October 2016.

How did the gay rights movement start?

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Same sex attraction and gender variance have existed in all societies and at all times in human history. However, we can trace the origins of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) rights movement back more than 150 years to the era of burgeoning industrialisation in Germany.

The emergence of the modern city allowed people to escape small towns and villages where anonymity was impossible. Industrialisation reforged gender roles and, for many though not all, provided an individual income that allowed for greater individual freedom. These two factors created a degree of privacy that allowed LGBTQ people to find others like themselves, to congregate at cruising areas or bars out of view from where they lived and worked and to engage in sexual and romantic relationships that would have been impossible in rural areas and small towns.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) was the pioneer of the movement. A German lawyer, he began writing on same-sex attraction from his own experience. He employed many of the hallmarks of modern LGBTQ activism: he produced critical theories of sexuality and gender; he came out publicly; he lobbied lawmakers; and he campaigned on the basis that sexual orientation was merely a variation of human nature. It was merely different, not sinful or abnormal.

His writings were spread by the disciplines of psychology and sexology and spread through academic and professional circles across the Western world. Homosexuality became a talking point. The next generation saw Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) take up Ulrichs’ mantle. Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897, arguably the world’s first gay rights organisation. Primarily, he campaigned for the decriminalisation of sodomy. Other organisations popped up in the Netherlands, the UK and the USA before World War II, and the modern LGBTQ campaigning organisation was born.

It should also be noted that a vital category shift took place too. Prior to the 19th century, homosexuality was mostly understood as sodomy alone. The birth of sexology as a discipline both reflected and reinforced changing understandings of sexuality, reclassifying homosexuality in the mind of the general public as an identity, not merely a practice. It was no longer something you did, it became something you are, an idea which persists to the present day.

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