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Germany Throws Out Convictions of 50,000 Gay Men

The legislation in question has a dark history, with strong ties to the Nazi regime

Prost! Good news comes from Germany this week, where the Federal Republic will finally do away with convictions left over from an era in which homosexuality was criminalized. The law left those persecuted, even decades ago, with a permanent criminal record, the BBC reports.

Known as Paragraph 175 for its physical placement in the penal code, the legislation in question has a dark history, with strong ties to the Nazi regime (although it was first drafted more than a century ago, in 1871). Paragraph 175 made “unnatural fornication, whether between persons of the male sex or humans with beasts” a crime punishable by imprisonment and a loss of civil rights.

While the Weimar Republic largely overlooked the law—with Germans preferring instead to allow Berlin to flourish as “one of the gayest cities in the world,” as the Dallas Voice reported in 2011—the party abruptly came to an end when the Nazis seized power and found a ready legislative ally in Paragraph 175. The Nazis supercharged the law, adding provisions that included those who engage in “lewdness” as well as “passive partners” to also warrant arrest. The next decade saw 100,000 gay men convicted of homosexuality, with some suffering castrations and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps, where their uniforms were adorned with pink triangles.

Even after the Nazi regime fell, however, Paragraph 175 stood. Those years were ones of “constant fear among gay men”, the Federal Advocates for Gay Seniors, a non-profit group in Germany, writes on its website. The law created an atmosphere in which “an openly gay life was not possible.” Evidence exists that some men committed suicide as a result.

In 1969, Paragraph 175 was significantly reigned in in East Germany, and homosexuality itself was decriminalized. Only those who engaged in prostitution, sex with underage men or coerced men into sex were still subject to conviction, which entailed imprisonment of up to five years. But discrimination still plagued the country: while most who spent time in concentration camps received reparations from the government in 1956, those sent there for homosexuality did not. And in West Germany, the law stood until 1994. West Germany continued to use the Nazi’s version of the law until 1969, and even after that, the age of consent for homosexual acts was set at 21 years old, as opposed to 16 years old for heterosexual acts.

After Paragraph 175 was finally abolished, however, even then those who had been convicted under it did not have their records wiped clean. It wasn’t until 2002—a year after Germany legalized same sex civil partnerships—that the country gave gay men who spent time in concentration camps a full pardon, the BBC reports.

Yet Germany still overlooked all the men who were convicted under Paragraph 175 from 1946 to 1969. Those numbers were not trivial, either—around 50,000. Meanwhile, the men behind that statistic have had to “continue to live with the fact that they are considered criminals, because the judgements have not been abolished,” the Federal Advocates for Gay Seniors writes. In other words, “You still need to feel guilty about having lived and loved gay.” The group adds that the criminal code, from the beginning, represented a violation of basic human dignity and rights.

Now, at last, that long nightmare seems to be coming to an end. A report commissioned by Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency “has found that the government is legally obliged to rehabilitate the men,” the BBC writes. Rehabilitation means the men will officially be decriminalized, although whether any form of compensation will be a part of it, remains unclear, the New York Times writes. But as Germany’s Lesbian and Gay Federation notes, many of the victims are elderly; advocates are pushing for a speedy resolution.

“The victims can no longer wait,” Ann Kathrin Sost, a spokesperson for Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Agency, told GOOD by email. “The most important issue for them is to no longer live with the taint of conviction and to get back their dignity.”

The author of the study, Martin Burgi, a professor of law at Ludwig Maximillians University Munich, declined interview requests for this story, claiming that he is not qualified to say whether or not this counts as a victory for Germany.

Others, however, are less reserved in their opinions. “We will never be able to eliminate completely these outrages by the state, but we want to rehabilitate the victims,” Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, told the New York Times. “The homosexual men who were convicted should no longer have to live with the taint of conviction.”

Sost adds that this development is significant for the whole of German society. “German citizens will see that their government is able to acknowledge its mistakes and work to rectify a grave injustice,” she says. “Past discriminations are not ignored.”

Gay marriage, however, has yet to be legalized in Germany. Many hope that that will be the next wall to be torn down.

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