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The History of Pride: The Struggle for Equality in Europe

August 5, 2021 6:00 PM
The History of Pride: The Struggle for Equality in Europe

An introduction. This will only be an introduction, because there is so much more to tell about the topic. An introduction to the history of Pride, the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights and the struggle for equality and diversity.

Written records about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have existed for a long time. However, the LGBTQ Pride movement, which works to end discrimination against LGBTQ people and promote social equality, is only fifty years old. It was born in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay club in New York, where the police intrusion caused a riot.

A year after the uprising, small Pride marches took place in two other American cities. Two years later, Europe would follow suit. Over time, Pride parades moved from the margins into the mainstream of European culture and became the engine of profound social change. But let's start from 'the beginning'…

Historical antecedents in Europe

Male homosexual relationships were common in ancient civilisations until the Roman Empire embraced Christianity and the Christian interpretation of marriage was institutionalised. The Middle Ages and modern times brought no significant changes. Here, male homosexuals and transvestites were often punished by death.

Pride History früher und heute
An account of the lesbian poet Sappho via mycountryeurope

Records of female homosexuality, on the other hand, are few and far between. A notable exception are the verses of Sappho on the Greek island of Lesbos. But female homosexuality was severely punished in the Middle Ages, while romantic friendships were still hardly a cause for concern in the 18th century.

The 18th and 19th centuries: a messy read and a glimmer of hope

European criminal law at the time was exactly the same as that of the Old Regime. Before the French Revolution, homosexuals could be burned in France or hanged in Britain. It was also a capital offence in the Holy Roman Empire, as well as in Denmark.

It was not until 1791, in the course of the French Revolution, that French lawmakers removed homosexual intercourse from criminal law. Before the turn of the century, Monaco, Prussia, Luxembourg and Belgium followed the French example. In the course of the 19th century, the Netherlands, Portugal (later withdrawn), the Ottoman Empire, San Marino and Italy followed the French example.

Yet it was almost impossible for homosexuals to have an open relationship. Society at the time was far from accepting of same-sex couples. Regardless of what the law said, charges of immorality could still be brought.

In fact, there was a backlash in the 19th century when Queen Victoria approved the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. According to this, homosexual relations between men were punishable by up to two years in prison, with a life sentence following sexual intercourse if proven. The bisexual writer Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison on the basis of this law.

A remarkable example: the Institute for Sexual Science

In May 1871, only four months after German unification, Paragraph 175 came into force. This threatened homosexual acts by men with prison sentences. However, it did not remain without objections.

As early as 1897, the doctor Magnus Hirschfeld collected six thousand signatures for the repeal of the paragraph. In the following years, attempts to remove it from German legislation failed. Instead, they even backfired. The plan to ban female homosexual acts was subsequently stopped by the First World War after all.

Pride History früher und heute
The Institute for Sexual Science, which advocated for LGBT issues in Germany before the Second World War via Haus der Kulturen der Welt

After the First World War, Dr Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research. Their aim was to collect scientific research on human sexuality from a medical and psychological point of view and to give advice on marriage and sex. The Institute organised a series of conferences that culminated in the founding of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1921.

Their goal was the legalisation of all sexual acts between consenting adults, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Remarkably, they also advocated for gender equality, comprehensive sex education and reforms to eliminate the dangers of prostitution.

Among the Institute's most famous works was the first successful gender reassignment surgery. Lili Elbe, who has become known in the media as "the Danish girl", was the first person to successfully undergo such an operation. This film describes her life journey in a dramatically compassionate white:

The Rise of Totalitarianism

However, dangerous times were ahead for the Institute and the German gay community in general when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. Within weeks of coming to power, the NSDAP began purging gay clubs in Berlin, banning homosexual publications and gay groups.

This led to the dissolution of the institute, while the German LGBT community was not spared the horrors of the Third Reich.

The rise of totalitarian regimes and the Second World War brought a general deterioration of civil liberties in continental Europe. Thus, LGBTQ persons were usually sentenced to forced labour, keyword: 'The Pink Triangle' (homosexual prisoners were forced to wear a pink triangle on their chest).

