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social sciences

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Denmark, the little Scandinavian fairy tale country of Hans Christian Andersen, has a reputation for sexual liberation, tolerance, and progressive social policy in regards to glbtq issues.

From Sodomy to Homosexuality

Historically, the crime of was harshly punished. During the Middle Ages, it was dealt with as an ecclesiastical matter. After the Reformation, it became the province of the secular courts. However, almost all cases involved sex with animals. Until the 1830s, very few men were officially punished for having sex with a man or a boy.

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As part of the idea that sodomy was the sin not to be spoken of by Christians, government policy was to keep instances of same-sex sexual activity from public knowledge. Rather than prosecute them in the courts, authorities would unofficially warn rumored participants in same-sex sexual activity and then ban them from towns and provinces if such activity persisted.

By 1860, after Copenhagen had experienced a period of rapid growth and achieved the size necessary to sustain a sodomitical subculture, a section of the ramparts surrounding the city had become a cruising place for men.

However, most Danes during the nineteenth century regarded same-sex sexual attraction and activity as a foreign phenomenon. Influenced by developments in Berlin, where a medical model of congenital homosexuality emerged and a large homosexual subculture thrived, many Danes, both homosexuals and their detractors, looked to Germany for guidance. In 1905, in reaction to recurring homosexual scandals involving prostitution, Denmark adopted a statute making male homosexual prostitution illegal.

Homosexuality Becomes Public

In the 1890s homosexuality began to be sensationalized in the tabloid press. Scandals in the period from 1906 to 1911 led to mass press coverage, homosexual roundups, flights into exile, and suicides. Homosexuality was recognized as a local phenomenon and regarded as a moral problem. In 1907 experts estimated the number of male homosexuals in Denmark at several thousands. By 1912 the moral panic had died down.

The earliest public homosexuals in Denmark were literary critic Clemens Petersen (1834-1918) and actor Joakim Reinhard (1858-1925). Both fled to the United States to avoid scandal.

The most important homosexual public figure in Denmark of the early twentieth century was the writer and journalist Herman Bang (1857-1912), who was forced to leave the country for years. Bang shaped and embodied the modern concept of male homosexuality, with its connection to aristocracy, art, nervous degeneration, refinement, exhibitionism, tragedy, and suicide.

After Bang's death, his friend and colleague Christian Houmark (1869-1950) replaced him as Denmark's public male homosexual. Houmark was the first to discuss homosexuality in literature, especially in his debut novel of 1910. There were no prominent and public lesbians at the time.

The sentencing to prison of a number of men for sodomy in 1907 provoked a debate about the decriminalization of homosexuality. Medical experts, who regarded homosexuality as a congenital medical problem, and members of the legal establishment argued that sodomy, which was punishable by a year in prison if between adults and up to four years with boys under the age of 15, should be removed from the criminal code. The Royal Commission on a New Civil Code, in a report issued in 1912, recommended that sodomy be abolished as a criminal category. The new Code would not be adopted for some time, however.

Before World War I, no pub or restaurant catering to a predominantly homosexual clientele was known to exist. The earliest such establishments date from the period between the two world wars.

Cultural Radicalism and Backlash

The 1930s saw the founding of cultural radicalism, a movement working for sex education, gender equality, abortion, contraception, and tolerance toward sexual variation. The movement was an important voice in debates over sexuality.

When the new civil criminal code was finally adopted in 1933, homosexuality was decriminalized. The reform extended to Iceland, which at the time was part of the kingdom. The code established eighteen as the age of consent for homosexual relations, as opposed to fifteen for heterosexual relations.

In 1941, the first explicit lesbian novel appeared under the pseudonym Agnete Holk.

After World War II, Denmark experienced a backlash. The country had developed into a modern, industrialized society. Homosexuality was portrayed as an evil consequence of modernity, urbanization, and decadence.

Police intensified efforts to control homosexual activity, employing agent provocateurs (the so-called masturbation patrols) who arrested homosexual men for sex in public. Age of consent laws were stringently enforced; sex with "boys," including those who could give consent to heterosexual relations, was severely punished, often with castration or aversion therapy.

As a reaction to the growing repression, a organization was formed under the nondescript name "The League of 1948." The organization downplayed the sexual elements of homosexuality and employed discreet lobbying to win compassion and understanding. In 1954, it founded the magazine, Pan, which is now the oldest, continuously published homosexual magazine in the world.

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Denmark and neighboring countries in 2004.
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