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Article written by Maya Vukovska

Although the word ‘homosexual’ had a different connotation a hundred years ago, it doesn’t mean there were no homosexuals, only that they were called by far more pejorative names: poofters, fairies, sissies, sodomites, Uranists… And as you can imagine, it wasn’t always hunky-dory to be gay in the old days. If you just remember what happened to one of the greatest minds of the century, Oscar Wilde, you’ll get the overall picture. Although old Europe had been going through some exciting new times of industrial and social progress, people’s attitudes were not changing at the same pace. The society was still very misogynistic and, of course, homophobic. Gayness was, in fact, so hated and dreaded, that one of the first books with an implicit gay personage, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, was censored before being published.

(And just as a disclaimer, we're going limit to our discussion here to Western nations for the sake of brevity.)

In Victorian England, there were rigid laws prohibiting not only “indecent” acts with same sex partners in public, but gay sex behind closed doors was also considered criminal offence. The severe persecution of homosexual people, however, couldn’t prevent the emergence of a gay subculture in the 1890s. The Decadence movement, which was especially huge within the academic circles, enthusiastically promoted the “Greek” type of relations between men. At the very end of the 19th century, an attempt to classify “normal” and “perverse” sexual practices led to the identification of the “third” sex, which back then was called “sexual inversion”. The most famous account of the gay sexual life in this century was My Secret Life by an anonymous author, going by the name of “Walter”. As it comes clear from his memoirs, the guy had an insatiable sexual appetite, and a preference for very young male prostitutes. In London, there were underground venues, and, alas!, these were the only places where the flaming queens could feel safe and happy.

As for lesbianism, it was for a long, long time considered an “especially repulsive French vice”.

Which brings us to 19th-century France.

Olh-la-la, La Belle Époque! It definitely brought Paris the reputation that it has successfully maintained until today - that of the bohemian and erotic capital of the West. The city became a refuge for both straight and gay men who were looking for sexual freedom. Gay men of means from all over the country (and Europe!) would come to Paris “to live and let live” (but don’t talk about it). At some point gay immigration to the French capital got so intense that the openly gay citizens were estimated to be 11% of the population!

In the brothels, men were far more open to experiment with various sexual practices than they are today! There were also gay gathering places, in parks, public gardens, and forests. Gay nights and drag balls became extremely popular during the jazz era in the 1920s. And when Nazis invaded Berlin in the 1930s, Paris became even a more important and attractive center for the LGBT life in Europe.

But do not get ahead of yourself and clap for Paris. The country we should be truly admiring in this context is Germany. German doctors were the first to pioneer same-sex love by publishing case studies of homosexuality in the 1850s. The doctors’ conclusion was that homosexuality should not be viewed as perversion and sickness of the mind. What’s more, the remarkably free German press helped spread that idea into popular culture. On May 14th, 1897, German physician Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which happens to be the world’s first official organization advocating LGBT rights.

High five for our German bros!

As for the USA… Well, being so-called "sexually deviant "in some Native American tribes was reasonably accepted. But outside the reservations, no women’s rights, no gay rights, no minority rights were existing. The problem was that the 19th-century USA society was imitating the morally and sexually frustrated British society, and this, together with the fact that the Americans were very religious and very righteous, made it all very hard for those who were… different.

Long story short, being gay in America in 19th century sucked. As it did, obviously, in most parts of the rest of the world.

Fun Fact #1: The first country ever to decriminalize homosexual acts was the Netherlands, and that happened in 1811.

Fun Fact #2: The USA did the same thing. But ONLY 192 years later.

Good job, everyone!

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