In Britain, gay men had the choice between a prison sentence or conversion therapy.

The turning point: Stonewall Inn

In the 1960s, the United States of America was not much different from Europe in that the police could detain homosexuals without charge. Furthermore, very few venues accepted homosexuals. Nevertheless, in populous cities like New York, clubs that welcomed LGBTQ people began to establish themselves.

These clubs were the only places where homosexuals could find a space of freedom. So they also found a lot of support from the LGBTQ community. However, the supposedly only safe place made them an easy target for vigilantes and police.

Pride History früher und heute
Diana Davies / The New York Public Library

The riots

Shortly after midnight on 28 June 1969, the New York Police Department stormed the Stonewall Inn. Arrests were made, with some guests refusing to identify themselves. Inspector Pine, who was in charge of the raid, wanted to have everyone present taken to the police station. But that evening it was crowded and the people angry: they had had enough.

On the way to the police cars, the riot started. The arrestees escaped from the police cars and began to fight with and eventually overpower the officers. The NYPD tactical patrol, their siege of the Stonewall Inn and the ensuing riot led to thirteen arrests, four injured police officers and the devastation of the club.

The following night, the outbreak flared up in the surrounding streets and the riot escalated further. Fires and other urban fighting ensued.

The riot was followed by car destruction and some looting. All in all, this was the first time that the LGBTQ community directly resisted state action.

The aftermath of the riots

Before the riots, American LGBT activists were divided into two factions: The integrationists sought normalisation and wanted to take it one step at a time. The confrontationists were proud of their differences and demanded major changes. However, the Stonewall riots brought the former to the side of the latter.

Traditionally, American activists organised a peaceful vigil in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia every 4th of July, with all participants adhering to the social norms of the time. This year, they pushed their limits and found the courage to join hands - a gesture many thought they could not afford.

This brought them new attention in the press and two associations emerged - the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance - now seeking total liberation.

Over the next twelve months, police raids and demonstrations alternated. On 28 June 1970, simultaneous Pride parades were held for the first time in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The demonstrators not only commemorated the anniversary of the riots, but also demanded visibility - by occupying public spaces - and legal changes - first legalisation, then equality.

Pride comes to Europe: the 20th century

In 1971, Pride parades spread across the United States and debuts followed in Europe as well: London, Dublin and Oslo hosted the first demonstrations on European soil.

Pride History früher und heute
Pride-Parade in London 1988 via BBC News

Many European capitals quickly followed London's example. By the late 1980s, Pride events were widespread throughout Western Europe. In Madrid, the first Pride event took place in 1978, initially attended by seven thousand people. A number that grew from year to year.

Dynamics and legal changes

In the West, the success of Pride parades across European borders led to the creation of EuroPride in 1992, a pan-European LGBT event that takes place in a different European city each year, reaching not only the West but also Eastern capitals such as Warsaw and Riga.

But even before the first EuroPride parade, the activists reached some milestones.

In 1979, Sweden removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders, while it took the World Health Organisation another eleven years to remove homosexuality from the tenth version of the International Classification of Diseases.

In fact, Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to social acceptance of LGBTQ people. In 1972, the Nordic country was the first to offer free gender reassignment treatment.

Under the 2012 Gender Recognition Act, Swedes are free to choose their legal gender, and sterilisation is no longer a requirement for gender reassignment surgery.

Pride History früher und heute
One of the first gay civil partnerships celebrated in Copenhagen via mycountryeurope

Denmark was a pioneer in introducing same-sex civil partnerships. In the early 1980s, the Danish National LGBTQ Organisation put forward a bill to offer same-sex couples an alternative to marriage, as marriage was a matter reserved for the church.

Thus, after a lengthy legislative process, the Danish Parliament passed the Registered Partnership Act in 1989. Even though it did not grant full equality, this law was an important step.

In the 1990s, Western countries followed the Danish model, with the LGBTQ community gaining broader public support and making historic progress. When Germany repealed Section 175 in 1994 and domestic partnerships became the norm in Western Europe, the LGBTQ rights train seemed unstoppable.

