Kurt Hiller's 1928 Gay Rights Speech
A 1928 Gay Rights Speech Copyright 1995 by John Lauritsen
An important statement in the history of the homosexual rights movement was Kurt Hiller's speech, "Appeal on Behalf on an Oppressed Human Variety", written for the Second International Congress for Sexual Reform (Copenhagen, 1928). Hiller could not afford the trip to Copenhagen, owing to the economic crisis, so the speech was delivered in his stead by Magnus Hirschfeld, the President of the Sexual Reform Congress and the foremost figure in the early homosexual rights movement.
Kurt Hiller, one of the "left intellectuals" of Weimar Germany, was one of the strongest leaders of the German homosexual rights movement -- from 1908, when he joined the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, until 1933, when he was thrown into the Oranienburg concentration camp; he was released nine months later,having nearly died from mistreatment, and went into exile. Hiller died in 1972 at the age of 87.
Much of Hiller's 1928 speech is a defence of homosexuality against the writings of the French Communist Party intellectual,Henri Barbusse, who began in 1926 to expound the notions that homosexuality was the product of decadence in the bourgeois sector of society, a perversion favored by fascism, and so on. This mythology, unsupported by a shred of evidence, came to be the prevailing Stalinist line throughout the world, and it is still spewed out by publications on the left. Barbusse was a pacifist novelist who became editor of l'Humanite in 1926; he authored adulatory biographies of Stalin and Jesus, and sponsored congresses against war and fascism.
Hiller's speech signals the breach between the socialist and homosexual rights movements, whose relationship had for more than three decades been one of mutual support. Not only were socialists the main champions of homosexual rights, but most of the leaders of the gay movement were themselves socialists of one sort or another -- this would include Magnus Hirschfeld, Kurt Hiller, Benedict Friedlaender, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and many others.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 seemed to usher in a new era of freedom as the tsarist laws against homosexuality were struck off the books. By 1928 the sexual legislation of the Soviet Union was held up as a model of enlightenment by the world sexual reform movement. The official Soviet legal philosophy then was to treat homosexual acts exactly the same as heterosexual, providing for punishment only in cases that involved real injury to another person, or the use of force, or the abuse of authority.
However, by 1928 the ideals of Russian Revolution had been left far behind: a gangster bureaucracy led by Stalin was consolidating its power, the Left Opposition had been crushed, Trotsky was sent into exile, and the gains for homosexual freedom were being reversed. In 1934 homosexual acts became criminal once again in the Soviet Union, just as they had been under the tsars. Then came the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, after which Stalin was the only member of Lenin's Central Committee not to have been imprisoned, murdered, or exiled.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they violently destroyed the entire sexual reform movement, including the movement for homosexual rights. Gay men were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where they were known as "the men with the pink triangle". Tens of thousands perished.
Gay men found themselves attacked on all sides, their rights defended by no government in the world. It is bitterly ironical that while the Nazis were attacking homosexuality as "sexual bolshevism", the Communists were attacking it as "the fascist perversion".
In 1921 Kurt Hiller wrote an appeal "to the homosexuals of Germany" for the Action committee of a united front of German gay organizations. It included the following:
In the final analysis, justice for you will be the fruit only of your own efforts. The liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves. (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1974)
Appeal to the Second International Congress for Sexual Reform on Behalf of an Oppressed Human Variety. (Copenhagen 1928)
by Kurt Hiller (translated by John Lauritsen)
Honorable President, distinguished members of the Congress! I thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my thoughts to you -- indirectly; I should have presented them myself in your midst, had my economic situation not prevented me from making the trip to Copenhagen.
I wish to use the international forum you have set up to cry out to the world: From time immemorial there has existed among all peoples an unusual, but otherwise perfectly worthy, harmless, guiltless variety of human being, and this variety -- as if we were still living in the darkest Middle Ages -- is senselessly and horribly persecuted by many peoples, following the lead of their legislators, governments, and courts. Let the intellectual world, the researchers and policy makers of all nations, stand up against this barbarism and demand in the name of humanity: Halt!
The variety of which I speak is that minority of human beings whose love impulses are directed, not towards a member of the other, but rather towards a member of their own sex; these are the so-called homosexuals, Urnings, or inverts.
They are outlawed, it is said, because their feelings and acts are "contrary to nature". However, their feelings and acts are rooted in their constitution, components of their character, something dictated to them by their nature. And since the history of all primitive and all civilized peoples demonstrates that such a minority has existed in all ages, then this fact means that we are obligated to recognize this nature as being indeed perfectly natural -- shocking perhaps, but nothing that deserves either to be denied or defamed. A phenomenon of nature, that is incomprehensible or discomfiting to the majority, does not cease on that account to be a phenomenon of nature.
