Lawyer J.A. Schorer was the Netherlands’ first gay activist
Lawyer and prosecutor
Jacob Anton Schorer was born on March 1, 1866 in Heinkenszand in Zuid-Beveland to a well-known Zeelandic family. He studied law in Leiden and graduated in 1897 with his thesis The History of Polder Disasters in Zeeland until the Regulation of 1791.
Afterwards, Schorer became a lawyer and prosecutor in Middelburg, where his father was a substitute clerk and vice president of the court.
Nothing at the time hinted to the fact that this young lawyer would become Holland’s first gay activist, because initially he aspired towards a legal career. Nevertheless, in 1903 he moved to Berlin in order to study sexuality in depth at the Wissenschaftlich Humanitäres Komitee (WHK).
This was the first organization in history that protested against anti-homosexual laws. Schorer became one of the close associates of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the WHK. In 1907, the Committee submitted a petition to the German Parliament for amending Article 175 of the German penal code against homosexuality. This petition was also signed by Schorer.
The first gay activist in the Netherlands
At that time, much was also happening in the Netherlands in the area of legislations. For example, the Dutch minister Nelissen submitted a bill for combating immorality in 1909. His successor, Minister Regout, modified the bill in 1910 pejoratively by using the term ‘homophiles’. In 1911, the Dutch Lower House passed the bill by a small majority.
In 1910, Schorer returned to the Netherlands. His initial activities in the Netherlands focused on combating the anti-homosexual Article 248bis in the penal code. This article, which forbade sexual contact between adults and minors (while the legal age was 21 at that time) brought more than 5,000 homosexuals before court hearings. Most of the accused were men and more than half were found guilty. They were incarcerated between three to six months.
Schorer established the Dutch Scientific Humanitarian Committee (NWHK), but received support and cooperation from only a handful of supporters, such as Dr. L.S.A.M. von Römer, Dr. A. Aletrino and the writer M.J.J. Exler. The NWHK in fact became an organized lobby that strived for equal rights for homosexuals. It carried this out by providing information on homosexuality under the motto of per scientiam ad justitiam (via science to justice).
The Schorer Library
With this in mind, Schorer set up a library consisting of scientific works about sexuality and homosexuality and literature in which homosexuality is the theme in one way or the other. Schorer put this unique collection at the disposal of researchers and other interested parties. In those days, libraries hardly had any information available on homosexuality or they refused to make it available.
Thanks to the catalogue published in 1922 and the supplements that appeared starting from 1926, we now know how much was already written about homosexuality before the Second World War, mainly in Germany and France. These materials were often printed in limited editions and are therefore difficult to recover.
When Germany invaded on the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, Schorer decided to close the NWHK and to destroy the archive. Quite soon after, the Germans removed the entire library. It contained 1,880 items and after the liquidation of the NWHK, they all became the private property of Schorer.
Seven years earlier, the Nazis also dismantled the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, which was established by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1919. The library with more than 20,000 books in the area of sexuality and homosexuality went up in flames. Schorer protested and sent appeals regarding his own library, but received no response.
Letters written by Schorer indicate that he had always hoped to recover his library. He would have considered handing it over to the Royal Library (National Library at that time) or to one of the university libraries. Only after a visit to the Ministry of Education in 1942, did he discover that the library was transferred to Berlin.
After the war, Schorer submitted a claim for war-damage compensation based on the ground that his library was plundered, and he never received an answer to his question about the grounds for this. Until today, his library was never found.
Reconstruction of the Schorer Library
In the autumn of 1999, the Dutch Lower House approved a grant of 200,000 guilders to IHLIA. This was part of the division of the fourth tranche of the gold pool from the Asset Redress Second World War Project by the Ministry of Health, Welfare & Sport (VWS). The sum was “intended for projects that focused on victims of Nazi persecution and that was aimed at extermination.” The objective was to preserve and display the historical homosexual and lesbian book collections and the reconstruction of the NWHK library, better known as the Schorer Library.
After receiving the grant, a start was made at reconstructing the library. It then became clear that the part of the library that remained preserved was much smaller than what was initially thought. Therefore, more time and funds were needed to achieve the objective. For the physical reconstruction of the library, books that were available needed to be restored. Furthermore, books that were missing from the collection had to be acquired. In cases where that was not possible or too expensive, there was the option of creating digital copies in order to complete the collection. These could be made available for everyone through the Internet, which would increase accessibility.
The Committee on Restoration of Homosexual Rights following the Second World War believed that it is in the interest of culture to have the collection restored and made accessible to the broad public. The committee recommended having maximum € 128,000 available for this project.