The Unjust Treatment of Homosexuals (1900-1923)
"No daring is required to protest against a great injustice"
Emma Goldman, anarchist activist and organizer, lecturer and agitator, feminist, spokesperson for the new drama, advocate of birth control and free speech, was in Paris in 1900. Writer Oskar Panizza asked her to spend an evening with himself, Dr. Eugene Schmidt, and Oscar Wilde. In her excitement to meet both Wilde and Panizza whom she admired, Goldman accepted the invitation, forgetting she had a previous important committee metting. The evening with Panizza and Wilde never came about. A few days later, Dr. Schmidt called on the disappointed Goldman, and the two went for a walk. As Goldman describes it in her autobiography, she had some years earlier publicly defended Wilde in the United States:
During our walk in the Luxembourg I told the doctor of the indignation I had felt at the conviction of Oscar Wilde. I had pleaded his case against the miserable hypocrites who had sent him to his doom. "You!" the doctor exclaimed in astonishment, "why, you must have been a mere youngster then. How did you dare come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America?" "Nonsense!" I replied; "no daring is required to protest against a great injustice." The doctor smiled dubiously. "Injustice?" he repeated; "it wasn't exactly that from the legal point of view, though it may have been from the psychological." The rest of the afternoon we were engaged in a battle royal about inversion, perversion, and the question of sex variation. He had given much thought to the matter, but he was not free in his approach, and I suspected that he was somewhat scandalized that I, a young woman, should speak without reservations on such tabooed subjects.(1)
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Goldman became well known as a magnetic speaker on controversial topics; the subjects of her lectures frequently brought about police violence and mob attempts to silence her. When she lectured on homosexuality, however, censorship apparently came from another source - her own anarchist comrades.
Here, Goldman writes in her autobiography of her speaking tour of 1915.
My tour this year met with no police interference until we reached Portland, Oregon, although the subjects I treated were anything but tame: anti-war topics, the fight for Caplan and Schmidt, freedom in love, birth-control, and the problem most tabooed in polite society, homosexuality. Nor did [Anthony] Comstock and his purists try to suppress me, although I openly discussed methods of contraception before various audiences.
Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such "unnatural" themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was alreadly enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued. Beliving in freedom of opinion, even if it went against me, I minded the censors in my own ranks as little as I did those in the enemy's camp. In fact, censorship from my comrades had the same effect on me as police persecution; it made me surer of myself, more determined to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice.
The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and their isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out. Most of them had reached an adequate understanding of their differentiation only after years of struggle to stifle what they had considered a disease and a shameful affliction. One young woman confessed to me that in the twenty-five years of her life she had never known a day when the nearness of a man, her own father and brothers even, did not make her ill. The more she had tried to respond to sexual approach, the more repugnant men became to her. She had hated herself, she said, because she could not love her father and her brothers as she loved her mother. She suffered excruciating remorse, but her revulsion only increased. At the age of eighteen she had accepted an offer of marriage in the hope that a long engagement might help her grow accustomed to a man and cure her of her "disease." It turned out a ghastly failure and nearly drove her insane. She could not face marriage, and she dared not confide in her fiance or friends. She had never met anyone, she told me, who suffered from a similar affliction, nor had she ever read books dealing with the subject. My lecture had set her free; I had given her back her self-respect.
This woman was only one of the many who sought me out. Their pitiful stories made the social ostracism of the invert seem more dreadful than I had ever realized before. To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that seperate man from man.(2)
In 1923, a major article by Emma Goldman appeared in the Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Types, issued by the Scientfic-Humanitarian Committee, Germany's leading homosexual rights organization. Here in translation, the committee's head, Dr. Mangus Hirschfield, introduces Goldman to the Yearbook's readers:
I received the following essay from the American freedom fighter Emma Goldman, friend and intellectual ally of Prince Peter Kropotkin and of Louise Michel. In her periodical, Mother Earth, and in countless speeches given over several decades across the breadth of the United States, Goldman had campaigned boldly and steadfastly for individual rights, and especially for those deprived of their rights. Thus is came about that she was the first and only woman, indeed the first and only American, to take up the defense of homosexual love before the general public. During the World War, she used all of her resources to condemn armed violence and was therefore thrown into prison when America entered the war. After two year's imprisonment in Jefferson City, Missouri (and anyone who knows "free" America will realize what two years hard labor means there), she was deported. Since this had never before happened to an American woman, it aroused enormous interest and won the sympathy of many who had previously been indifferent or opposed to Goldman.(3)
Hirschfeld's preface closes with "the wish that Goldman may be permitted to return to her home and activities in America from the exile in which so many have been languishing since the chaos of the World War."
Goldman's article was a response to an earlier piece by Karl von Levetzow alleging the Lesbianism of Louise Michel, a charismatic French anarchist who died in 1905. Goldman's essay is cast in the form of a letter dated Berlin, March 1923: it constitutes a pro-homosexual but critical and sophisticated discussion discussion of that form of defense which tried to establish the same-sex orientation of worthy, talented, or famous historical figures - as a response to the popular, totally negative portrayal of homosexuals.
Dear Dr. Hirschfeld:
I have been acquainted with your great works on sexual psychology for a number of years now. I have always deeply admired your courageous intervention on behalf of the rights of people who are by their natural disposition unable to express their sexual feelings in what is customarily called the "normal" way. Now that I have had the pleasure of making your personal acquaintance and observing your efforts at first had, I feel more strongly than ever the impress of your personality and spirit which has guided you in your difficult undertaking. Your willingness to place your periodical at my disposal, giving me the opportunity to present a critical evaluation of the essay by Herr von Levetzow on the alleged homosexuality of Louise Michel, is proof - if such proof were ever required - that you are a m a man with a deep sense of justice and interested only in the truth. Permit me to express my sincere appreciation both for this gesture and for your brave and courageous stand in the service of elightenment and humaneness in opposition to ignorance and hypocrisy.
