“Homosexuality is not a disease. Therefore, even the term therapy is misleading,” Spahn told The Washington Post in an emailed statement.
Conversion therapy seeks to change same-sex attractions, gender identity and gender expression, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which found no evidence that the practice works or has scientific credibility.
“A ban sends out an important signal to society, to all those who struggle with their homosexuality: It’s okay to be the way you are,” Spahn said.
Western society is moving away from conversion therapy, and Germany is simply following suit.
Last year, the majority of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup condemned all conversion therapy in an amendment that encouraged member states of the European Union to adopt similar bans that would “uphold the right to gender identity and gender expression.”
In January, the informal collective of the European Parliament members condemned conversion therapy practices for the second consecutive time, in an annual report on fundamental rights in the E.U. in 2017. Malin Bjork of Sweden, vice president of the LGBTI Intergroup, said the European Parliament must keep condemning conversion therapy until it no longer exists.
Malta is the only European country to have a nationwide ban on conversion therapy, with DW News suggesting that leaves space for Germany to become a role model in how to protect LGBTQ Europeans.
Spahn’s new legislation might stand a chance of passing, compared with past attempts, as non-heterosexual and gender-nonconforming individuals are becoming more accepted and understood by science and society.
The German government renounced conversion therapy in 2008 but with no laws to back up the statement. Volker Beck, then a member of the German parliament, introduced a conversion ban in 2013 that carried a penalty of 500 euros, or about $550. The bill was never voted on. Spahn told Die Tageszeitung in February that he didn’t think the amount was punitive enough.
Spahn’s new bill will include a fine of more than $30,000 just for advertising conversion therapy.
While Germany’s potential outright ban could be seen as more progressive compared with efforts in the United States, the country also has a complicated past when it comes to protecting or harming LGBTQ citizens, historians say.
Anti-sodomy laws, which largely targeted gay men, were placed in German law in 1871, the same year the country became a nation-state in the German empire. Punishment for the crime carried up to six months in prison at the time, and various forms of it remained on German books until June 11, 1994.
The United States didn’t remove its sodomy laws from the books until 2003.
Germany has been ahead of the United States when it comes to its attitudes toward LGBTQ people, said Laurie Marhoefer, associate professor of history at the University of Washington and author of “Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis.”
“With gay rights, we think it started with Stonewall, but it actually started in 19th-century Germany. The first gay rights movement was founded in Berlin in 1897,” she said. “It’s a lot less sexy than the riots.”
Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish German physician and sexuality theorist, was one of the co-founders of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first gay rights organization. The organization fought for the repeal of the sodomy law, known as Paragraph 175, to educate the public about homosexuality and to get gay people interested in fighting for their rights.
Hirschfeld argued that research showed homosexuality to be innate and not a kind of illness.
“It was radical in the 19th century to say that consensual sex between adult men is legal and that people could be born gay,” Marhoefer said.
The center-left people who rose to power in the Weimar Republic were very relaxed with censorship, which provided room for gay, lesbian and transgender magazines to exist. The period also nearly saw the repeal of the sodomy law in 1929, thanks in part to Hirschfeld’s influence through another organization he co-founded called the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which loosely translates to the Institute of Sexology.
Coming close to repealing the law in 1929 was a sign of just how progressive Germans were at the time, Marhoefer said.
That progress was swiftly reversed by the rise of the Nazis.
While gay Germans did have many liberties and had their own social spaces, there was still a dark side to the period, according to Clayton Whisnant, Chapman professor of humanities and European history at Wofford College.
Whisnant wrote “Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880—1945” and “Male Homosexuality in West Germany: Between Persecution and Freedom, 1945-69 (Genders and Sexualities in History).”
Sodomy laws were still on the books, gay people (especially men) were still being arrested, and police were shutting down magazines, prompting more to pop up and resulting in the many titles that researchers point to today as a sign of a spirited gay movement, Whisnant said.
“There’s even a lot of research coming out that more people were being arrested in the 1920s than the 1800s,” he said, noting that gay police were also being exposed to psychotherapy and that even the much-lauded Hirschfeld faced death threats, a riot at one of his Munich talks and personal attacks.
The 1920s, Whisnant said, foreshadowed what was to come in 1933 when the Nazi party gained control of government.
Because gay German men weren’t seen as contributing to the long-term goals of the Aryan population, they were viewed as antithetical to German values and culture, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
The Nazis strengthened Paragraph 175 by changing the law to include any acts between men that could be construed as gay and outlawing homosexual organizations, such as the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, whose bookshelves were raided and burned.
This meant police crackdowns on gay cruising sites and a record number of people arrested for suspected homosexuality, Whisnant said.
About 100,000 people were arrested for homosexuality and about half of them were sentenced to prison, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia. Moreover, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 men were sent to work or concentration camps.
Gay prisoners wore a pink inverted triangle on their uniforms and were subjected to experiments that included hormonal injections and castration. The Nazis were curious to see whether homosexuality could be reversed.
The fall of the Nazis left behind a dismal gay scene that struggled to rebuild itself and, to a large degree, tried to pick up from where it had been before the Nazis, Whisnant said. The gay movement in Germany was rather stagnant, as gay Germans had to cope with those who died under the Nazi regime, and those who had passed as heterosexual during that time tried to move on as new crop of gay Germans emerged.
Gay life in East and West Germany looked very similar, though the protections weren’t the same, said Samuel Clowes Huneke, assistant professor of European History at George Mason University.
While gay East Germans, because of their authoritarian government, didn’t develop much of a subculture compared with their West German counterparts, gay East Germans were more successful in pushing for policy changes.
“The regime was freaked out about independent political organizations, and these alternative movements posed a real threat to their power,” Huneke said, noting that many of the activists were members of the socialist party and weren’t really interested in taking down the government.
East Germany relaxed its homosexuality laws before its democratic peer, and it completely repealed the sodomy law in 1968 with the only caveat being a higher age of consent for gay sex, Huneke wrote in the Boston Review.
Gay East Germans were allowed to join the military by the late 1980s, state-run newspapers started writing about gay men and lesbians, and the government provided resources to gay citizens, Huneke said. East Germany eventually relented on the age of consent for gay sex.
The government “believed that if it gave in to policy demands, there would be no reason for these groups to exist,” Huneke said, noting that West Germany had a more thriving gay culture but lagged on gay rights.
Germany has still fallen behind in gay rights, though it is relatively progressive.
Surrogacy, a method that many gay couples use to have biological children, is also still illegal, Huneke pointed out.
“There are a lot of issues where Germany is sort of retrograde,” he said.