While we argue that tossing the “gay” label onto historical figure is problematic, this doesn’t mean that the gay identity was a solely 20th Century invention, or that gay history starts with Stonewall. Meet some of the gay and lesbian forebearers who fought for your rights.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Possibly the very first person to “come out,” in 1867 Hanoverian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Congress of German Jurists in Munich asking for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down, but spent the rest of his life writing about and advocating for gay rights (though his preferred term was “Urning” derived from Plato’s Symposium). It’s fascinating to look back at the arguments he makes, for they are the same as the ones we make today. Take this small bit from 1870’s Araxes: A Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from the Penal Law:
“The prohibition of the expression of the sex drive, i.e., between consenting adults in private, lies outside the legal sphere. All grounds for legal prosecution are lacking in this case. Legislators are hindered from doing this by human rights and the principle of the constitutional state. The legislator is hindered by the laws of justice, which forbid applying a double standard. As long as the Urning respects guidelines [against the seduction of male minors, violation of civil rights (by force, threat, abuse of unconscious people, etc.), and public indecency), the legislator may not prohibit him from following the rightful law of nature to which he is subject.”
George Cecil Ives
Presaging Act Up! by more then a century, Englishman George Cecil Ives fought for “The Cause” of homosexual rights and, believing that they could never be achieved in open society formed the secret Order of Chaeronea, named after the battle where the Sacred Band of Thebes, made up of homosexual lovers, was finally annihilated. When not engaging in pseudo-Masonic fun and calling Walt Whitman “The Prophet,” Ives used the society, which grew to worldwide proportions to present papers arguing for the rights of gays and lesbians. He fastidiously studied and collected gay imprisonments, trials, treatments and the day’s discussions on sex and gender.
In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee to repeal Germany’s Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality. His arguments would today be considered homophobic (he advocated compassion for gays in the same manner that “cripples” deserved fairness), and some members left the organization over his characterization of gays as being inherently deficient. However, Hischfield made achieving gay and lesbian equality his life’s work and would out closeted gay member’s of the Reichstag who didn’t support his repeal. Hirschfeld’s work in Germany came to an end with the Nazis’ rise to power, but he escaped and spent the rest of his life publishing papers and speaking out for gay rights.
While West was not gay, she is an indisputable early gay rights activist. In 1927, she had become a prolific playwright as well as actor and her play, The Drag, which dealt frankly with homosexuality (and which referenced the works of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs) was a hit in Connecticut and New Jersey, though the Society for the Prevention of Vice prevented it from playing on Broadway. West used her plays to talk about sex, gender and identity and treated the question of sexuality as a basic fundamental human right. Though always scandalous, West used her ability to excite the mind as much as the lower parts the body.