Above all, I feel obliged to preface my response to the statements of the above-mentioned author with a few brief comments. In challenging what I regard as erroneous presuppositions on the part of Herr von Levetzow, I am in no way motivated by any prejudice against homosexuality itself or any antipathy towards homosexuals in general. Had Louise Michel ever manifested any type of sexual feelings in all those relationships with people whom she loved and who were devoted to her, I would certainly be the last to seek to cleanse her of this "stigma." It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals, is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life. Far be it for me to seek to evaluate these people as inferior, less moral, or incapable of higher feelings and actions. I am the last person to whom it would occur to "protect" Louise Michel, my great teacher and comrade, from the charge of homosexuality. Louise Michel's service to humanity and her great work of social liberation are such that they can be neither enlarged nor reduced, whatever her sexual habits were.
Years ago, before I knew anything about sexual psychology and when my sole acquaintance with homosexuals was limited to a few women I had met in prison (where I was held because of my political convictions), I spoke up in no uncertain terms on behalf of Oscar Wilde. As an anarchist, my place has always been on the side of the persecuted. The entire persecution and sentencing of Wilde struck me as an act of cruel injustice and repulsive hypocrisy on the part of the society which condemned this man. And this alone was the reason which prompted me to stand up for him.
Later I came to Europe, where I became acquainted with the works of Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Carpenter, and some others, which first made me fully aware of the crime which had been perpetrated upon Oscar Wilde and his kind. From then on I defended in the spoken and written word those whose entire nature is different in regard to sexual feelings and needs. It was primarily your works, dear Doctor, which helped me to illuminate the extremely complex problems of sexual psychology and to mold the entire position of my audience in a more humane way toward these questions.
From all of this, your readers may recognize that any prejudice or antipathy towards homosexuals is totally foreign to me. On the contrary! Among my male and female friends, there are a few who are of either a completely Uranian or a bisexual disposition. I have found these individuals far above average in terms of intelligence, ability, sensitivity, and personal charm. I empathize deeply with them, for I know that their sufferings are of a larger and more complex sort than those of ordinary people. But there exists among very many homosexuals a predominant intellectual outlook which I must seriously challenge. I am speaking of the practice of claiming every possible prominent personality as one of their own, attributing their own feelings and character traits to these people.
To be sure, this is not a homosexual peculiarity but instead a psychological characteristic of all those who are publicly held in disdain. Such people are always inclined to cite the most prominent individuals of all ages in support of their cause. Misery seeks company. One notes, for example, that Jews are almost inclined to attribute Jewish origins, or at least Jewish character traits, to all the significant men and women in the world. A similar practice is to be found among the Irish; the people of India will always tell us that theirs is the greatest civilization, etc., etc. We encounter the same phenomenon among political outcasts. Socialists like to claim men like Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde as advocates of the theories of Karl Marx, while anarchists see kindred spirits in Nietzsche, Wagner, Ibsen, and others. Many-sidedness has always been a sign of true greatness, no doubt; but I have always felt it rather importunate to claim great creative personalities for my ideas so long as they themselves have not expressed their agreement with them.
If one were to believe the assurances and claims of many homosexuals, one would be forced to the conclusion that no truly great person is or ever was to be found outside the circle of persons of a different sexual type. Social ostracism and persecution inevitably spawn sectarianism; but this outlook, narrow in its perspective, often renders people unjust in their praise of others. Without wishing to offend Herr von Levetzow in any way, I must say that he seems to be strongly influenced by the sectarian spirit of many homosexuals, perhaps unconsciously so. Beyond that, he has an antiquated conception of the essence of womanhood. He sees in woman a being meant by nature solely to delight man with her attractiveness, bear his children, and otherwise figure as a domestic and general household slave. Any woman who fails to meet these shopworn requirements of womanhood is promptly taken as a Uranian by this writer. In light of the accomplishments of women to date in every sector of human intellectual life and in efforts for social change, this traditional male conception of womanhood scarcely deserves regard any longer. I nonetheless feel compelled to pursue the outmoded views of this writer concerning Louise Michel to some extent, if only to show the reader what nonsensical conclusions can be reached if one proceeds from nonsensical presuppositions.
Goldman next presents a summary of the evidence which led von Levetzow to "diagnose" Michel as a Lesbian: as a child, she was an avid reader and was keenly interested in the natural sciences; her behavior was generally tomboyish, and she paid little attention to her appearance. As an adult, she placed little value on physical attractiveness and displayed courage and stamina unusual for a woman. Men, Levetzow claimed, played a minor role in her life; and she loved music (especially Wagner) and sculpture. Goldman heatedly rejects the idea that these traits are typical of female homosexuals, and also points to several deep relationships that Michel had with men. She willingly concedes, however, that Michel's deepest relationships were with women.
Modern woman is no longer satisfied to be the beloved of a man; she looks for understanding, comradeship; she wants to be treated as a human being and not simply as an object for sexual gratification. And since man in many cases cannot offer her this, she turns to her sisters.
Goldman states that her only desire is to see Michel
portrayed as she actually was: an extraordinary woman, a significant thinker, and a profound soul. She represented a new type of womanhood which is nontheless as old as the race, and she had a soul which was permeated by an all-encompassing and all-understanding love for humanity. In short, Louise Michel was a complete woman, free of all the prejudices and traditions which for centuries held women in chains and degraded them to household slaves and objects of sexual lust. The new woman celebrated her resurrection in the figure of Louise, the woman capable fo heroic deeds but one who remains a woman in her passion and in her love.