“I [...] may say that if homosexuals in Berlin are now granted such a unique restoration of life, it is mainly due to our enlightening movement, without wanting to be blamed for some of the excesses which have emerged over time,” said Magnus Hirschfield, the founder of the first world gay rights movement, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC) in 1897.

Although elevated, this quote shows that Hirschfield, alongside many other individuals throughout history, has been fighting for equal rights for all sexualities for quite some time now. An understanding of the issues that those who associate with sexualities other than straight have faced throughout history opens up the possibility for progressive change.

Sexuality in the Global Context

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homosexuality was often regarded as an illness or a social disease. However, in Germany, prominent members of the scientific community, including Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfield, argued for one of the first times that being gay or lesbian was not an illness nor a crime. Prior to Hirschfield’s efforts, homosexuality was a topic most people kept in private, especially because identifying as gay or lesbian was considered illegal in many places.

In 1919, the SHC produced a silent film, “Different From the Others,” in which Hirschfield played one of the lobbyists petitioning the end of the penal code against homosexuality. The film received heavy criticism and was eventually banned in 1920 for being “gay propaganda,” but the film succeeded in bringing gay culture into the spotlight.

According to the Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfield website, Hirschfield established Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science in 1919 as well; at the time it was the largest collection of gay studies. The library was later burned to the ground when the Nazis took control in 1930’s.

One of the SHC’s highest goals was to eliminate the section in the German penal code that prohibited sexual relations between two men. The committee established a petition that would force the German Parliament, known as the Reichstag, to abolish the code. The petition was dropped in 1933 due to the Nazi reign.

To this day, being gay is still criminalized in 82 countries across the globe, particularly in Uganda and Russia where Christian persecution of gay individuals is rampant, according to 76 Crimes, a website dedicated to increasing awareness of the prejudice in these countries.

No country in Europe currently has anti-gay laws; however, Russia enacted a law in 2013 prohibiting the discussion of homosexuality when minors are present. Despite this, in April 2014 the Western District Court in Kostroma ruled that LGBT rallies may take place, overturning a lower court’s decision that wouldn’t allow them.

The Middle East and Asia account for 22 of the 82 countries that have anti-gay laws. In India, enforcement of anti-gay laws was suspended temporarily in 2013, however the court later repealed that law. Iraq currently has no anti-gay laws, but violence against gay and lesbian people is widespread and, “Self-appointed sharia judges reportedly have imposed sentences for homosexual behavior,” according to 76 Crimes.

Despite many advances for the gay and lesbian communities, many nations still persecute sexuality in the world. A deeper understanding of these persecutions allows for a more evolved dialogue about these issues.

Sexuality in the United States

In American culture, gay and lesbian rights have often drawn a plethora of both criticism and support for their communities.

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, which measured one’s receptiveness to gay and lesbian behavior on a scale of 0 to 6. According to the Kinsey Institute website, 0 meant exclusively heterosexual and 6 meant exclusively homosexual. The intervals displayed how attracted one was to the same or opposite gender.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) LGBT website, one of the first pro-gay groups was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles. This was the Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. Through the Mattachine Society, authors were able to publish works that represented the gay community and culture.

The Mattachine society even published its own magazine series, titled “One,” which according to the magazine itself was used to promote the “mystic bond of brotherhood.” The magazine was started in 1953 by Don Slater and continued well into the 60s, according to Todd White, an adjunct professor at RIT for anthropology. White has studied the history of gay rights extensively in his fieldwork.

Along with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian movement founded by Phyllis Lyon in 1955, writers and publishers of One were able to reach out to thousands. Many psychologists and sociologists published papers supporting gay culture, some of the most important being “The Homosexual in America” by Donald Webster Cory in 1951 and multiple papers by Dr. Evelyn Hooker. Cory supported the idea that homosexuals are actually considered a minority group in America, where as Hooker found data supporting the idea that gay men were just as competent as or even more so than their heterosexual counterparts.

The Mattachine Society started to lose support in the 60s due to a decrease in public interest in One’s publications as more gay and lesbian people began to disassociate with the identity movement. In 1965, the society split into two groups. The first became the One Institute which failed in 1994 because it claimed it was the oldest archives for gay and lesbian history, which is false. Legally the Institute merged with a different non-profit organization, ceasing to exist in its original form any longer. The other, Tangents, has continued publishing and standing up for gay and lesbian rights into the 21st century.

A major event in the history of LGBT rights occurred in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Gay-bashing,” where police would raid homes and bars and brutally persecute people, was common in the 50s and 60s. When police tried to enter the Stonewall Inn the patrons barricaded themselves inside for three days as a protest.

Riots broke out across the city. Supporters of the Stonewall Inn tried to fight back police who were attempting to arrest the patrons. Prior to the riots, few individuals actually referred to themselves as “gay.” Afterwards, they began to use the term frequently.

According to White, the term has lost its popularity recently in favor of a no-label system. “We’re in a time right now where younger people are questioning the need for these labels,” White said. “Younger people are finding wisdom in the pre-identity movement.” 

In 1973, due to massive backlash from LGBT organizations, the APA removed homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses. This signified a significant victory for these organizations, as it was the reason many gay and lesbian couples were denied employment or child custody rights.

One of the major topics concerning gay rights today is decriminalizing gay marriage. Multiple states have legalized it, but most still refuse to do so. The topic is heavily debated on the national and state levels. Many conservative politicians and religious groups often argue against the movement, labeling it as anti-Christian or amoral, while liberal politicians and support groups tend to sympathize with the movement and push for legislation.