The cover of Die Insel (The Island), December 1930, advertising a serialized instalment of “Men for Sale” | German National Library, Leipzig | 14469
A new book, “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity” by Robert Beachy, documents the history of gay activism in Berlin.
The earliest public demand for gay civil rights was made by lawyer and civil servant Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who addressed the Association of German Jurists in 1867, calling for repeal of antisodomy laws. Ulrichs and his supporters did not prevail in unified Germany, and the newly formed country unfortunately codified these antisodomy laws in 1871 under “Paragraph 175” of the penal code. (The 2000 documentary film “Paragraph 175,” directed by San Francisco filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, deals primarily with Nazi persecution of gay men under the same 1871 law, which they made more extreme. It was not repealed until the late 1960s.)
Things did not go well for Ulrichs, who lost his job, social support and credibility for being so outspoken about the rights of men-loving men. Despite numerous setbacks, Ulrichs continued his advocacy work for decades, publishing a series of pamphlets about the rights and experiences of “Urnings” (gay men) like himself, and blazing a trail for gay rights that would be taken up several decades later, primarily in Berlin.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs | Lloyd Duhaime | 14470
The application of the laws was, shall we say, somewhat versatile in Berlin.
…The late 19th century Berlin police chief, Commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, who created the police Department of Homosexuals in 1885, to prosecute cases under Paragraph 175. Since homosexual prostitution and sexual acts were illegal, but gatherings were not, Hüllessem’s force focused on rounding up actual criminals and monitoring Tiergarten Park and other well-known cruising areas. Homosexual gatherings were allowed to flourish with police monitoring: Gay balls required police permits, gay clubs and taverns were regulated, and the police mingled openly in gay crowds, sometimes acting as tour guides for slumming heteros.
Before the Great War, the relatively tolerant city had a huge number of gay establishments, publications (some with nude photos and personal ads), and other gay businesses, as well as a fair number of male prostitutes, called “warm brothers” in the slang of the day. But not always warm: Berlin’s rent boys frequently turned the tables on their wealthier clients, usually married men, threatening to “out” them as homosexuals unless they received large payoffs, resulting in scandals, lawsuits and the suicides of several prominent citizens. Hüllessem’s division eventually changed its name to the Department of Blackmail and Homosexuals.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was born on 28 August 1825 and died on 14 July 1895.