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( 12 ) Northern Europe - Part 2


Austria was a part of the Holy Roman Empire with close historical ties to Germany.  Early homosexual Austrians include Prince Franz Eugen of Savoy (1663-1736) and Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740).  In the eighteenth century, sodomy was a capital offense in Austria and homosexuals were beheaded, after which their heads and bodies were burned.  As in Germany, Austria did not adopt the Napoleonic Code decriminalizing sodomy; instead, Emperor Francis II lessened the punishment in 1803 to one year of prison.  When homosexual subcultures began emerging in the nineteenth century, Austrian authorities responded by increasing the prison sentence to five years and also specifically prohibited sodomy between women as well as men.  Despite the increase in penalties, both male and female homosexuality flourished in late nineteenth-century Austria.  After the Great War, organizations for lesbians were formed wherein members identified themselves as “women of the third gender.”  Many prominent Austrians were influenced by German sexology including Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of modern psychiatry.  Freud considered persistent same-sex attraction in adults a psychopathy but entertained the idea that biological factors could be involved in its genesis.  In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and homosexuals were persecuted under Paragraph 175.  After the war, independence was regained and sodomy laws were abolished in 1971.  At the same time, however, a new law was passed banning homosexual organizations and all public support for homosexuality.  Nevertheless, modern gay subcultures slowly increased during the next several decades and the repressive law was repealed in 1996.  Early twenty-first century Austria was more conservative than neighboring Germany but had modern gay communities in cities such as Vienna.


Russia was originally comprised of various disunited Scythian and Eastern Slavic tribes until Scandinavians immigrated into the region during the ninth century A.D., establishing a capital in Kiev.  Shortly thereafter, the new Russian settlers abandoned traditional Norse beliefs and converted to Orthodox Christianity through contact with the Byzantine Empire.  Comradeship has a long history in Russia and early Orthodox saints, such as Boris and Gleb, were celebrated as time-honored examples of brotherly love.  Orthodox Russians held ceremonies known as pobratimstvo (wedded brotherhoods) and posestrimstvo (wedded sisterhoods) that enabled ordinary Russians to emulate such saintly couples.


In the thirteenth century, Mongol warriors from Central Asia invaded Kiev and Russian populations migrated northward to Muscovy (Moscow).  Foreigners wrote about widespread homosexuality in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Moscow, claiming that Russian tsars, such as Ivan the Terrible, engaged in sodomy and witchcraft.  Most of the claims were motivated by foreign prejudice but Russians soon adopted the same homophobic and anti-pagan attitudes themselves.  The earliest record of homophobia in Russia appears in a sixteenth-century list of sins that condemned crossdressing and warned against the ever-growing threat of sodomy in Russian monasteries.  Another well-known instance comes from the early seventeenth century, when Muscovites overthrew Tsar Dimitry after accusing him of sodomy.  The Russians demonstrated their hostility toward the deposed tsar by dragging his corpse through Moscow along with the mutilated body of his reputed lover, Petr Basmanov.


In spite of such hostility, sodomy was not an official crime in Russia for many centuries.  Same-sex bathhouses were quite popular during the 1600s and known to facilitate both paid and unpaid sexual relations between men.  In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great (1672-1725) initiated a process of Westernization that included Russia’s first sodomy law in 1716, which banned same-sex relations in the army and navy.  After his death, a similar ban was proposed for the general public in 1754 but not enacted until 1835.  Despite the new sodomy laws, male prostitution and homosexual subcultures flourished in nineteenth-century cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow.  Certain streets and public gardens were known gathering places for homosexuals and specific signals, such as wearing a red tie, sent propositions to potential partners.  Russian bathhouses remained popular meeting places for men whereas lesbians, known as koshki, gathered around female brothels that were legal in Russia until 1917.  Homosexual art and literature flourished at the turn of the century and many prominent Russian artists were discreetly homosexual, such as composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  Mikhail Kuzman’s 1906 novella, Wings, became famous as the first modern “coming out” story with a happy ending, and Russian doctors were influenced by modern German literature exploring sexology.  Homosexuality and transgender identity came to be viewed as hermaphroditic medical conditions in which effeminate men were diagnosed as babatia or babulia and mannish women as muzhlanka.  The muzhlanka women were not at all uncommon in Russia and preferred over the babatia.  They dressed as men, assumed male identities and appear quite often in Russian historical and medical texts.


