The Petition Against Paragraph 175

The petition campaign was launched in 1897. Its aim was to collect as many signatures as possible of prominent political and artistic figures, scientists, and doctors, on a petition calling for the removal of homosexual acts from criminal status, except in cases involving the use of force, or arousing "public annoyance," or when performed between an adult and a minor under the age of 16.

Supporters and proponents of the petition stressed several points in their effort to expose the injustice of the antigay law: that since the Napoleonic Code was adopted in 1810, homosexual acts were legal in most countries in Europe, and that this had led to no ill side-effects for society; that the law punished sexual acts between two men but left unpunished the same acts when performed between a man and a woman or between two women; that it left millions of citizens prey to blackmailers and extortionists; that rather than deliver gays from their harmless and enjoyable penchant for same-sex relations, the law drove them to despair and frequently suicide.

The [Scientific Humanitarian] Committee gave top priority to its petition campaign. For years, the first article in its yearly and quarterly reports was frequently a detailed report on the current status of the struggle, with reprints from the press, correspondence, etc., indicating what response the Committee had received, and keeping its supporters up to date on the progress being made.

In its October 1910 issue, for instance, the Committee noted: "At present, the most timely and important question for the movement for homosexual liberation seems to us to be the public opinion, and in particular the opinion of specialists, on Paragraph 250 (previously Paragraph 175) of the new draft penal code. Therefore, now as before, we shall orient our readers to all publications that take a stand either for or against the paragraph. The scope of material being published on this matter, however, is so great that we can only reproduce a few of the most typical examples."

While at times the petition campaign slackened -- as it did, for instance, when the Committee struggled to defend itself during the antigay witch hunt of 1907 and also under the ravages of the first world war -- it was never abandoned. Indeed, its most vigorous effort appears to have come after the war, when the Committee formed a united front in 1920 with two other gay groups - the German Friendship Association and the Community of the Special -- to press forward the fight against the law.

From the very start the Committee wom prominent supporters to the gay cause. On January 13, 1898, its first major supporter took the floor of the Reichstag to argue for the petition. He was the great Social-Democratic leader, August Bebel.

In addition to signing the petition, Bebel took copies of it into the Reichstag and urged his colleagues to add their names as well. Ridiculing the bourgeois government's approach to the matter, Bebel pointed out: "The number of these persons [gays] is so great and reaches so deeply into all social circles, from the lowest to the highest, that if the police dutifully did what they were supposed to, the Prussian state would immediately be obliged to build two new penitentiaries just to handle the number of violations against Paragraph 175 committed within the confines of Berlin alone."

At this point, the record of the proceedings indicates a commotion, with apparently a cry of protest from a certain von Levetzow. Bebel continued, "That is not an exaggeration, Herr von Levetzow; it concerns thousands of persons from all walks of life... But gentlemen, let me say one thing... If with regard to this law the Berlin police did their duty all the way, then there would be a scandal such as the world has never known, a scandal compared to which the Dreyfus scandal, the Lützow-Ledert and the Tausch-Normann-Schumann scandals are pure child's play."

Bebel's conception of the extensiveness of homosexual behavior was advanced for the period, half a century before the Kinsey investigations, and with anthropology only in its infancy. The Reichstag member who was so shocked by Bebel's remarks was probably typical of most people then, in viewing homosexuality as a rare, mysterious, and unnatural phenomenon.

This, like a subsequent speech by Bebel on the petition campaign in 1907, was punctuated throughout by supporting shouts of "Hear! Hear!" from the Social-Democratic benches.

The Committee carried on a phenomenal amount of propaganda activity around its petition. In 1899, for instance, it sent a letter to Roman Catholic priests throughout the country requesting them to take a stand on the question of gay oppression and gay rights. In 1900, it sent copies of its Yearbook with the responses it had received, a pamphlet on the law, and a letter to all the members of the Reichstag and of the Federal Council. It also sent a letter to 2,017 daily newspapers; another to more than 8,000 top administrative officials, provincial councillors, mayors, and justice, police, and railroad officials; and yet another to public prosecutors and presidents of criminal courts throughout the entire Reich. The latter dealt in particular with a recent spate of convictions in the province of Hannover for homosexual acts, or, in legalese, "unnatural lewdness." In 1901, it sent 8,000 copies of the petition to judges. Ads were regularly placed in the press on behalf of its efforts.

The Committee also decided, in 1903, to publish "a generally understandable and convincing piece of propaganda that will make it possible to reach the broadest layers of the public with a refutation of the false conceptions that still often hold sway about the nature of Uranianism." Within four years this pamphlet, entitled What the People Should Know About the Third Sex, went into nineteenth edition.

