Beginning in 1871, Germany had a law known as Paragraph 175 that criminalized male homosexual behavior with six months in prison. The law was widely ignored in Weimar Germany, especially in Berlin, during the liberal inter-war period from 1919 to 1933.
During this time, sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, a gay Berlin Jew, led efforts to abolish Paragraph 175; helped to establish the world’s first gay-rights organizations; coined the word ‘transvestite;’ set up facilities for surgical gender transition; and was a leader in a vibrant LGBTQ social and intellectual scene.
Transvestites, the term used then to refer to transgender people, could apply for government documents to appear in public dressed as they chose, without fear of political or criminal reprisals. Before these “transvestite passes,” they could be arrested for appearing in a manner that would “disturb the peace.”
However, during the Nazis’ 12-year regime, 1933-1945, as many as 5,000 to 10,000 gay men were rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps. An estimated 60 percent of them died of torture, including castration, starvation, and disease.
Shortly after coming to power, the Nazis almost immediately toughened Paragraph 175. The law originally forbade behavior. The new version made it a crime if a man even looked at another man with “sexual intent.” Punishment for violating 175 went from six months in prison to five years.
Although Paragraph 175 focused on men, gender-nonconforming people were often labeled as spies and saboteurs and they, too, were arrested and imprisoned. Lesbians suffered as well; lesbian bars were shut down, lesbian communities were disrupted, and lesbian book clubs and social groups were forbidden. Some lesbians were imprisoned as “asocials,” political dissidents, and members of other outlawed groups.
What happened after the war
Paragraph 175 remained on the books throughout the war – and after. Research shows that from 1949 to 1969, an additional 50,000 people were arrested for violating the law.
Paragraph 175 wasn’t repealed until 1994, nearly half a century after the war ended. And although restitution had been made to Holocaust survivors and their descendants, persecuted people from the LGBTQ community were among the many “forgotten” victim groups.
In 2017 the German government finally annulled all convictions made under Paragraph 175 and agreed to pay restitution to those who had been convicted or jailed. The policy was broadened in 2019 to include people who had been investigated, taken into custody, or otherwise penalized.
It took 150 years to redress, at least financially, the wrongs of Paragraph 175. But the harm of the labeling, the persecution, the trauma, and the stigma cannot be undone.
America today: a shadow of Paragraph 175?
More than 80 laws against transgender people have been passed so far in 2021 or are pending in state legislatures across the country. These bills have not been initiated by concerned constituents. They are initiated and supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has been listed as an LGBTQ hate group since 2016.
The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as an organization that, “based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities, has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” Sexual orientation and gender identity are, indeed, immutable characteristics.
The ADF asserts that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy society. The ADF seeks to dehumanize LGBTQ+ people and to restrict their rights for being who they are.
For the past several years, there has been a shocking spike in incitement and in acts of direct violence, including murder, of LGBTQ people.
June is Pride Month. It is time to reflect on people like Magnus Hirschfield, who eventually fled from Germany and Nazi persecution, and on the many thousands who suffered then and those who are suffering now, because of their “immutable characteristics.” Are today’s state laws leading us down the path of a Paragraph 175?
World Without Genocide, a human rights organization located at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul, is hosting a webinar on June 9, 7 to 9 p.m. CDT, “The Pendulum of LGBTQ Rights in the Public and in the Courts.” Registration is required by June 8. $10 general public; $5 seniors, students; $25 Minnesota lawyers for 2 Elimination of Bias CLE credits. Continuing education certificates for all teachers, nurses, and social workers.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)