Communist states have sometimes been havens for LGBTQ rights

To some Americans, these developments might seem at odds with the country’s communist history. After all, Fidel Castro’s government interned gay people in camps in the 1960s and sent HIV-positive people to government sanitariums in the 1980s. wrote of the American left in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “it is remarkable that [liberal] could look at the Castros’ history on race and sexuality and conclude that they had common values.

It’s common for American commentators to use queer people to discredit socialism — a kind of reverse pinkwashing. But it flattens the historical relationship between queer politics and communism. By focusing only on the homophobic elements of communism, this rhetoric ignores the truly impressive strides some communist regimes have made on queer rights (and documents long histories of LGBTQ intolerance in non-communist countries). A closer examination of this history shows us that communism and homosexuality could in fact go hand in hand.

Sexuality was not a concern of early communist theorists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, had little to say on the subject. What they did was contemptuous.

But other early leftists weren’t so dismissive. August Bebel, leader from 1892 to 1913 of the German Social Democratic Party, the largest socialist party in Europe, was a strong supporter of the legalization of homosexuality. He even spoke in the German parliament in 1898 to demand the repeal of the country’s sodomy law. Similarly, after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, they introduced a modern penal code in 1922 which abolished the Russian sodomy law. In the 1920s, communist and socialist parties were often proponents of legalizing homosexual acts.

The mid-20th century, however, witnessed a backlash. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s regime recriminalized male homosexuality and imprisoned thousands of homosexuals under the new law. Communist supporters also came to view accusations of homosexuality as a convenient way to smear their right-wing enemies. Famous gay author Klaus Mann, an exiled opponent of Hitler’s government, complained in 1934 that gay people were becoming “the Jews of anti-fascists” – the left’s favorite scapegoat. Homosexuals and lesbians were not only convenient targets, whose persecution allowed communists to present themselves as morally superior to their enemies. By transgressing gender and sexual norms, they do not fit well with the increasingly macho philosophy of communist parties and regimes.

This repressive tendency continued after the Second World War. Russia will not decriminalize homosexuality until 1993. Other communist states tightened laws against homosexuality after the war. Even more tolerant countries like Poland did not support queer activism either. When gay activists began to organize in 1980s communist Poland, the government suppressed a mass action known as Operation Hyacinth, likely fearing what it perceived as organized resistance to the government.

But in other communist countries, homosexuals have made remarkable progress. Records and oral histories reveal that for many gay and lesbian people in East Germany during the Cold War, the Communist nation was a more open and tolerant place than many Western states. These obscure stories run counter to the rhetoric that suggests communism and homosexuality are irreconcilable against each other.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, East Germany pursued a much more tolerant policy than West Germany. Its Democratic twin retained the Nazi-era law criminalizing homosexuals. East Germany reverted to a much less strict version, building on the German Communist Party’s historic support for decriminalization.

The difference was striking; while West Germany sentenced more than 50,000 men between 1949 and 1969 of homosexuality, East Germany convicted only a tiny fraction of that number. At the same time, it began liberalizing its penal code long before West Germany, largely ceasing to prosecute consensual adult homosexuality in 1957. Other Soviet bloc countries also decriminalized homosexuality in the post-war decades: Czechoslovakia in 1962, Hungary in 1961 and Bulgaria. in 1968.

This relative tolerance allowed queer subcultures to flourish in East Germany, especially in its major cities. Gay people strolled for sex in bathhouses and parks, while some bars tacitly catered to queer clientele. House parties have become a staple of the queer scene over these years. In her memoir, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps the most famous trans woman in German history, recalls going to lively parties in Berlin full of queer East Germans.

In the 1970s, a group of gay men and lesbians began meeting in East Berlin, determined to carve out a public space for themselves. Hosted by von Mahlsdorf in the basement of the museum she ran, the group peppered the communist regime with petitions. They asked the leaders to agree to open a communication center for gay and lesbian citizens, a space where they could meet freely, discuss their sexuality and educate the East German public. The group was largely unsuccessful, as the government remained skeptical of the need for such public engagement.

But in the 1980s, other gay and lesbian activists began to organize under the auspices of the Protestant Church, the only nominally independent organization in the country. Town after town new groups sprang up – more than a dozen across the small country (East Germany had a smaller population than Florida). They forced the regime to take them seriously, and eventually it decided that the best way to defuse the potential political challenge posed by queer activism was to accept the groups’ demands. He did so, in part, because activists had framed their demands adamantly in terms of the needs of socialism, stressing that creating greater opportunities for queer East Germans would only strengthen their commitment to communism. .

In a short time, the dictatorship enacted a series of liberal policies, from allowing homosexuals to serve in the military, to equalizing the age of consent, to commissioning new books and films on the subject. ‘homosexuality. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that it would strengthen socialist society by better integrating queer people into it and dismantling social homophobia.

As a result, the 1980s were a truly remarkable time for queer East Germans, what one of my interview partners called “the most beautiful gay period”. When the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, many of these gay men and lesbians expressed a sense of loss. They felt alienated from the Western consumerist gay subculture. While the growing subculture in the East had made many of them feel more closely aligned with the communal socialist project, the West German subculture revolved around a highly individualized identity and human right. express commercially.

Other Eastern Bloc countries were also queer defiant. Hungary had long been known as a gay and lesbian friendly place, with its capital city Budapest considered the Amsterdam of Eastern Europe. Prague was also a top destination for gay vacationers behind the Iron Curtain. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, gay and lesbian activists also made efforts to organize in the 1980s and convinced the respective communist regimes to change social regulations.

The history of homosexuality and communism is not simply that of repression. It contains both moments of ambiguity and real breakthroughs – breakthroughs that have often overtaken the supposedly freer West. At a time when the left is still debating whether identity or class is the best basis on which to build progress and whether socialism can be reconciled with a politics of the margins, it is important to remember that socialism and queerness have and can once again walk hand in hand. in the hand.

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