During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, sodomy was decriminalized because of its association with Biblical teachings, which the new Communist Party viewed as antiquated and irrational.  Most Bolsheviks considered homosexuality a medical condition and even favored lesbianism, seeing little wrong with it for the new Soviet woman.  Homosexual male subcultures also survived with little fuss as long as they remained discreet.  This changed under the reversals of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, however, when sodomy was again criminalized in 1933 and punished with harsh Gulag sentences.  The new law was mostly an attempt to encourage heterosexuality, along with the Soviet birth rate, under the shadow of impending war.  Despite the new law, homosexual subcultures persisted in the Soviet Union and life inside the Gulag itself was reportedly rife with homosexual behavior.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, Soviet psychiatrists attempted to cure homosexuality through drugs and shock therapy but with little success.  Transsexual operations were explored and became routine from the 1960s forward.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, sodomy was decriminalized two years later and modern gay communities became visible in Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.  In the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, backlashes from religious conservatives threatened to check civil liberties for Russian homosexuals and their future was left in question.  The same was true in the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldavia, Belarus and the Baltic States.


Nations previously associated with the Soviet Union such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary were also mostly conservative in terms of gay and lesbian rights.  Poland was established in the tenth century A.D. as a predominantly Roman Catholic country with a negative view toward homosexuality.  Several early Polish kings were accused of sodomy such as Boleslaw the Bold, who ruled from 1076-1079, and Wladyslaw IV, who ruled from 1434-1444.  Wladyslaw IV led a crusade against the Turks but his ultimate defeat was attributed to the homosexual relations he had one night before a decisive battle.  As a result of the charge, Wladyslaw IV was the only crusader king never canonized by the Church.  Poland’s last king, Stanislaw Augustus (1732-1798), was reportedly bisexual and had relations with a British ambassador as a young man.  After the Enlightenment, Napoleonic codes were briefly introduced into the Duchy of Warsaw in 1808 but a succession of occupying powers reinstated sodomy laws in Poland from 1835 onward.  Several lesbian writers became prominent in the nineteenth century and Poland had thriving homosexual subcultures between the first and second World Wars.  Sodomy laws were repealed in 1932 but homosexuals remained persecuted under Nazi and later communist rule.  After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1989, modern gay communities and organizations emerged in cities such as Warsaw, Cracow and Gdansk.  Although Poland’s new 1997 constitution banned discrimination “on any grounds,” such rights were visibly withheld from gay and lesbian citizens.  Anti-gay prejudice increased and was even encouraged by the Church and right-wing Polish nationalists.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, initial hopes for modern civil liberties in Poland were brought into question and the same was true for neighboring Slovakia.  The Czech Republic and Hungary were less conservative and had thriving gay communities in Prague and Budapest, respectively.  Limited civil partnership rights for gay couples were legislated in both countries.


In the Norse homelands of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, homosexuality was traditionally tolerated until the introduction of Christianity in the seventh century A.D.  Even then, sodomy was rarely prosecuted, although technically punishable by death, and most towns issued warnings to homosexuals or exiled them whenever specific problems arose.  Since the Nordic countries were sparsely populated, homosexual subcultures did not become evident until the late nineteenth century.  In Denmark, an increase in homosexual scandals and male prostitution in the 1800s caused authorities to exile many prominent citizens and eventually reduce the penalty for sodomy to one year in jail.  In the early 1900s, Denmark was influenced by German sexology and authorities recommended that sodomy be decriminalized altogether.  Homosexual clubs and organizations were formed after the Great War and the world’s first sex change operation was performed in 1930 on Danish painter Andreas Wegener, who traveled to Germany for the procedure.  Denmark became increasingly liberal and finally decriminalized sodomy in 1933.  After World War II, however, Nazi influence on Denmark left the nation in a conservative mood and homosexuals were often stigmatized and in some cases subjected to castration or shock treatments as “cures.”  The conservative mood ended in the 1960s and modern gay communities flourished in large cities such as Copenhagen throughout the next several decades.  In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to establish civil union laws for gay couples.  It legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.


