A brief History of Homophobia

It was just short of 25 years ago that a new Germany, keen to be progressive, struck Paragraph 175 out of its Criminal Code and thus – for the first time in Germany’s history – completely decriminalized homosexuality. Two and a half decades later, same-sex marriage is the legal reality in most Western countries. And since 2015, even those puritanical schmucks on the other side of the pond have joined in on the zeitgeist and not even the chauvinist Trump administration is seriously considering opposing it. Have decades of struggle for equal rights and acceptance been successful, with the world slowly but surely coming to sanity? Or are we on the brink of a new turning point back to the barbarism of the 20th century?


In June 2017, a survey on the topic of “marriage for all” was conducted in Austria – not quite a place you’d call a liberal stronghold – and brought to light something amazing: 59 percent of all citizens of that alpine Catholic republic are in favour of equal rights for homosexual couples. Only 25 percent are decidedly against it! Okay, one might also think that this 25 percent were exactly those ranters and ravers who, that next autumn, cast their ballots for the political party that had members openly flirting with Nazism, parties who now, since Christmas of 2017 hold the country’s Vice Chancellorship and a number of important ministries. All across Europe, the far right is on the rise and our beautiful new world will soon be a matter of history. With a shudder, we watch what’s happening in Russia, the great benefactor of all these far-right parties, from Germany’s AfD to FN in France and FPÖ in Austria. It’s impossible to know where this will end. Taking a closer look at that 2017 survey, however, we see the real surprise: among known voters for the FPÖ (the Austrian counterpart to the AfD), 46 percent of them are for same-sex marriage. Another 17 percent have no opinion about it, and “only” 37 percent of far-right voters are pointedly against it – and those numbers are falling! How can that be? Are we, a progressive polyglot minority, actually losing an enemy?


In some ways, the numbers speak for themselves. Yes, it may be that the general tendency towards homophobia is declining – at least in Western industrialized nations. But that still leaves the question of why. Have five decades of Pride activism finally had an effect? Absolutely! History teaches us, however, that momentum can swing to the other direction quite quickly. Just like all values and conventions, the rejection or persecution of homosexuality is always a child of the social order that surrounds it. Homophobia isn’t simply a reflex that can be overcome through enlightenment; it’s concomitant with a particular type of social organization: that of the patriarchy. Because the rule of men over families and communities is by no means a law of nature, this domination requires a varied set of sophisticated rules about what’s sexually permissible and what isn’t. For most of the history of civilization, it was essentially impossible to produce definite proof of biological paternity. And for a society structured around the patrilineal inheritance of power, property, and status, that issue of paternity is a critical one. Whereas motherhood has always been hard to deny, the sperm donor behind a pregnancy could have been any guy who was left alone with the woman of the of the house for five minutes. The only solution to this problem: draconian sanctions for any and all promiscuous behaviour. And the ultimate promiscuity – at least from a patriarchal perspective – is the homoerotic. Because it subverts exactly this possessive sexual morality, one which has been cultivated over centuries to secure male dominance.


That hatred and persecution of homosexuals – as currently seen in Putin’s Russia – is routinely dressed up as a religious issue shouldn’t mislead you. The sociological study of religion, which has often faced persecution itself, argued more a century ago that we actually mean “society” when we say “God”. The entire construct of moral laws and judgements has been fashioned into religion only to lend it a transcendental legitimacy – to make it seem out of our control and thus harder to tear down. Yet this certainly doesn’t mean that the God of the Bible has a monopoly on the persecution of sexual minorities. That blatant homophobia follows a treacherous social logic is best seen in the fascist mass phenomena of the 20th century. In National Socialism, which replaced God with a perfidious and perverse racial ideology, the systematic persecution of homosexuals was frequently justified by the argument that homosexual behaviour didn’t contribute to the continuation of the family and thus the German race and was therefore damaging to the prevailing social order. The maniacal and demented Nazis were also maniacal and demented about homophobia: a small modification to the already-mentioned Paragraph 175 in the German Criminal Code was enough to send tens of thousands of people to a certain death merely for their sexual orientation.


Anybody who believes that the period after 1945 brought about major changes is only partly correct. The Federal Republic of Germany quietly kept Paragraph 175 on the books and continued to persecute and prosecute homosexuals with the help of exactly those “pink lists” used by the Gestapo in its attempts to exterminate them. In order to differentiate itself from National Socialism, the new German republic, alongside the church, which had been marginalized by the Nazis, aimed to revisit the petit bourgeois morals of the Wilhelmine period. In this father-mother-children Wirtschaftswunder ideal, homosexuality, for the reasons described above, had no place. Different system, same nonsense. The sexual revolution and the social upheavals of the late 60s brought about a relaxation of sexual mores, though even in the wild 70s – after the pill and before HIV – it was frequently still problematic to be openly gay or lesbian.


The emergence of a mysterious “gay disease” at the beginning of the 1980s flooded Western industrial nations with hysterical homophobia once again. Until it was discovered, after some time, that becoming infected with HIV can happen to anyone who…well…you already know. A lot has happened since then, not least because broad public discussion about these sexual topics had to be held in order to advance HIV prevention. These actions were led by a number of prominent figures who were openly homosexual and they had a definite mainstreaming effect. However, the 1980s also marked a turning point on a completely different level, the impact of which we can still very much feel today: it was the decade of the neoliberal turn towards the unbounded globalization we all live in today.


So what does this have to do with the history of homophobia? Maybe more than we’d like to think. A fundamental condition of neoliberal ideology is the concept of radical individualism: we are all the architects of our own destinies and we’re all responsible for ourselves. Politically, economically, and culturally, society is no longer envisioned as having a common fate or as being built upon solidarity. Instead, it’s where the powerful are given carte blanche. It’s a free-for-all, with everyone out for themselves. Welcome to the world of the McFit gym franchise, casting shows, zero-hours work contracts, for-profit education, and dating apps. The triumph of individualism has led to a massive erosion of traditional social structures and networks, especially the notion of the family as the basis of community life. And because there can be no patriarchy without families, different sexual orientations have lost some of their potential threat over the last couple of decades – in the West, that is.


So does all this focus on individualism mean everything will be all right? Are we facing a hypertolerant future where everybody’s accepted and respected for who they are? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely that we’re on the cusp of a new turn of events. The beautiful new world of identity politics, in which everyone can proudly just put themselves out there, even highly individual, discriminated-against minority selves, has a nasty downside. When everybody considers themselves to be something really special, their readiness to reach out to others in solidarity fades, and thus the ability to collectively exert political pressure on employers or governments does as well. And this is where it all starts to topple. It’s the people who feel they’ve been taken for a ride by this hyperindividualism who are now voting for the AfD, FN and FPÖ. Because the need for an organized community that once again acts in the interest of the masses is growing. The one thing that far-right voters, from Austria to the US of A, have in common is their desire for smaller-scale, orderly, and authoritarian relationships. At the moment, their attitude towards homosexuality leans towards indifference. But just a spark of this idea of the good old days of racist, chauvinist, nationality-based societies, and we’re back in the 1930s sooner than we can scream “homophobia”.





Text: Klemens Gindl
Bilder: David Meran