Wednesday, May 29, 2019

New Discovery Documents First U.S. Gay Activist: The Reverend Carl Schlegel guest blog by Johnathan Ned Katz

Photo from a microfilm of a booklet published by the German
Reformed Church, New York City, 1898. No clearer, printed
copy has been discovered.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Resistance for initiating a new era of LGBT militant activism, we can now also honor the pioneering activism of a Presbyterian minister 62 years earlier.

Newly discovered evidence shows that the Reverend Carl Schlegel, a German immigrant to the U.S., publicly defended homosexuals’ desires and acts in New Orleans, in 1906 and 1907. This makes him the earliest known U.S. homosexual emancipation activist, one of a dozen-or-so known pre-Stonewall politicos.

Schlegel advocated for homosexuals within his church and distributed the publications of a Berlin-based, German homosexual emancipation organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. A later pioneering activist, Henry Gerber, was inspired by that same German organization to found the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, in 1924, the first U.S. homosexual liberation organization. News of German homosexual organizing traveled internationally with these two pioneers.

The new evidence, published on on June 1, 2019, appears in the Minutes of the Presbytery of New Orleans for January 29, 1907. These Minutes report the members of the Presbytery judging Rev. Schlegel guilty of defending "the lawfulness and naturalness of the condition, and in some cases of the actual practice of homo-sexualism, Sodomy, or Uranism. . . ."
"Uranism” was an awkward adaptation of the German “Urning,” a nineteenth-century term for a biological male understood to be born with the psyche of a female, meaning at the time, a man whose sexual desire was for men.

Schlegel’s own words were quoted. He advocated “the same laws” for “homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, [and] asexuals.” Asserting the legal equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals was a daring stance at the time. It would become a major tactic of U.S. LGBT activists later in the century. Schlegel’s including bisexuals and asexual persons in his proselytizing is the earliest-known U.S. bid for these groups’ legal equality.

This minister was also quoted as urging the same punishment for all persons who committed the following acts: “First, if they use compulsion. Second, if they are found to offend publicly. Third, if they use or misuse children.”

On January 29, 1907, members of Presbytery of New Orleans voted to find Schlegel guilty of “sin” and fired him. Earlier, in 1905, Schlegel had also been fired from the ministry of a prominent New York church, probably for promoting the same homosexual emancipation ideas and literature.

After Schlegel's demotion, a New Orleans newspaper reported: to those accustomed to the proper conduct of Presbyterian ministers "Mr. Schlegel was always queer."

I discovered the new evidence of Schlegel’s pioneering activism in the archive of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia. Relevant pages of the major document, The Minutes of the Presbytery of New Orleans, are republished on OutHistory.

Though Schlegel’s activism appears to have had no lasting effect, his daring was remarkable. Perhaps the documentation of his activism will lead to the discovery of other lost, LGBT activist pioneers.

Carl Schlegel’s life and all the known documentation of his homosexual emancipation activities are detailed in the following new feature on The Reverend Carl Schlegel by Jonathan Ned Katz

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