Homosexuality in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century

The 19th century showed ambivalent theories about homosexuality.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on July 4th, 2019

Ludwig II of Bavaria. He was called the faery tale king, built famous castles such as Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, South Germany. He loved the music of Richard Wagner and decorated his rooms with pictures from Wagner’s operas. As a king, he lacked the capacity to rule, for he always felt more comfortable living in his sand castles and fantasies. But not only his unworldly attitude disqualified him as king. His sexual desires for other men also made it difficult to marry his fiancée, the Duchess Sophie Charlotte of Wittelsbach. Thus, the marriage never happened. Rumors widespread Ludwig had sexual affairs with young men in his entourage. Although there was no clear evidence the king was homosexual, documents such as his letter where he describes male genitalia in every detail and where he raves about other men, make it difficult to believe he was anything but gay. 

In fact, homosexuality was not a crime in Bavaria at that time, until the forging of the German Reich by the Prussians in 1871. Nevertheless, it was seen as problematic. Scientists such as Sigmund Freud in Vienna and C.G. Jung discussed many theories of sexuality and sexual desire. 

Freud’s famous analysis on fixation of anal sex defines people who prefer anal sex as neurotic, pedantic and parsimonious. But that was in 1905 already when hate on homosexuality increased from year to year. But studying Freud’s whole work on homosexuality, his views remain ambivalent, his definitions of the preference of male/male sex dart back and forth whether it is an illness or not, whether it is normal or not, treatable or not. In a famous letter to a woman who complained about her gay son and asked for advice, he wrote this: 

“I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime –and a cruelty, too.

If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis. By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies, which are present in every homosexual; in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted. 

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains homosexual or gets changed.”

In the first half of the 19th century, the world still looked different. More and more countries decriminalized homosexuality such as the Netherlands, the Empire of Brazil, Portugal, Argentina and the Ottoman Empire. 

In 1869, the word homosexuality was in fact written down and defined for the first time. It appeared in a German-Hungarian pamphlet by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. At that time, scientists declared that homosexuality is to be considered an inborn mental illness which could be cured. This may seem harsh and a step back, but one has to keep in mind gay men were simply put to death for many centuries in world history before. But of course, these theories prepared the path for the cruel crimes by National Socialism and Communism who killed gays in concentration camps. 

The 19th century gave many possibilities as how homosexuality should be treated. For the first time, it was discussed in psychology and not simply dismissed as a crime. Many other societal and political problems, however, led to the disasters of the 20th century. 

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