Through science, to justice

The LGBTI rights movement started with science — but research and rationalism has a complicated relationship with queer liberation. 

As unlikely as it sounds, science helped pave the way for LGBTI rights.   Newtown Grafitti/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

As unlikely as it sounds, science helped pave the way for LGBTI rights. Newtown Grafitti/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


This is an editorial for Issue 8 by Lateral deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill, who is as queer as whatever dollar bill you think is the gayest.

Science is a lot of things. It can be something you do, or something you know. It can be good, or bad, or neither. It can be ‘blue sky’ research, with no goal other than to do it; or it can be a powerful tool for social justice and change. 

The idea for this month’s theme came from reading about science’s importance in driving the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Since 19th century Germany, emerging ideas around scientific explanations for homosexuality helped the cause of political activists – a relationship that continues today. 

Often considered the first leader and advocate of the movement, Magnus Hirschfeld (the 'Einstein of sex') was a Jewish physician and sexologist working in Berlin from the mid-1890s – a city with a diverse queer community, but where sex between men was punishable by imprisonment (a law actively enforced – hundreds of men were imprisoned each year).  Hirschfeld practiced medicine and wrote about his findings, including witnessing men driven to suicide by their disturbance with their own sexuality. He published work describing a prenatal cause for homosexuality and arguing, therefore, for its decriminalisation. It was this work that led to the 1897 foundation of the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (WhK) – the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first LGBTI rights organisation in history. The motto – “through science to justice” – reflected Hirschfeld’s idea that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would help end homophobia (it was also engraved on his tombstone, after his passing in 1935). 

The WhK and its Institute for Sexual Sciences (also headed by Hirschfeld) conducted research into human sexuality, and campaigned to repeal the law against sex between men on scientific grounds. They submitted petitions to government – with signatories including Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann – which were all unsuccessful. The Institute, and all its archives, were destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. Male-male sexual acts continued to be a crime in Germany until 1994. 

But Hirschfeld’s key idea – through science, to justice – continued to be a powerful one for the LGBTI rights movement. His advocacy inspired the formation of the Society for Human Rights in 1924, the first American gay rights organisation. His work influenced other important sexologists, such as Alfred Kinsey and his large-scale studies in the US. The idea of a biological basis for homosexuality has been an important one to explore – gay liberation started with the argument that we are born this way, and this reasoning has continued to be central to the movement. 

But despite the gains the “born this way”/gay gene/biological justification has made for gay liberation, it also starts to raise questions science just can’t answer. When it comes to human rights, does it really matter if someone is born this way? If someone could change – if they tried, or if they wanted to – should they have to? Is it only okay to be gay if you have no choice? 

Science has been an integral part of the queer rights movement. Research and reasoning bring rationality and gravitas to the fight for political progress. Science has been vital in supporting trans recognition and rights, and in beginning to bring an end to forced ‘normalisation surgery’ for intersex babies – just as it was an important tool for feminists fighting for women’s liberation, and helps us argue against racism. But science alone isn’t enough to get to justice – the society around it has to change, too. 

Science and research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even the most progressive scientist is still subject to the ideas and influences of their time and place. Scientists also don’t always (or even often) agree – many sexologists disagreed with Hirschfeld, including researchers in his own Institute. We also shouldn’t forget the myriad examples of abuse of the queer community in the name of science, too: irreversible surgeries still performed on intersex babies, conversion therapy programs (such as through the world-renowned Masters and Johnson Institute), the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1974. Hirschfeld himself, while being a pioneer of the gay rights movement, believed that medical conversion was possible.  We move forwards, slowly, but we go in all other directions first. 

In 2016, while research has continued into the biology of gayness and bisexuality, the science of gender identity, and even into supporting and recognising queer people working in science; the LGBTI community continues to face discrimination around the world – such as through social exclusion, health issues, violence and corrective rape. While science is an important part of the queer rights movement, it can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all; a shift in social attitudes is needed, too.    

Through science, to justice – eventually. 

This edition of Lateral seeks to celebrate the long relationship between science and the LGBTI community – one that continues to advocate together for human rights, justice and liberation.