There is often a misconception that history is objective. What has happened, has happened. There is nothing we can do about it. But the question that should be asked urgently is: WHO tells us WHAT about history – and can that still be objective? History books contain the history of the majority society, which creates blind spots. This majority determines what is remembered and how. Parts of the past are forgotten, whole groups of people and their fates are ignored or presented in a false light. Queer history is just as important for our togetherness today and has just as much commemorative value, but it is heartily rare to find. Museums, archives and historians are increasingly willing to add a queer perspective to the culture of remembrance. However, this happens only slowly and the recognition of queer history is not yet fully established at universities. To fill these gaps in history a bit, we would like to give an overview of queer history in Germany in this blog post. However, there is so much more to discover and know than the summary presented here.
Before the 20th century
The fact that there is a distinction of sexualities at all has its origins in the 19th century. Medical discourse around 1800 in Europe first distinguished between heterosexual and homosexual people. Homosexuality was classified as vicious because of the religiously influenced way of life. Same-sex sexual acts could be punished by death, but the higher the social position of those involved, the less likely they were to be sanctioned. Accordingly, it was mainly the poorer section of society that was subject to persecution on the grounds of sexuality. Basically, however, same-sex attraction and sexual activity were considered normal behaviour. The Church shaped the image of homosexuality as something immoral and abnormal. This was also enshrined in law in Article §143 of the Prussian Code from 1850. This article was then changed to §175 of the Reich Penal Code. Both criminalised the practice of same-sex love between men*. The two paragraphs brought to light the first homosexual civil rights movements, which campaigned against the criminalisation of same-sex loving men*. Women’s sexuality at that time was only considered in terms of marriage and serving the man. This meant that women were not thought of as sexual individuals and thus did not need to be included in the legal system.
From 1919 onwards, Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Sciences were a point of contact and reception for many queer people. Hirschfeld campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of §175. His motto was: “Through science to justice”. For Hirschfeld, homosexuality was innate and therefore value-free. However, Magnus Hirschfeld’s research is controversial today. He was a radical biologist and believed, among other things, that homosexuality could be treated. In the “Golden Twenties”, the first mass movement of same-sex lovers emerged. The first magazines for gay men* and shortly afterwards for lesbian women* appeared. Songs and films about same-sex love were produced. Berlin in particular was considered a stronghold of the queer community. In no other city could sexuality be lived so freely at that time.
1930s and 40s
All these achievements and freedoms came to an abrupt end in 1933. When the National Socialists came to power, Paragraph 175 was tightened. Homosexual men* were persecuted, tortured, castrated and/or taken to concentration camps. The publishers, clubs, bars and cafés of the queer community were closed down. The burgeoning emancipation movement was crushed. But not all queer people were silenced by the Nazis, some like Frieda Belinfante, Maria Berner, Gertrude Sandmann, Klaus and Erika Mann, Willem Arondeus, Thérèse Pierre or Josefine Baker fought against fascism. As far as the history of the entire queer community in Germany under National Socialism is concerned, this has not been fully researched. It is assumed that even more people of the community were subjected to the violence of the Nazi regime. In particular, the history of same-sex loving women* under National Socialism requires further investigation. The history of trans* people usually does not even reach the footnotes of historical studies and should therefore be researched more intensively.
In 1945, people were liberated from the concentration camps. But not all of them remained free. Many of the concentration camp prisoners were locked up in prisons because of their sexuality due to §175. People who were sentenced because of this paragraph were considered criminals in the eyes of the majority society and not victims of National Socialism. Queer people were forcibly sterilised, had brain operations or were denied their own sexuality.
Section 175, which had been tightened by the National Socialists, was maintained in West Germany until 1969. Christian morality, which revived in the FRG in the 1950s, made sexual and gender freedom more difficult. Church and state worked hand in hand and continued to push the persecution of homosexual men*. More men* were convicted under §175 during this period than during the entire period of National Socialism. The “Rosa Liste” of National Socialists continued until the 1980s. In 1957, the Federal Constitutional Court announced that the stricter version of §175 StGB did not violate the Basic Law, the principle of equal treatment and the right to free development of the personality and could therefore be retained.
