Pride Month: The Struggle for Gay Rights Before Pride

It’s Pride Month, and to celebrate we’re reaching out to some of our UTP authors and asking them to delve deeper into their books as well as share what Pride might look like this year. In our first post, Javier Samper Vendrell, author of the newly released The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic, looks at the history of gay rights and what lessons can be learned.

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A colleague of mine recently told me about Boys Beware, a short film from 1961 directed by Sid Davis (1916–2006), who produced several social-hygienic films for the Inglewood Police Department and for the city’s school district addressing topics such as the dangers of drugs, alcohol, sex, and homosexuality. Given the film’s relevance to my research, I watched it right away. This ten-minute, black-and-white film portrays the danger homosexual men present to male youths. The first scene shows how something as harmless as hitchhiking can turn lethal. Jimmy, a white teenage boy, “thumbs a ride” after a long day of playing baseball. (A remake from 1973 includes Black youths, if only to make the point that all children are in danger.) A bald, middle-aged man with a thin mustache and sunglasses offers to drive Jimmy home and asks him personal questions; Jimmy answers everything. As expected, the stranger is at the park the following day, waiting for Jimmy. The older man treats him to a Coke, takes him fishing, tells him off-color jokes, and shows him some pornographic pictures. Jimmy feels like something is not quite right, but, like most teenagers, he enjoys being treated like an adult. “What Jimmy did not know,” the ominous narrator reveals to us, is that the man was sick with a “dangerous and contagious” illness: homosexuality. Like all homosexuals, this one is a sexual predator. He offers Jimmy money in exchange for sex. The boy tells his parents about the incident, and they go to the police. It is too late for Jimmy, though: he has been spoiled, potentially forever. The homosexual is arrested, but Jimmy, far from being an innocent victim, has become an accomplice in his own abuse.

The homosexual predators portrayed in the film are cunning: they know how to gain their victims’ trust, how to make them comfortable, and how to get close physically without raising suspicion – with a gentle pat on the back. Kids with street smarts know how to act when a male stranger approaches them; and they know better than to hang out in public restrooms, which are the hunting ground of homosexuals. Youths, we are told, can never be too careful, for homosexuals can “appear normal” and “it might be too late when you discover he is mentally ill.” In the worst cases, the homosexual is murderous. Luckily, the friendly police are there for you. They are the protectors of innocent youth and defenders of family values. Police are responsible not only for policing communities, but also for enforcing heterosexuality and for ensuring that homosexuality does not spread like a disease. Homosexuality in the film is both a public safety and a public health issue.

Indeed, it is a shame that it took me so long to discover this film, given that my book, The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic, looks at the theme of the homosexual predator. The scene in the book is not set in 1960s sunny California, but in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. The focus is not on the seducer, but on how the vibrant homosexual rights movement responded to this homophobic trope. The belief that homosexual men were seducers of youth was supported by scientific opinion. While the well-known sexologist and gay rights advocate Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) argued that homosexuality was inborn and, therefore, could not be transmitted, other doctors argued instead that homosexuality was acquired and that it could spread among youth. Adolescent boys were particularly vulnerable because their sexuality was fluid; if seduced at this stage by a homosexual, their sexuality could be fixed the wrong way. This perhaps surprising position was used to keep sodomy laws on the books in Germany.

The Weimar homosexual rights movement responded to the accusation of seduction. In particular, I study Friedrich Radszuweit (1876–1932), a less well-known figure of the gay rights movement. He was convinced of the power of mass media to change public opinion about homosexuality. Radszuweit thought that popular magazines could tell society the truth about homosexuality. He hoped that his magazines would convince legislators that same-sex acts should be decriminalized. In editorials and in his fiction, Radszuweit stressed that homosexual men were respectable. He believed they could be productive members of society who did not cause public nuisance or behave in a way that could be perceived by heterosexuals as being repulsive, for example, being effeminate or paying for sex. Radszuweit is not a sympathetic character. His respectability politics were exclusionary: only cis, white men could ever be respectable.

More importantly, Radszuweit stressed that respectable gay men were not seducers of youth. Other men in the homosexual movement, such as Adolf Brand (1874–1945), relied on Greek antiquity and the tradition of pederasty to elevate male same-sex desire. Radszuweit stressed that this erotic tradition was worth knowing about, but it was history. Modern homosexuality had nothing to do with intergenerational sex. Radszuweit was also a hypocritical man. His commercial interests conflicted with his respectability politics. He fought for gay rights, but he wanted to sell magazines, too, and he knew that nude photographs of young men sold well. In the end, lawmakers did not buy his argument about respectability. Most people continued to believe that homosexual men were seducers of youth. As Boy Beware illustrates, the belief that homosexual men are sexual predators and pedophiles continued to be just as prevalent in the 1960s on this side of the Atlantic. Anita Bryant’s 1977 coalition Save Our Children relied in part on the presumed threat of homosexual men to children in order to overturn city ordinances banning discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation.

The trope of the homosexual predator might seem like homophobia from the past. Perhaps it is. Yet we are not done dealing with discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people. Queer history can help us in this fight. While Radszuweit’s respectability politics has not aged well, the message of one of his contemporaries, Kurt Hiller (1885–1972), is still relevant today. Hiller envisioned a coalitional gay rights movement. In his view, homosexual men would never be free unless they fought for the freedom of all unprivileged people. This position did not allow for concessions and compromise. In the end, the least privileged fought for all of us. It would take a riot led by trans women of color, including Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992) and Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002), to usher in the gay liberation movement almost forty years later. While there had been prior riots against police harassment of queer communities in Los Angeles in 1959 and in San Francisco in 1966, the riot outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City on 28 June, 1969, received international attention. The LGBTQ+ rights movement gained visibility and a took a more militant stance.

The first gay pride march took place in New York City a year later. We celebrate its legacy every year around the world. While we are not allowed to march in many places this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that we invoke the political spirit of pride. Queer people have experience with disease and state inaction. Queer people from all walks of life came together during the AIDS epidemic and demanded that governments act. The current pandemic and the protests that have emerged after the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the countless others who have died at the hands of white supremacists, make it clear that the contemporary LGBTQ+ rights movement must be intersectional and anti-racist. We must reclaim the spirit of protest and continue fighting, especially now that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting those who were already the most vulnerable; that the rights of trans people are being violated; and that police continue to harass and murder Black people with impunity.

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Click here to find out more about The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic.

PRIDE MONTH SALE

Get 50% off all Queer Studies titles until the end of June including The Seduction of Youth. Click here to view all the titles on sale.