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“I Am Obliged to Reside in America”: A Gay Immigrant Tells His Story in 1882

by Richard Von Krafft-Ebing

The reasons immigrants had for leaving their homelands and coming to America were as diverse as the backgrounds of the immigrants themselves. Although most immigrants came to the United States for economic reasons some sought a new home because of persecution based on their politics, religious beliefs, or even their sexual orientation. In this 1882 letter sent to medical writer and sexologist Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a thirty-eight-year-old German-born merchant explained how a homosexual arrest in his homeland forced him to emigrate to the United States.

I have read your article in the Zeitschrift fur Psychiatrie. By it I and thousands of others are rehabilitated in the eyes of every thinking and half-way fair-minded man, and I give you my heartiest thanks therefor. You will know how cases like mine are derided, execrated and persecuted. I well understand that science has taken hold of this matter so recently that in the eyes of one whose mind is sound and who is unversed in the nature of this disease, it appears as a horrible and unnatural crime. Ulrich[s] has not overestimated the prevalence of this disease. In my own city (13,000 inhabitants) I personally know of fourteen cases, and in a city of 60,000 people I know of eighty.

I will take the liberty of encroaching on your time by giving a short sketch of my life, and shall do so with all frankness. I will perhaps furnish you with data for your critical studies of this malady. You may make such use of these statements as you see fit so long as my name is suppressed...

Until I was twenty-eight years old I had no suspicion that there were others constituted like myself. One evening in the castle garden at X?, where, as I subsequently found, those constituted like myself were accustomed to seek and find each other, I met a man who powerfully excited my sexual feelings, so much so that I had a seminal emission. With that I lost my better manhood and came often to the park and sought similar places in other cities.

You will readily conceive that with the knowledge thus acquired there came a sort of comfort—the satisfaction of association and the sense of no longer being alone and singular. The oppressive thought, that I was not as others were, left me. The love affairs which now followed gave life a certain zest which I had never known before. But I was only hurrying to my fate. I had formed an intimate acquaintance with a young man. He was eccentric, romantic and frivolous in the extreme and without means. He obtained complete control over me and held me as if I were his legal wife. I was obliged to take him into business. Scenes of jealousy which are scarcely conceivable took place in my house. He repeatedly made attempts at suicide with poison and it was with difficulty that I saved his life. I suffered terribly by reason of his jealousy, tyranny, obstinacy and brutality. When jealous he would beat me and threaten to betray my secret to the authorities. I was kept in constant suspense lest he should do so. Again and again I was obliged to rid my house of this openly insane lover by making large pecuniary sacrifices. His passion for me and his shameless avarice drove him back to me. I was often in utter despair and yet could confide my troubles to no one. After he had cost me 10,000 francs, and a new attempt at extortion had failed, he denounced me to the police. I was arrested and charged with having sexual relations with my accuser, who was as guilty as myself! I was condemned to imprisonment. My social position was totally destroyed, my family brought to sorrow and shame, and the friends who had heretofore held me in high esteem now abandoned me with horror and disgust. That was a terrible time! And yet I had to say to myself ‘You have sinned, yes, grievously sinned against the common-ideas of morality, but not against nature.’ A thousand times no! part of the blame at least should fall upon the antiquated law which would confound with depraved criminals those who are forced by nature to follow the inclinations of a diseased and perverted instinct...

I know of a case in Geneva where an admirable attachment between two men like myself has existed for seven years. If it were possible to have a pledge of such a love they might well make pretensions to marriage . . .One thing is true. Our loves bear as fair and noble flowers incite to as praiseworthy efforts as does the love of man for the woman of his affections. There are the same sacrifices, the same joy in abnegation even to the laying down of life, the same pain, the same joy, sorrow, happiness, as with men of ordinary natures. . . .

In consequence of the disgrace which came upon me in my fatherland I am obliged to reside in America. Even now I am in constant anxiety lest what befell me at home should be discovered here and thus deprive me of the respect of my fellow-men.

May the time soon come when science shall educate the people so that they shall rightly judge our unfortunate class, but before that time can come there will be many victims.

Source: Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, “Perversion of the Sexual Instinct ? Report of Cases,” trans. H. M. Jewett, Alienist and Neurologist (St. Louis, Missouri), vol. 9, no. 4 (Oct. 1888). Reprinted in American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., ed. Jonathan Katz (New York: Avon Books, 1976), 59–60.