Same-sex love is not a mockery of nature, but rather nature at play; and anyone who maintains the contrary -- that love, as everyone knows, is intended to serve the propagation of the species, that homosexual or heterosexual potency is squandered on goals other than procreation -- fails to consider the superabundance with which Nature in all her largesse wastes semen, millions and billions of times over. As Nietzsche expressed it in Daybreak, "Procreation is a frequently occurring accidental result of _one_ way of satisfying the sexual drive -- it is neither its goal nor its necessary consequence." The theory which would make procreation the "goal" of sexuality is exposed as hasty, simplistic and false by the phenomenon of same-sex love alone. Nature's laws, unlike the laws formulated by the human mind, cannot be violated. The assertion that a specific phenomenon of nature could somehow be "contrary to nature" amounts to pure absurdity. Nevertheless, this absurd claim has persisted for many centuries in literature and in legislation, and even quite celebrated sex educators have come out with this nonsense.
Just recently, an internationally renowned spokesman of the European left, Henri Barbusse, exhibited his knowledge and brain power must unfavorably when he answered, in response to a circular enquiry on homosexuality (in the Paris magazine, Les Marges, of 15 March 1926): "I believe that this diversion of a natural instinct is, like many other perversions, a sign of the profound social and moral decadence of a certain sector of present-day society. In all eras, decadence has manifested itself in over- refinements and anomalies of the senses, feelings, and emotions."
One must reply to Monsieur Barbusse that this alleged "over- refinement" of which he speaks, uncritically parroting a popular misconception, has always manifested itself just as much at times when a race was on the ascent as when it was in decline; that for example, love between man and youth was no more excluded from the heroic and golden ages of Ancient Greece, than it was from the most illustrious period of Islamic culture, or from the age of Michelangelo; and that a Marxist is making a fool if himself when he tries to connect the homosexuality of the present with the class struggle, by pointing to it as a symptom of the "moral decadence" of "a certain sector" of society, namely the bourgeois sector: as though same-sex love did not occur among proletarians of all kinds -- among workers, peasants, employees, little people in all occupations -- just as much as among the possessing classes.
The experience of sexologists and psychotherapists proves the contrary. Nature does not stop at any social class when creating her marvelous varieties of human beings. It is true that the proletariat as a rule has less time and means than the propertied class to devote to the pursuit of sexual pleasure, even to the sublime forms of sublimated eroticism; and this is one reason which, among many others, leads -- or ought to lead -- the fighter for human happiness towards socialism. But this is just as true for the broad mass of proletarians considered heterosexual as for the minority considered homosexual.
The public hears much less about the homosexuality of the modest little people than it does about that of the luxury circles of the big bourgeoisie, but it would be extremely superficial to infer on this basis that homosexuality is some kind of monopoly of the bourgeoisie. One must realize, rather, that the outlawing of same-sex eros strikes the homosexual proletarian even harder than the homosexual capitalist, because the capitalist has the resources at his disposal to evade it more easily.
At any rate, the homosexually inclined worker owes little gratitude to Monsieur Barbusse when he attacks the alleged "complacency" with which some authors place their "delicate talents" at the service of the homosexual question, "while our old world convulses in terrible economic and social crises", venomously asserting that their doing so "does no honor to this decadent intellectual phalanx" and that it "can only reinforce the contempt which the young and healthy popular force feels for the advocates of this unhealthy and artificial doctrine."
The "terrible economic and social crises" in which the world is "convulsing" apparently prevent Monsieur Barbusse from relinquishing a prejudice he shares with the most backward people of all nations. The Emperor Napoleon and his Chancellor Cambaceres were more revolutionary four generations ago, when they freed homosexual acts from the penal code, than this revolutionary of today. Barbusse sings the same moralizing tune on this matter, of which he understands nothing, as the most reactionary ministers in the German government when their "theme" is to draft bills on matters of which they likewise understand nothing. "Contempt", "healthy popular force", "unhealthy doctrine" -- we have long heard phrases like these from the conservative and clerical jurists of the Wilhelminian era.
At this moment, when Soviet Russia has abolished the penalties on homosexual acts (per se); when fascism is on the rise, appearing in Italy for the first time in generations; when reaction and progress are locked in furious combat over the homosexual question in Germany and several other countries; along comes Comrade Barbusse, member of the Third International. Unburdened by any relevant knowledge, he delivers a bigoted, agitational tirade against a species of human being that is already sufficiently agitated against, and he unscrupulously stabs in the back those who are waging a good fight on behalf of freedom, even if by its nature the cause is unpopular. I regret that I find it necessary to speak the truth so bluntly to a master whose poetry and political-philosophy I once admired; but the higher someone stands, who disseminates false and reactionary theories, the more sharply he must be rebutted, for his theories are all the more dangerous.
It is not true that homosexuality is a sign of "decadence" or something pathological. Men of glowing physical health, of undeniable mental soundness, and of great intellectual powers have been bearers of this inclination -- just as often as have been the weak, the unstable, and the inferior. There are inferior, average and superior homosexuals -- exactly as there are inferior, average and superior heterosexuals. To belong, not to the rule, not to the "norm", but rather to the exception, to the minority, to the variety, is neither a symptom of degeneration nor of pathology. Likewise, having red hair is neither decadent nor sick.
