30 Years Ago, Germany Abolished Legal Persecution of Homosexuals

Patrick Dörr was only 10 years old when something historic happened in Germany: on June 11, 1994, the German parliament, the Bundestag, finally decided to abolish Paragraph 175, which criminalized sex between men. “But 30 years ago, the clocks in Germany were still ticking differently in socio-political terms,” recalls Dörr, who is the federal director of the Association of Lesbians and Gays in Germany.

“In 1994, Germany was still a country where these issues were not talked about much. It was not a topic in school, I didn’t know anyone else who was LGBT. There were also hardly any role models in the media. That has changed a lot, which is a good thing.” Keeping the Nazi legislation
The history of the so-called “Gay Paragraph” dates back to the 19th century. The law introduced at the founding of the German Empire in 1871 punished “unnatural fornication” between men with up to six months in prison.

The Nazis intensified the persecution: even a kiss or a lustful glance was enough for a homosexual to end up in prison. Cases of “serious fornication” were punished with up to 10 years in prison. Around 100,000 homosexuals were deported, tortured, and killed during the Third Reich.
The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) incorporated the Nazi version of the law with few changes, while the German Democratic Republic (GDR), under communist rule, returned to the old version of the Penal Code. With great zeal and the help of the Nazis’ “pink lists,” around 100,000 proceedings were initiated against homosexuals in the FRG, half of which were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

Before the reunification of the country, the supposedly backward communist Germany managed to prevent the laws of the old FRG from becoming laws of the reunified Germany, especially regarding Paragraph 175 and abortion. Many experts are certain that, without reunification, the abolition of Paragraph 175 would have taken even longer.
“Approval rates for LGBT lifestyles are rising among women, but falling among young men,” reports Patrick Dörr, Photo: Caro Kadatz/LSVD
For 123 long years, life was hell for homosexuals in Germany. This makes the speed of advancements in the area and what has been achieved in terms of LGBT rights since 1994 even more surprising.

“The Civil Partnership Law was introduced in 2001, then marriage for all was actually introduced by Angela Merkel in 2017. Since 2018, there has been a third gender in the Civil Registry. And recently, the Self-Determination Law was also passed, allowing transsexuals and intersexuals to self-determine their gender,” says Patrick Dörr.

Paragraph 175 remains a shameful stain on German history. But at least those affected, who were criminally convicted, imprisoned, or acquitted, can apply for compensation by 2027, as well as those who have demonstrably suffered professional, economic, or health-related disadvantages. A spokesperson for the German Ministry of Justice confirmed to DW that a total of 353 people had filed for compensation by May 1, 2024. And 262 compensation claims were approved.

“There should have been more, definitely. We expected 5,000,” comments Georg Härpfer, former board member of the German Federation for the Representation of the Interests of Elderly Homosexuals. “But most of those who were convicted in the mid-1950s to 1960s were already dead. Others said, ‘I don’t have the will to face this anymore, I’m tired.’ And still others stated that 6,000 euros, which is the highest compensation payment, is very little for a destroyed life.”

Härpfer is probably the most engaged advocate for the victims of Paragraph 175 in Germany. As a representative of elderly gays, he spent years traveling from north to south, east to west of Germany, informing those affected about their rights. He even set up a free hotline and spared no effort to reach his audience, even advertising in publications distributed for free in bakeries and pharmacies across the country.

“Even a 99-year-old gentleman sent in an application, but it was rejected. It should not be forgotten that what criminalized were not just two years spent in prison: the victims were also socially ostracized for having a criminal record. They could not find employment or were fired if they were in public service.”
Rising Hostility
And what is the situation of LGBT people in Germany today, 30 years after the abolition of Paragraph 175? According to an international study published in early June 2024 by the market research and opinion institute Ipsos, a clear majority of Germans – nearly three-quarters – are against the discrimination of the LGBT community and in favor of equal rights. However, anti-queer attitudes are increasing among young men.

A homosexual couple celebrates marriage in Berlin after the law was passed in 2017, Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB/picture alliance
“In the social climate, which has actually been steadily improving over the past decades, we see that at the very least, discrimination has stopped. What is really worrying is that Generation Z is divided. Approval rates for LGBT lifestyles are still increasing among women, but falling again among young men. And that, of course, should be a cause for concern,” reports Patrick Dörr.

The fact that about 1,500 crimes against sexual orientation were reported by the police in 2023 also fits into this trend, which has been steadily increasing over the past 10 years. Dörr also noted more and more aggressions at events like Gay Pride Day, as well as hostility on the streets.

This is not the only reason why, three decades after the end of Paragraph 175, he is calling for an amendment to Article 3 of the German Constitution regarding equal treatment for all.

“Homosexuals and queer people are not mentioned. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that Article 3 of the Basic Law be finally amended. And it should be clear that no one should suffer discrimination, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”