A crowd of cartoon people celebrating Pride, with LGBTQ+ history

LGBTQ+ History: LGBTQ+ Rights before Stonewall

It is fair to say that the LGBTQ+ Rights movement which unfurled following the Stonewall Riots of 1969 has been the most impactful of these movements for LGBTQ+ people in the West during the late 20th and 21st Centuries, shaping – or, at least, trying to shape – the way we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. The liberation movement sparked by the Stonewall riots was not the first attempt made at advancing LGBTQ+ Rights, however. Following the French Revolution of 1789 and the rise of Napoleon, “sodomy”, officially defined as any sexual act that was not procreative yet unofficially synonymous with homosexuality, became ‘legal’ across the European continent as a result of an oversight in the writing of the law which also failed to criminalise bestiality and other crimes of alleged sexual deviance. To further understand the discourse surrounding LGBTQ+ Rights before Stonewall, we should turn to two relatively forgotten figures in the narrative of LGBTQ+ History: John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).

John Addington Symonds was an Oxford classicist who spent much of his life contemplating the prevalence of homosexuality within centuries’ worth of writing  history. He was not the first of his kind to do this, being a part of a contemporary intellectual culture amongst Oxford dons which was discretely interested in the Classical practice of “pederasty”, or the often sexual relationships conducted between older men and adolescent boys which was seen as acceptable when conducted in upper-class contexts under the veneer of mentorship (Orrels, 2011). What distinguishes Symonds from his potentially, however, is that he used his studies to form the basis of a theory for the legal and social equality of homosexuals or “inverts” as his Victorian contemporaries referred to them.

By modern standards, Symonds’ ideas are abhorrently classist and misogynistic. His first work on the subject of homosexuality in Antiquity was his A Problem in Greek Ethics, written in 1873 but not published until 1883 and even then only for a close-knit group who already knew about, and potentially shared, Symond’s homosexuality and so were not going to have him prosecuted. Admittedly, this isn’t a thrilling read unless you’re interested in the intricacies of Ancient Greek literature, but his overall point is revealing. In defending homosexuality between two upper-class traditionally masculine men, rather than in the form of the pederasty, he points to the way Greek civilizations celebrated and interpreted Achilles and Patroclus and other heroic “friendships” as representative homosexual models and Symonds holds this concept up as an integral part of the Greek, and therefore the greatest civilization in history. This is due to the role this type of male homosexuality, with its emphasis on military prowess, has within a patriarchal system; by rejecting femininity as barbarics even in partners, these homosexual men become not merely the best commanders but also, therefore, the best politicians. Homosexuality, for some elements of Greek society and for Symonds, is represented a misogynistic way of keeping power between men.

These controversial views do not prevent him from holding some which seem remarkably progressive when we look back. For example, he reminds the reader of the “universality of unisex indulgence in all parts of the world and all conditions of society”. He writes that lesbians have and always will exist and that the lack of documentation of their relationships and lifestyles must be instead attributed to the fact that they do not work to uphold the kind of patriarchal society which ancient history-writing has been primarily concerned with. He also suggests that homoerotic literature, with its impossible and unspeakable love, is comparable to Medieval courtly literature such as that produced by Dante or Petrarch, claiming that “the one veiled sodomy, the other adultery”.

The followup to this came in the form of A Problem in Modern Ethics, published posthumously in 1896. As well as carrying on with his queer readings of literature, predating the literary theorist and author of The Epistemology of the Closet, a trailblazing piece of Queer Theory, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick by nearly a century, Symonds systematically refutes all the major sexologists working at the time. Even more radically, he ends the book with a call for the legalisation of homosexuality, submitting that Victorian “inversion” is a biological rather than taught behaviour; he also highlights the impracticalities of policing homosexuality and the fact that the contemporary illegality of homosexuality went against Britain’s supposed love of individual freedom. When Symonds died, however, his publisher burned many of his works and the family prevented any further editions of already printed works, meaning his influence was restricted to those who knew him for over half a century. Homosexuality was not legalised for another seventy-one years.

While Symonds was an important pioneer in his field, the overall impact of his privately-produced polemics pales in comparison to that of Magnus Hirschfeld. After opening the Institute of Sexology in Berlin in 1919, Hirschfeld redefined sexology as a eugenicist’s pseudoscience to a field concerned with individuals who defied heteronormativity. Hirschfeld’s ideas were derived from Darwinism, most notably the idea that no mammal is ever strictly male or female or strictly heterosexual; rather, he suggested, everyone’s sex, gender and sexuality are distinct from those of anyone else. This was branded the “third-sex theory” by contemporary journalists and scholars, but this phrase was never used by Hirschfeld himself, with modern scholars and translators preferring “sexual intermediaries”.

During the interwar period, Hirschfeld became a celebrity and his Institute famous. Christopher Isherwood describes the museum as having:

“whips and chains and torture instruments designed for the practitioners of pleasure-pain; high-heeled, intricately decorated boots for the fetishists; lacy female undies which had been worn by ferociously masculine Prussian officers beneath their uniforms. Here were the lower halves of trouser legs with elastic bands to hold them in position between knee and ankle. In these and nothing else but an overcoat and a pair of shoes, you could walk the streets and seem fully clothed, giving a camera-quick exposure whenever a suitable viewer appeared.”

Hirschfeld’s Institute was far from just a tourist attraction. Here, Hirschfeld and his students both studied and gave therapy to thousands of people who would fall today under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. This kind of research and investigation represented a far more scientific, practical and inclusive form of activism than that which Symonds had practiced, with members of the Institute fighting vociferously for the legalisation of homosexuality throughout Germany, which came close to passing in the Reichstag in 1929, but the vote was first post-poned and eventually cancelled all together due to the Wall Street Crash. Germany didn’t legalise homosexuality until 1968 in the East and 1969 in the West.

Hirschfeld fled Germany for France in 1933 as the incumbent Nazi regime burned both his Institute and his life’s work to ashes as a part of its relentless campaign towards censorship, everything from individual patients’ notes and the museum Isherwood described to ongoing academic research. Hirschfeld died in 1935, but one of his top students, Alfred Kinsey, went on to found an institute of his own after the Second World War, advancing on his tutor’s work through to the second half of the 20th Century.

Overall, while it is true that neither Symonds nor Hirschfeld accomplished as much as the modern LGBTQ+ Rights movement, they did help to pave the way both for the science and for the way LGBTQ+ people view the past. Symonds, though far from perfect, ought to be better recognised in British history especially as one of the first individuals to be published, albeit on a small scale, arguing in favour of the legalisation of homosexuality in his home country and as an early writer of queer theory. Hirschfeld’s theories deserve to be noted, too – his ideas surrounding gender and sexuality should be considered visionary. Perhaps more importantly, however, they collectively demonstrate that the story of LGBTQ+ liberation is not always linear nor guaranteed. Symond’s family attempted to keep all of his writings private after his death, and some were not discovered until more than a century after his death; similarly, it would take Europe until the 1970s to get back to the level of research into gender and sexuality which Hirschfeld operated at in the 1920s.


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Symonds, John Addington, 1901. A problem in Greek ethics, being an inquiry into the phenomenon of sexual inversion, addressed especially to medical psychologists and jurists, England.