Both Iceland and Norway were under Danish rule for several centuries beginning in 1380 A.D.  Norse settlers had arrived in Iceland around 850 and Norwegian King Olaf I converted Icelanders to Christianity during the eleventh century.  When Denmark decriminalized sodomy in 1933, the law was extended to Iceland since the small island nation was still under Danish rule.  In 1944, Iceland gained full independence.  Gay organizations appeared in the 1970s and their first challenge was to coin appropriate Icelandic terms for homosexuality.  Early Christians had constructed negative words with offensive connotations, so gay activists adopted the terms hommi (gay male), lesbia (lesbian) and samkynhneigo (homosexual orientation) to establish a more respectful dialog.  The new words were met with initial resistance but quickly grew in popularity and replaced the old terms within ten years.  Iceland established non-discrimination policies in 1992, civil unions in 1996 and same-sex marriage in 2010.  Norway’s history in third-gender tolerance similarly progressed from traditional Norse attitudes to early Christian intolerance, until finally culminating in modern, liberal acceptance.  Norwegian sodomy laws were abolished in 1972, civil unions granted in 1993 and same-sex marriage legalized in 2009.


In Sweden, one of the earliest non-Viking references to homosexuality can be found in Heliga Birgitta’s fourteenth-century work, Revelations, wherein she accuses King Magnus Eriksson, who ruled Sweden from 1332-1363, of having intercourse with a nobleman and “loving men more than God or your own soul or your own spouse.”  As in Denmark, early Swedish laws avoided the topic of sodomy and homosexual offenders were typically exiled.  Strong, independent women appear frequently in Swedish history and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many crossdressing women are documented fleeing their homes to adopt traditionally male positions such as guardsmen, sailors and soldiers.  Queen Christina (1626-1689) often dressed as a man during her reign as Sweden’s matriarch and refused to take a husband.  The queen was well known for the intimate relations she shared with her lady-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre.  King Gustav III (1746-1792) similarly kept male lovers in the Swedish royal court and historians have never doubted his sexual inclination for men.


Homosexual subcultures thrived in Sweden during the nineteenth century and are well known for their many prolific writers.  In response, the Swedish government established sodomy as a crime for both men and women in 1864 with a penalty of up to two years in prison.  In the early twentieth century, German studies in sexology became popular in Sweden and reformers petitioned for the repeal of sodomy laws.  This was realized in 1944, but conservative backlashes after World War II forced homosexual and other third-gender organizations underground.  During the 1970s, however, homosexuality was received more favorably and the topic much debated in public, with a positive outcome.  Sweden enacted the world’s first law legalizing transsexual operations in 1972 and passed a law protecting homosexuals against discrimination in 1988.  Civil unions were adopted in 1995 and a law against inciting violence toward homosexuals was legislated in 2003.  By the dawn of the twenty-first century, several Christian denominations in northern Europe, including the Church of Sweden, began welcoming gays into their congregations, blessing their unions and allowing them to serve as priests.  In 2009, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.


Finland's experience was similar to Sweden's.  The country criminalized homosexuality in 1894 with a penalty of two years in prison.  It repealed its sodomy laws in 1971, outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1995 (transgender identity in 2005), established registered partnerships in 2002 and granted full marriage equality in 2014.


(Tritiya-Praktiti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 263-269)



References and suggested reading:

- Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl

- Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History by Gilbert Herdt

Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda

- Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies In African Homosexualities by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe









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