Kertbeny invented the term “homosexual” to replace “sodomite” and “pederast,” the more pejorative terms in use at that time. He also coined the word “heterosexual” to refer to opposite-gender sex. Both terms gained much wider use after Richard von Krafft-Ebing (see below) published Psychopathia sexualis in 1886. (Krafft-Ebing borrowed from Gustav Jäger’s book Discovery of the Soul in which the author had used Kertbeny’s terminology.)

Equally at home in Hungarian and German, Kertbeny translated the works of noted Hungarian writers into German. His contemporaries and acquaintances included the German poet Heinrich Heine, the Brothers Grimm, and the French writer George Sand (Amantine Lucile Dupin).

When he moved to Berlin to live in 1868, Kertbeny was still unmarried at the age of 44. He claimed he was “normally sexed,” but some of his biographers have questioned that. In any case, after moving to the Prussian capital, Kertbeny became something of an activist for gay rights, long before that term had ever been heard. In 1869 he anonymously published two pamphlets condemning Prussia’s anti-sodomy laws and specifically “Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code of 14 April 1851,” which later became the infamous Paragraph 175 of the penal code of the German Empire. Kertbeny claimed that these laws violated the “rights of man.” Paragraph 175 was not abolished from German law until 1994!

Far ahead of his time, Kertbeny claimed that people were born either heterosexual or homosexual, contradicting the then prevalent view that “sodomy” was an evil choice. In his youth the writer had known someone who had committed suicide after being blackmailed over his homosexuality. This injustice was one of the main reasons he became an advocate for homosexual rights.

Kertbeny died in Budapest in 1882. The 58-year-old was buried in Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery, where since 2002 the local gay community places a wreath at his grave during Hungarian gay celebrations.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895)
In 1862 Ulrichs may have become the first gay man to publicly “out” himself as an Urning, his own word for a gay man. He was born near Aurich, then part of the Kingdom of Hanover, in what is now northern Germany. He studied law at the university in Göttingen. After losing his job as a state official because he was homosexual, Ulrichs began writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius.” His first five essays, collected as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (“Researches on the Riddle of Male-Male Love”), declared that homosexual love was natural and biological. He summarized his theory with the Latin phrase anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (a female psyche confined in a male body).

He was soon writing under his real name (his real public “coming out”) and actively supporting what would later be known as the gay cause. On August 29, 1867 Ulrichs became the first homosexual to speak out publicly in defense of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was of course shouted down. Later Ulrichs moved around Germany from city to city, always in conflict with the anti-homosexual laws of the time.

In 1879, tired and in poor health, Ulrichs began a self-imposed life of exile in Italy. On July 14, 1895, not long after receiving an honorary diploma from the University of Naples, he died in L’Aquila in central Italy. Although in exile, Ulrichs was not forgotten. His funeral was splendid, with a “thick crowd of professionals, students, and workers” (Hubert Kennedy in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Pioneer of the Modern Gay Movement, 2002) and many local officials in attendance. Later, contributions were solicited to pay for a memorial stone and its inscription. The memorial stone slab atop his grave was inscribed in Latin, a language that Ulrichs loved and used often. In part it reads (the Latin V = U):


(English translation)

In recent times Ulrichs has become something of a cult figure. There are streets named for him in Munich, Bremen and Hanover. His birthday is marked each year by a lively street party and poetry reading at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Platz in Munich. The city of L’Aquila has restored his grave and hosts the annual pilgrimage to the cemetery. Later gay rights advocates, including Magnus Hirschfeld (see below), acknowledged their debt to Ulrichs. In 1927 the American film actress Mae West wrote a play (under the pen name Jane Mast) called The Drag which alludes to the work of Ulrichs.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)
Krafft-Ebing was an Austro-German psychiatrist and author of the seminal work Psychopathia sexualis (1886). Born in Mannheim, Germany, Krafft-Ebing studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg, where he specialized in psychiatry. After working in psychiatric asylums, he pursued a career in psychiatry, forensics, and hypnosis.

Although he was an early pioneer in the area of homosexuality, many of his conclusions are no longer considered valid. For instance, he viewed homosexuality as an inherited neurological disorder. But he also called for not punishing homosexuals, since they could not help that they were born with that “abnormality.” Despite his influence in forensic medicine, he was unsuccessful in his call for decriminalizing homosexual acts, partly because of resistance from the Austrian Catholic Church. However, Krafft-Ebing was one of the first people to attempt to scientifically investigate homosexuality rather than simply view it as a moral problem. Another Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, viewed homosexuality as a psychological problem, and he urged that gays not be segregated from mainstream society.

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)
Magnus Hirschfeld was a Jew, a socialist, a physician and gay. He was an early advocate for homosexual and transgender rights. He coined the term “transvestite” and is considered the father of the modern gay and lesbian movement. Hirschfeld is best known for his famous Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, founded in 1919) in Berlin, which was the first institution destroyed by Nazis during their infamous anti-Jewish pogrom in May 1933. (Hirschfeld was not in Germany at the time.) Parts of Hirschfeld’s unique library were burned on Berlin’s Bebelplatz (then “Opernplatz”) on May 10, 1933, setting back sexology and the gay rights movement for many years. Not long after that the Nazis began sending gay men to concentration camps, forcing them to wear a pink triangle.

Hirschfeld was born in the Prussian city of Kolberg on the Baltic coast (now in Poland)  on May 14, 1868. He first studied modern languages, later turning to medicine. He earned his medical degree in Berlin in 1892. After establishing a naturopathic practice in Magdeburg, in 1896 he moved to Charlottenburg, then a separate town near Berlin. In 1897 he founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitären Komitee) which promoted gay rights and advocated the abolition of Prussia’s anti-homosexual laws. During World War I, Hirschfeld served as an army doctor from 1914 to 1918.

In 1919 Hirschfeld co-wrote (with Richard Oswald, who also directed and produced) and appeared in the film Anders als die Andern (“Different From the Others”), in which the German actor Conrad Veidt (later Major Strasser in Casablanca) played one of the first homosexual characters in cinema. Also starring Reinhold Schünzel, the film was intended as a polemic against Paragraph 175.

Known as “the Einstein of Sex,” Hirschfeld researched sex (not just homosexuality) in a scientific manner. He developed a system with 64 possible sexual categories, including “transvestite,” a term that he coined for a category that today includes transgender and transsexual people.

In March 1932 Hirschfeld returned to Europe, but not to Germany, where the Nazi takeover made it dangerous for him. He eventually went into exile in southern France. On May 14, 1935, his 67th birthday, he died of a heart attack in his apartment in Nice. His ashes were interred in a modest grave in Nice’s Caucade Cemetery. The tomb’s headstone bears Hirschfeld’s Latin motto: “Per Scientiam ad Justitiam” (“justice through science”).


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