Communism tends to be equated with homophobia. It is often imagined as a backward force, putting on hold economic, political and social advancements, including the adoption of LGBT rights and the development of LGBT activism. As Dennis Altman wrote in 1971: “prejudice against homosexuality as ‘a bourgeois degeneracy’ became strongly imbued in Communist Parties throughout the world.” Or as Conor O’Dwyer argued in 2013: “communism left a profoundly destructive legacy in this sphere, bequeathing a history of state repression of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals […] .” In my new book, Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Border Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines, I challenge such imaginations, pointing out that one of the key problems behind them is lumping communist countries together, as if they all adopted a uniform attitude towards homosexuality.
To start, communist Europe had a complicated geopolitical structure. The Soviet Union was undoubtedly the leader of the Eastern Bloc. Yet, as its official name indicates – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR – it consisted of different (though hardly autonomous) republics; in its final years, there were fifteen. In addition, the Eastern Bloc included six satellite countries, more autonomous than the republics but still politically, economically and militarily closely associated with the Soviet Union: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Finally, communist Europe also included two non-aligned states: Yugoslavia, which split up with the Soviet Union in 1948, and Albania, which escaped the Soviet Union’s patronage in 1960.
The Soviet Union’s ‘antisodomy law’ – which punished same-sex acts between men by up to five years in prison with hard labour – is too often considered as representing how all of communist Europe dealt with homosexuality. In the Soviet Union alone, however, the situation was nuanced. In fact, the Bolsheviks, who came to power during the October Revolution of 1917, had decriminalized male homosexuality already in 1922. Then, Joseph Stalin recriminalized male homosexuality in 1933-1934 with the already mentioned punishment of up to five years in prison with hard labour. Finally, Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, in order to join the Council of Europe. Other former Soviet republics also decriminalized homosexuality only after the breakthrough in 1991 or have not yet done so: Ukraine in 1991, Estonia and Latvia in 1992, Lithuania in 1993, Belarus in 1994, Moldova in 1995, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in 1998, Azerbaijan and Georgia in 2000, Armenia in 2003, while in the mid-2017, male same-sex acts are still illegal in Turkmenistan (up to two years of imprisonment) and Uzbekistan (up to three years of imprisonment).
Yet, the Soviet Union did not require uniformity in this respect from its satellite countries. Poland presented the strongest divergence from the Soviet model. Same-sex acts continued to be formally criminalized in the country after the First World War, when the penal codes of the former occupants (Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary) remained in power. They mostly criminalized male same-sex acts, though the Austrian code included broader provisions against so-called ‘same-sex fornication’ and was indeed also used against women. The new Polish penal code of 1932, however, decriminalized consensual same-sex acts, and they have not been recriminalized since. This new law simply reflected the Napoleonic Code of 1804, which had been used as a model for the 1808 law of the Duchy of Warsaw, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807 from the Polish lands ceded by Prussia. It was also influenced by the prominent Polish sociologists of that time, Antoni Mikulski and Leon Wachholz, who promoted the interpretation of homosexuality as innate. Interestingly, many Western countries – usually perceived as more progressive than Central and Eastern European countries – were lagging behind Poland with respect to the legal status of homosexuality. Denmark, for example, decriminalized same-sex acts in 1933, Sweden in 1944, England in 1967, Canada in 1969, West Germany in 1969, Austria in 1971, Finland in 1971, Norway in 1972, Ireland in 1993 and the United States, often considered as the prototype of the West, fully decriminalized homosexuality only in 2003, more than seventy years after Poland did so.
Other satellite countries of the Soviet Union usually decriminalized same-sex acts before the fall of communism in Europe: Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1962, Bulgaria and East Germany in 1968, the only exception being Romania, which did so in 1996. Again, before decriminalization most of the countries had criminalized same-sex acts only between men but Romania also punished the acts between women. The situation was even more complicated in Yugoslavia, which allowed its different republics to establish their own laws regarding homosexuality. As a result, same-sex acts were decriminalized in Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia already in 1977, when the republics still belonged to Yugoslavia. Other republics made homosexuality legal only after the collapse of Yugoslavia which started in 1991: Serbia in 1994, Macedonia in 1996 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002. To obtain an even more accurate picture, we should also recognize that in the 1980s homosexuality was illegal in Kosovo but legal in Vojvodina, both being autonomous provinces within the Republic of Serbia, which belonged to Yugoslavia. Albania, in turn, officially legalized homosexuality in 1977, although in reality it retained other laws criminalizing same-sex acts until 1995.
Furthermore, different countries followed different trajectories of legal change throughout this time. In Romania, for example, the general tendency was to strengthen the anti-homosexual laws during the Cold War. In 1937, the state criminalized female and male same-sex acts – yet only those that led to a ‘public scandal’; practically, those in the public space – with the punishment of six months to two years of incarceration. In 1948, Romania additionally introduced punishments for public displays of homosexuality (two to five years of incarceration) and in 1957, it criminalized not only public but also private same-sex acts with the increased prison time of three to ten years, reduced in 1968 to one to five years.
In East Germany, by contrast, there was a general tendency towards liberalization. At first the communist state adopted paragraph 175 of the 1871 legal code, while carrying over paragraph 175a of the Nazi legal code, which forbade ‘unnatural desire’ between men. First attempts at decriminalizing homosexuality in East Germany were already made in 1952 and 1958, thanks largely to the efforts of psychiatrist Rudolf Klimmer, a closeted homosexual who had also advocated for the official recognition of homosexuals as victims of Nazism. The country finally decriminalized homosexuality in 1968, a year before West Germany did so. However, at the same time East Germany implemented a new paragraph which introduced an inequality with regard to age of consent: fourteen for heterosexuals and eighteen for homosexuals, both women and men. Therefore, historian Jennifer Evans calls the decriminalization a pyrrhic victory: “The hard-fought guarantees of sexual self-determination for adult men came at a cost as female and male youths garnered additional scrutiny for their sexual choices and actions.”
How, then, do we answer the question posed in the title of this post? Was homosexuality illegal in communist Europe? The only accurate answer we can offer is the following: it was complicated. The question assumes that there was one uniform legal framework regarding homosexuality in all European countries under communism. In my book, I show that this was simply not the case. Moreover, I also indicate how that diversity of legal provisions reflected the diversity of state practices and media representations of homosexuality as well as the diversity of developments of more systematically organized homosexual groups in the region: one of them, Homeros Lambda in Hungary, was in fact officially recognized by a communist state in March 1988.
In other words, despite the strong political, economic and military alliance between Eastern Bloc countries, they did not adopt a uniform position towards homosexuality. Some of them criminalized same-sex acts and persecuted homosexuals throughout the Cold War, as did some Western countries at the same time. Others displayed an ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality and did not take a clear stance on it, reacting to it differently at different times. Therefore, what we can learn from this brief overview of how communist Europe governed homosexuality is, first and foremost, that crudely equating communism with homophobia is erroneous.
Lukasz Szulc is Marie Curie Individual Fellow in the Media and Communications Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK, the author of Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland (2017) and co-editor of the book LGBTQs, Media and Culture in Europe (2017). This essay originally appeared at Notches on October 24, 2017.