Anna Rüling / Historical Photo

Anna Rüling: Theodora “Theo” Anna Sprüngli (15 August 1880–8 May 1953)

Long before Stonewall, openly queer people built a movement for our rights.

Germany was a country where we pushed hard against crushing Victorian era sexual restrictions on queers and women in order to obtain liberation. Germany organizes — muscularly and almost fearlessly — and employs new tools to spread new knowledge.

In 1869, Karl Maria Kertbeny invented the term “homosexualität” (homosexual) as part of a campaign to eliminate Prussia’s Paragraph 175 statute forbidding male-male sexual acts. Prussia is the German state that Kaiser Wilhelm I made preeminent among the German states, and he liked laws against homosexuals and socialists (socialists attempted to assassinate him four times).

In 1886, Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis provided 200+ case histories of “non-normal” sexual practices: sadomasochism, fetishes, homosexuality, even lesbianism. The book is turgid and fairly indecipherable without a good command of Latin. But with it out in the zeitgeist, stories began to disseminate.

In 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde shocked the entire world, and accounts of the proceedings offered new ways to speak of “a scandal of the Oscar Wilde sort.”

In 1896, Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds published Sexual Inversion, the first medical textbook on homosexuality. It appeared first in German, then in English.

At the time, Germany was a seething, swirling cauldron of political, social and sexual ferment. Socialists, anarchists, feminists, third-sex liberationists, antisemites, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, artists, musicians, writers, and philosophers were all at work.

And there was a ferociously ardent and very strong women’s movement, promoting the welfare of women: mothers (married and not), children, women without work, prostitutes, homeless women, battered women … and of course, suffrage. If women could vote, the world would be a different place! Well, that was the thinking.

Funny how groups of women pushing for relief and support for their sex, with lots of money donated for those aims, may enjoy each other’s company in diverse fashions. I refer now to the actions of “The Association of Berlin Artists.”

The majority of women in the association were assumed to be heterosexual and were often married. But the group had “an annual all-female Ball at which some members dressed as men, and even led out members in women’s clothing onto the dance floor; the Ball was counted as one of the more important events in the Berlin season,” according to Nancy Reagin in “A German Women’s Movement: Class and Gender in Hanover, 1880–1933.”

Meanwhile, in 1897, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and a few others founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), the world’s first sex researching, data and field interviewing, birth-control dispensing, sex-positive, feminist and queer rights organization.

Shortly after the foundation, Magnus put into effect his campaigns to liberate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and to get Paragraph 175 repealed. The primary instrument was knowledge. To that effect, Magnus held annual symposiums where papers were presented and orators spoke.

On October 8, 1904, Anna Rüling delivered an impassioned speech: “What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in Solving the Homosexual Problem?” (according to Robert Ridinger in “Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights, 1892–2000”):

The Women’s Movement is an historico-cultural necessity … [it] wants to reform marriage. It wishes to change many rights, so that the difficult and inconsolable conditions of the present cease.

[From] middle class circles the most annoying enemies recruit each other against the movement to free Uranian people. I would like to give as an example my own father, when by chance he came to speak about homosexuality, explained with conviction “nothing of the sort can happen in my family.” The facts prove the opposite. I need add nothing to that statement.

[From] the very beginnings of the Women’s Movement to the present day it has been more often than not homogenic women who took over the leadership in numerous battles … I will not name anyone. [But] if we weigh all the contributions which homosexual women have made to the Women’s Movement, one would be astounded that its large and influential organizations have not lifted a finger to obtain justice for the not so small number of its [lesbian] members.

The Movement is moving incessantly forward … It is fighting for the rights of free individuals and of self-determination. Victory will come as a sign of radicalism. Per aspera ad astra! (Through hardships to the stars)

Regrettably, Anna took a different tack as World War I loomed. She became an ultranationalist, ultrapatriot imperialist. She lived four more decades, still practicing her theatrical talents and her journalism. She was Germany’s oldest female journalist when she died in 1953 at 72.

More reading:

Lesbian-Feminism in Turn-of-the-Century Germany—Lillian Faderman and Brigitte Eriksson, Naiad Press Inc, 1980.