If it is true that there are higher percentages of the mentally weak, the eccentric, the unbalanced, the hypersensitive and the hypertense among homosexuals than among those oriented in the usual way, the blame should not be placed on the predisposition, but rather upon the circumstances in which these people find themselves: one who lives constantly under the onus of attitudes and laws that stamp his inclination as inferior, must be of an unusually robust nature to retain his full worth in every respect. If the terrible weight of contempt and persecution that bears down on homosexuals were to be lifted from them, the neurotic traits within would to the same degree vanish, and then the intrinsic creative worth of their nature, especially the pedagogical ability of which Plato wrote, would come into play. It is necessary to incorporate homosexuals in the general culture of society, to assign homosexuality a place in society where it can act productively, for it has its own fertility. Hellas, and above all sparta, understood this and knew how to draw the practical conclusions from this knowledge.
But before homosexuality can be assigned this positive and even sublime role in the state, which corresponds to its particular character and at the same time is of service to the state, we must first carry out a negative, liberating and humanitarian action directed against the worst injustice: that the public outlawry, under which this variety suffers, must be abolished in all countries. To be sure, it is not just the penal code that is involved, but it is the penal code that must be dealt with first.
Homosexual acts committed by fully competent and mutually consenting adults are still punished in England (one may recall the tragedy of Oscar Wilde); and in the United States, along with Argentina and Chile; in Germany and Austria; in several Scandinavian, East-European and Balkan countries; and also in the German Canton of Switzerland -- only homosexual women are for the most part privileged. In these countries, the threat of a long prison sentence is real. The German draft penal code of 1925 provides for a maximum of ten years in the penitentiary!
It is not society in these countries which profits thereby, but rather the tribe of blackmailers, and thousands of socially valuable lives are ruined. Despite Monsieur Barbusse, France, and along with France the great majority of Latin countries, no longer have the penalty; likewise the Islamic countries, China and Japan do not have it; and the Soviet Union, as I have already mentioned, has abolished it.
It is clear that socially harmful conduct in the sphere of same-sex love should remain punishable to the same degree as socially harmful conduct in the sphere of opposite-sex love; that therefore the free sexual self-determination of adults and the inexperience of sexually immature youth should be protected by law, and that the misuse of economic or official dependence for lascivious purposes should be forbidden, as well as indecent behavior in public places -- with complete parity between heterosexual and homosexual acts. If anyone claims that the homosexual liberation movement would like to see _Carte_Blanche_ given to unrestrained and anti-social debauchery, or that such liberation would place the interests of the abnormal above the interests of society -- then he is lying. The interests of society come first; but I question whether the interests of society demand that human beings be thrown in prison, disgraced and ruined socially, for acts that harm no one, merely because their erotic taste differs from that of the majority. I question whether the interest of society is served when a minority of its members are forced through severe penalties into lifelong sexual abstinence or chronic self-gratification (the situation imposed upon convicts serving life sentences) -- a minority which, we know, causes not the slightest harm by following its own nature. That child molesters or homosexual lust-murderers should be protected is not the thrust of my argument.
Prudishness, along with false and monstrous notions about the forms that same-sex love-making takes, prevents a general public discussion of the problem -- especially in countries where it is most needed. And even more than prudishness: the apathy of those not personally involved, both in the masses and among the intelligentsia. One must have a great sense of justice and noblesse to take on the cause of a persecuted minority to which one does not personally belong. But fortunately there are still a certain a number of people distinguished by such fairness. These people comprehend that an age in which concern for national minorities is so extraordinarily keen and active must find the courage to protect a minority which, to be sure is not an ethnic one, but which can be found in all states, and is especially deserving of protection, since there is no state in the world where they are the majority and with which they, like the national minorities, could identify. International minority rights, which are slowly taking shape, should defend not only the national, the racial and the religious minorities, but also the psycho- biological, the sexual minorities, so long as they are harmless; and if the Second International Congress for Sexual Reform chooses to speak out in favor of these ideas, it would be a courageous act of ethical rationality.
NOTES 1. Kurt Hiller believed that the inclination towards homosexuality, or the homosexual disposition, is largely determined by heredity -- hence his terms, "variety", "constitution" (Veranlagung), "biological minority", and so on. Hiller was not, however, in the camp of Carl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, who considered homosexuals to be a "third sex" or an "intermediate sex". In other writings, Hiller emphasized that all types of men, including the most robust and virile, could be homosexually inclined.
While constitutional factors undoubtedly influence sexual orientation, modern scientific knowledge requires us to consider the potential for homosexual behavior, as well as the potential for heterosexual behavior, a component in the makeup of nearly all people. The Kinsey studies in particular show that "homosexuals" and "heterosexuals" are not two discrete categories, but rather that a gradual continuum exists between those who exhibit only heterosexual and those who exhibit only homosexual behavior.
2. That is to say, sexual acts between women are not subject to criminal penalties.
Lauritsen, John and Thorstad, David,
The Early Homosexual Rights Movement(1864-1935), New York 1974.
The Pink Triangle:The Nazi War Against Homosexuals, New York, 1986.