Beyond the Iron Curtain

Eastern Europe had to wait until 1999 to experience its first Pride event. It was Minsk, Belarus, the first city in the former Soviet Union where LGBT people demanded their rights in a series of conferences organised by Forum Lambda magazine and the Belarusian League for Sexual Equality.

Most Pride-related events were banned or stopped halfway in the following years. To date, six years have passed since the last Pride march in Minsk.

Warsaw hosted the largest Pride parade in Eastern Europe in 2019 with more than 50,000 participants. The Czech Republic follows closely behind with an estimated 40,000 participants at Prague Pride 2018.

Nevertheless, celebrating Pride events is not allowed in some Eastern European cities: due to a local ban by the Moscow city courts, Pride marches are illegal in the Russian capital until 2112.

Into the 21st century

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage. Against the staunch opposition of the Christian parties, same-sex partners were fully recognised under Dutch law.

The Dutch charity Cultuur en Ontspanningscentrum (Centre for Culture and Recreation) was instrumental in the development of a gay subculture in Amsterdam in the 1950s and 1960s.

Belgium followed suit in 2003. With the turn of the millennium, the success of Madrid Pride not only brought LGBTQ rights to the forefront, but also helped Madrid blossom as a gay-friendly destination.

In 2005, Spain became the third country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. Although two-thirds of Spaniards supported the law, its passage was highly controversial. As a result, Madrid Pride is now the largest LGBTQ event in Europe and the second largest in the world, with more than 1.5 million people attending each year.

Pride and Equality Today

In 2019 today, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Germany have granted same-sex couples the right to marry.

Pride History früher und heute
Pride History früher und heute

The East remains in the dark

A major challenge for European cohesion is also the West-East divide regarding LGBTQ rights. For example, the situation in Poland is still very strict due to the still strong position of the Catholic Church.

For example, Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS leader in 2005, asserted that "homosexuality is the downfall of civilisation". Notwithstanding these facts, Poland allows homosexual men to donate blood, which is still forbidden in several Western countries. Moreover, the country can be proud of being the only European country where homosexuality has never been illegal.

Both Russia and Belarus are of serious concern to the LGBT community, where discrimination is still legal. While in Russia trans people can have their papers changed after gender reassignment surgery, federal law explicitly prohibits so-called homosexual propaganda.

This makes open living in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity almost impossible.

Romania has taken encouraging steps towards equality with the introduction of protection against discrimination, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome. In 2018, for example, the country held a referendum to introduce a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But the amendment was not adopted because the turnout did not reach the required threshold.

The Czech Republic remains a bright spot of progress in LGBTQ affairs in Central and Eastern Europe. Registered partnerships have been legal since 2006, albeit with some major drawbacks:

For example, joint adoption and in vitro fertilisation are still out of reach for same-sex couples. Nevertheless, a light appeared on the horizon in 2018 with the introduction of a bill to extend marriage to same-sex couples.

Neighbouring Slovakia is watching developments closely, as the victory of liberal and pro-LGBTQ rights Zuzana Čaputová in the 2019 presidential elections offers Slovaks a slice of blue sky on their path to LGBT equality.

Pride in 2021

From Saturday 31 July to 08 August 2021, PrideTV returned live from Pride Amsterdam. Unfortunately we had to switch to online formats again this year because of Corona.

Nevertheless, Pride Amsterdam offers some online events, check out the link here.

On our Sneakerjagers WMNS channel this week (you know we're based in the Netherlands) we'll be posting a make-up tutorial inspired by shoes! You can also look forward to more content that is both sneaker-related and socially thought-provoking.

With our articles, we try to reflect the fun of fashion on the one hand and the seriousness of the topic on the other, which is exactly what we do in our Sneaker News. You are welcome to read more, for example how we can be an ally for the LGBTQIA+ community or what the 'Pink Dollar' is all about.

Finally, a bit of inspiration for us all: In Berlin, the CSD, Christopher Street Day, took place on 24 July 2021. The aftermovie not only shows how many people stand up for equality, but also sweeps us along with incredible energy and good humour. #loveislove