Support for the petition was not limited to a few isolated stars. More than 6,000 prominent figures signed it, of whom half were doctors. Some of the others were: Finance Minister Rudolf Hilferding, Hermann Hesse, Franz Werfel, George Grosz, Krafft-Ebing, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Max Brod, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Carl Maria Weber, Stefan Zweig, Grete Meisel-Hess, Gerhardt Hauptmann, Karl Pauli, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Arthur Schnitzler.

In addition to German signers, the petition received the (unsolicited) backing of a number of outstanding international personalities, among them Zola, Tolstoy, the Danish critic Georg Brandes, and Norway's most prominent nineteenth-century poet, Bjoernstjerne Bjoernson, who sent Hirschfeld the following note in December 1901: "For more than twenty years I have viewed this matter the same way you do, and if I were a German, I would sign."

Zola had been working on a novel called Le Roman d'un inverti (The Novel of an Invert), but he abandoned it because he was afraid to publish it. In a letter to Dr. Laupts on the subject of homosexuality, published in the preface of the latter's book Perversion et perversités sexuelles (Perversion and Sexual Perversities), Zola observed that "anything that relates to sex relates to social life itself. An invert is a disorganizer of the family, of the nation, of humanity."

On October 18, 1907, more than 2,000 people attended a debate on Paragraph 175. The Committee later described the debate as "a high point of the movement, so to speak, which was soon to go into a sudden decline." The "decline" was brought on by the hysteria surrounding a series of trials involving homosexuality and prominent gays. The scandals lasted for several months and had a generally conservatizing effect on public opinion.

In late 1910 a new draft penal code was introduced that proposed to extend criminal status to include sexual acts between women. This move brought a new dimension to the struggle -- the involvement of women's liberation groups.

By early 1911, meetings of women's organizations were being held throughout Germany to discuss ways to fight the proposed extension and to link the struggle of women with that of gays. A broad range of groups took up this matter, including Social-Democratic and bourgeois women's organizations.

One such meeting, reported at length in the Social-Democratic Vorwärts, was held in Berlin on February 10, 1911, by the local branch of the League for the Protection of Mothers. The turnout was so large that a second meeting had to be called two weeks later. The speaker for the Scientific Humanitarian Committee was Hirschfeld, who discussed the nature of homosexuality and the petition campaign.

Both meetings adopted a resolution condemning the law. This was the first public position taken by any important women's organization on this question. It called any attempt to extend criminal status to lesbianism "a serious mistake": "An inequality would not thereby be eliminated, but rather an injustice doubled. The doors would be thrown wide open to informers and blackmailers, and unmarried working women who share living quarters with other women would be burdened in the most shamefully damaging way, without in the process any interest being protected. At a very minimum, the gathering regards it as absolutely necessary that medical experts -- especially sex researchers and psychiatrists -- as well as women, be consulted on this question."

Following the several-year-long dislocation caused by the first world war, the petition campaign, which had receded into the background, was aggressively resumed in order to fight yet another draft penal code (introduced in 1919), which, although it dropped any proposed extension of criminal status to lesbians, still provided up to five years in jail for males who were convicted. Still, the more liberal climate prevailing in the period just following the war and the 1918 revolution gave gays considerable optimism that their struggle against the law was about to succeed.

In August 1920, the Committee held its first post-war general membership meeting. The meeting voted to form the united front of gay groups to fight the law, and it set up a special joint "action committee" to organize the fight. The committee was headed by Kurt Hiller.

In October 1921, a new minister of justice was appointed who was himself a signer of the petition.

Hopes were further buoyed when, after considerable pressure, the authorities agreed to provide a public hall inside the Reichstag building itself where the Committee could address interested members of the body. Fifty showed up fo a speech by Hirschfeld on March 15, 1922.

The meeting, reported the Committee, was "a significant event in the history of our movement. We want to hope that it may serve to bring us a good distance closer to our goal in the struggle for liberation that we are engaged in."

On March 18, 1922, the signed petition was finally presented to the Reichstag -- twenty-five years after it was launched. In December, the Reichstag voted to turn it over to the government for consideration. And there it appears to have remained, for, by 1923, the post-war economic and social chaos had reached such a point that the existence of the Committee began to be seriously threatened and the long efforts of the new gay movement that seemed so close to succeed were eclipsed.

Source: The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, Times Change Press, New York, 1974.

Picture: In 1922 the leftist journalist Kurt Hiller published a collection of essays protesting Paragraph 175. The title translates as The Ignominy of the Century.

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