The right to love: European LGBTQ+ icons and their impact on LGBTQ+ history

, by Rhiannon Erdal

The right to love: European LGBTQ+ icons and their impact on LGBTQ+ history
From top left, clockwise: Carla Antonelli, Nikolay Alexeyev, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld and Phyll Opouku-Gyimah. Images of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs were unavailable. Credit: Creative commons.

For this year’s UK LGBT+ history month, The New Federalist is taking the opportunity to look back on historical moments and iconic figures in the European fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as exploring contemporary LGBTQ+ politics and filmic representation.

With anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination on the rise in Europe, LGBT+ history month provides us with an occasion to look back on the long and difficult journey that the LGBTQ+ community have taken in order to gain more rights and come closer to achieving equality. LGBTQ+ activists have played a prominent role in European history and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights across the continent. We remember these icons by celebrating their historical impact and contribution to this struggle, a struggle to realise some of the founding principles of the EU: human rights, dignity and equality.

Nikolay Alexeyev, Russia

French LGBT magazine, Tetu dubbed Nikolay Alexeyev a “stubbornly persistent” LGBT rights campaigner. As the founder and chairman of Moscow pride, the founder and head of LGBT Human Rights Project Russia, and Vice-President of the committee for the International Day Against Homophobia, this was a well-deserved title.

Alexeyev has fought for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people in Russia and Belarus for decades. His victories include the legalisation of blood donation from homosexual men, the first legislation to be changed to the benefit of the Russian LGBTQ+ community since the legalisation of consensual homosexual acts. Following this, he brought forward and won the first case of LGBTQ+ human rights violations in Russia to the European Court of Human Rights, regarding the prohibition of LGBT Pride.

Alexeyev has done much to bring international attention to the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, and as such he is known as the most outspoken Russian LGBTQ+ rights activist. This is a testament to his courage to stand up for equality in “the face of unusually fierce homophobia”, a climate riddled with high rates of LGBT discrimination, violence and oppression.

Carla Antonelli, Spain

Although Spain was the third country in the world to legalize gay marriage, they dragged their feet on the issue of transgender self-identity law. This inaction spurred Carla Antonelli to threaten a hunger strike, bringing international attention to the issue which led to the government’s adoption of the Gender Identity Law. A few years later she then went on to become the first openly transgendered person in a Spanish legislative body.

In compliment to her politics, Antonelli has also dedicated herself to raising awareness about transgender issues, and increasing transgender media visibility. Following the end of Franco’s fascist regime which outlawed homosexuality and being transgender, Antonelli was a trail blazer in the gradual cultural and political shift to democracy and equal rights.

Within this framework, Antonelli recorded a documentary on transgender issues a few years after Franco’s death. She then portrayed a transgender woman in a tv show, El síndrome de Ulises, the first of its kind in Spain, and most recently she starred in a documentary on the difficulties faced by transgender children. Each of these have served to translate political and legal changes into wider cultural representation and acceptance. As Antonelli notes, her mission is to “be herself”, “be active” and “break stereotypes”.

Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, Germany

In the early 20th century, Hirschfeld was the first physician to openly carry out research into the science of gender identity, as well as the first surgeon to carry out gender reassignment surgery. He also founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first group to advocate for gay and transgender rights with the motto “through science towards justice”. His work revolutionised the way we think about sexuality by dispelling the myth that being gay or transgender is a choice or a result of ‘degeneracy’, revealing the scientific basis for sexuality and gender identity.

When asked about his motivations Hirschfeld referenced the climate in which he found himself: a time where being gay or transgender led to imprisonment and execution. Moreover, he witnessed the impact that anti-LGBTQ+ ideology had on its victims, with many of his patients tragically committing suicide. One such patient wrote that “the thought that you [Hirschfeld] could contribute [to] a future when the German Fatherland will think of us in more just terms sweetens the hour of my death”.

Hirschfeld also wrote the first film portraying a gay lead, ‘Different from the Others’, which directly challenged the criminalisation of homosexual identity in Germany, and made multiple references to the suicide epidemic that plagued the community. However, the viewing of the film was to become restricted to doctors only, while prints of the film, the building housing Hirschfeld’s committee, and the documents it held, were later burned by the Nazis.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Germany

Hirschfeld in turn owes a great deal to judge Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who he often referred to in his own work. As early as the 19th century, Ulrichs was writing pamphlets and speaking out against the criminalisation of homosexuality. In fact, he is considered to have been the first homosexual man to have publicly done so, and thus bring LGBTQ+ rights into public discussion.

Like Hirschfeld, Ulrichs challenged the perceptions of his contemporaries by insisting that homosexuality was completely natural. This basis then allowed him to create new classifications for different sexualities and gender identities, thus giving them dignity and humanity. Before this, homosexuals were almost exclusively referred to as ’sodomite’ and ’pederast’, solidifying the immoral connotations of homosexuality into labels. Under Ulrichs’ new terms, LGBTQ+ people could finally identify with a legitimate group and demand rights on that basis.

Using his experience as a judge, Ulrichs also challenged the period’s anti-sodomy law. Under this law, various sexual acts were criminalised and those who committed them were condemned to imprisonment and in some cases, execution. This law was introduced by the Roman Catholic Church, charging it with a specific interpretation of morality and breaking away from the preceding paradigm of sexuality. Ulrichs argued publicly against this law, speaking at the 1867 Congress of Jurists in Munich to demand legal equal rights for all sexualities. Although at the time he was unsuccessful in its repeal, he set out the path to LGBT rights and was content to have dealt “the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt” (1).

Lady Phyll, UK

Finally, Phyll Opouku-Gyimah, also known as Lady Phyll, founded Black Pride UK, ‘Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent’, bringing awareness to the different experiences of sexuality and gender identity for people of colour. Specifically, Black Pride aims to shed light on homophobia in black communities and the obstacles this poses in accessing healthcare, as they face additional societal layers of discrimination and intolerance.

Lady Phyll stresses the importance of Black Pride as a necessary space for those at the intersection of intolerance. Just like the founding of the more general LGBTQ+ community, Black Pride provides representation and a collective identity, but also offers a safe space from racism within the community itself. Unfortunately, the LGBT charity Stonewall found that as many as 6 out of 10 black people experience racism within the community.

Lady Phyll is also the CEO of Kaleidoscope, a charity which protects and promotes the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons in post-colonial settings, often in places where discriminatory laws were established by the British Empire. This is what Lady Phyll refers to as “the legacy of empire” alluding to the structural inequalities that colonialism left in its wake. The charity thus works to connect activists in the Global South with decision makers, including international organisations, in order to bring about change.

Looking back, the LGBTQ+ community have paved the way for equality in modern Europe, having a huge impact on the rights we enjoy today. Struggling in the face of intolerance and oppression, their victories are a true testament to their courage and determination. The achievement of their rights has brought Europe closer to a more equal and inclusive society. However, some developments in the current climate threaten to drag us back into a less progressive time – let’s hope that Europe does not repeat the mistakes of its past.

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