Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1997-1998

Rob Tielman argues that gays and humanists are natural allies.

Gay and Lesbian Rights: Why Humanism Cares

by Rob Tielman

As of 1997, the homosexual rights movement has existed for a hundred years. From the very beginning it had close connections to humanism. Why? What does a movement advocating respect for a sexual orientation have in common with a philosophical life-stance promoting reason, science, and human happiness?

History gives us a clue. The founder of the German Scientific Humanitarian Committee (1897-1933) in Berlin, the sexologist Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, was a humanist, a secular Jew, and a socialist. To summarise his life stance he used the Latin phrase Per Scientiam ad Justitiam, which means “Through Science to Justice”. He was convinced that scientific progress would diminish prejudices against, among other things, homosexuality. His Committee was the first homosexual rights organisation worldwide. This example was followed in several countries, mainly in Western Europe.

The only homosexual movement that was initiated at that time and still exists is the gay and lesbian movement in the Netherlands. The Dutch Scientific Humanitarian Committee was founded in the Hague in 1911 by the liberal Dutch lawyer and nobleman Jacob Schorer.

Whereas Hirschfeld stressed the necessity of biological and medical research related to homosexuality, it was Schorer who underlined the importance of the human rights approach to it. In his view, it was not necessary to prove the biological origins of homosexuality (of which he was convinced) but to make clear that homosexuals, like other human beings, have the right to give meaning and shape to their own lives as long as they don’t damage the right to self-determination of others. This humanist approach was severely attacked by the churches and by the Nazis.

In Germany in 1933, the Nazi takeover led to the end of Hirschfeld’s Committee and his famous sexological institute in Berlin. In the Netherlands in 1940 the Nazi occupation was less successful in trying to destroy Schorer’s Committee. The Dutch homosexual movement went underground, and in 1945 in Amsterdam, close to the Anne Frank house, a new start was made by the still-existing national gay and lesbian organisation COC. This restart was possible partly because of the Dutch mentality of “live and let live” and the fact that homosexuality had been legal in the Netherlands since the Napoleonic Law of 1811, though it was still illegal in most other countries.

In the Third Pink Book, published by the US humanist publishers Prometheus Books in 1993, readers will find an overview of the social and legal status of gays and lesbians in most countries. It makes clear that those countries that were influenced by the Enlightenment and thus accepted Napoleonic legislation are more likely to have decriminalised homosexuality. Countries that have imitated puritanical British legislation are more likely to have criminalised homosexuality. The same applies to countries that are under the influence of religious laws, like the sharia in Islamic countries.

In developing countries, you often see that local cultures had accepted same-sex behaviour in various ways but that homosexuality was made illegal under colonial influence.

In Amsterdam in 1953 the Dutch COC took the initiative to start the first international homosexual organisation: the International Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE). One year before in 1952 in the same city the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was founded. Several Dutch gay humanists were involved in both initiatives. Both IHEU and ICSE had their headquarters in the Netherlands and were heavily supported by their Dutch member organisation. ICSE disappeared in the sixties when a new wave of gay and lesbian organisations started to take the lead in the movement.

The IHEU has made many statements in favour of equal treatment of homosexual women and men. In doing so, it has been the only one among the international life-stance and religious organisations that has openly supported gay and lesbian rights. Most religious organisations are in fact still fighting against equal homosexual rights. The two countries where humanists are most influential (Norway and the Netherlands) are among the few countries where equal rights for homosexuals are legally protected.

These close ties between humanism and the homosexual rights movement can be explained by the fact that they both accept the principle of human self-determination and reject the claim of most religious organisations that they have the right to impose their anti-homosexual views upon others.

This emphasis on self-determination (and the religious rejection of it) is evident in many social issues, including, for example, homosexual parenthood. Having been a gay foster parent for 25 years together with my partner, I am happy to see that more and more lesbian and gay couples are raising children. In the Netherlands more than 20,000 children are raised by their biological mothers or fathers and their same-sex partners. In most cases these children spend part of their time with their (biological and social) mothers and the rest of the time with their (biological and social) fathers. Research comparing this arrangement with heterosexual parenthood indicates that there are no important differences between homosexual and heterosexual parenthood. It’s the quality of the parenting that counts, and not the parents’ sexual orientation. As a matter of fact, the sexual orientation of the parents doesn’t determine the sexual orientation of the children: how else could one explain that most homosexual children have heterosexual parents?

That it is more in the interests of the child to have good parents than to support existing prejudices against homosexuality indicates the importance of Hirschfeld’s Per Scientiam ad Justitiam and Schorer’s conviction that human rights are universal and have to be applied to homosexuals as well.

Both humanists and the defenders of homosexual rights try to defend human rights against the attacks of fundamentalist groups that want to impose their views on others. Humanists share this view with other (potential) victims of religious oppression like women and racial minorities. Together, the defenders of human self-determination are a clear majority. Divided, they will be oppressed by a fundamentalist minority. The success of gay and lesbian movements that co-operated with other defenders of self-determination show how important international co-operation is.

This article was first published in Volume 17, Number 4 (Fall 1997) of Free Inquiry.
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