In East Germany, the Weimar Republic version of §175 was adopted in 1950. According to this, only the concrete sexual act between same-sex loving men* was punishable, but no longer the mere suspicion. Seven years later, it was decided to no longer apply the paragraph, and in 1967 it was finally deleted. What remained, however, was social exclusion and oppression.
The process of coming to terms with the Nazi era was and still is modest in both parts of Germany with regard to the queer community. It was and still is suppressed and the commemoration of the queer victims is prevented.
1960s and 1970s
Through uprisings of students and the younger generation, consciousness slowly changed. The old moral concepts and the power of the state to maintain the “moral order” through criminal law were questioned. Initially, in 1968 in the GDR, and in 1969 also in the FRG, the punishability of homosexual acts was abolished. However, there were regulations in the respective parts of Germany regarding the protection of minors in connection with same-sex love. Accordingly, §175 was still retained, but reformulated as a youth protection paragraph. The reason for this was the theory that young people become homosexual themselves through homosexual experiences and thus suffer “damage”.
Even in the 1970s, the population’s rejectionist attitude remained. Although there were no more persecutions, meetings of same-sex lovers were possible as well as easier access to thematic magazines, an open life was not. The first Pride parades took place abroad. People with different sexual and gender identities protested for their rights and visibility. In Germany, it took until the end of the seventies for the first queer movement to dare to take to the streets.
Munich became the new centre for queer identities. Big parties were held, people organised and networked. Then came AIDS. The stigma of “gay disease” established itself in society. Exclusion and hatred towards homosexual people increased enormously. Many same-sex loving men* died, politicians tried to get a grip on the crisis with hair-splitting measures. It was only thanks to the enormous solidarity and commitment of the community that a more tolerant and humane AIDS policy could be established. Despite the suffering and losses, a thriving queer pop and subculture developed in Munich. In the course of the AIDS debate, the stigma of the immorality of same-sex love fell.
In the GDR, the first working group for homosexuality was founded in 1982 at the Protestant Student Community in Leipzig. The queer community gathered under the umbrella of the Protestant church, as this organisation was the only one that was not in state hands and therefore controllable. Gradually, initiatives for same-sex lovers also emerged outside the church framework.
Science and politics continued to deal with homosexuality. In 1994, Paragraph 175 was finally repealed, gender studies were launched and the first queer theories emerged. Same-sex couples could be together openly. Now the question arose why these couples were not allowed to marry. The Lesbian and Gay Association in Germany (LSVD) campaigned for the marriage of same-sex lovers. Due to the enormous media presence, the issue reached the wider society.
On 01.08.2001, the Civil Partnership Act came into force and was thus the minimal solution to the debate surrounding marriage for all. This law did not provide the same legal safeguards as marriage for heterosexual couples. After many negotiations and legal challenges, the queer community succeeded in 2013 in changing the civil partnership to marriage. However, the same rights are still not granted today. Examples of inequality are inheritance and adoption rights. Another milestone of the queer community in Germany was the rehabilitation of convicted men* due to §175. Only in 2017 did a corresponding law come into force. The queer community is also fighting for visibility and equal rights in the church sector.
In the Catholic Church, people of the queer community still have to expect dismissals. Many church employees have to keep parts of their identity secret in order not to risk their jobs. The #outinchurch movement is campaigning for recognition, acceptance and changes to church employment law. On 24.01.2022, 125 queer employees of the Catholic Church came out publicly, many church associations and bishops commented positively on the initiative.
The change in the Catholic Church is being driven forward, among other things, by a petition with over 119,000 signatures. It advocates that no more anti-human statements be made in the context of the magisterium and for a reform of the church’s labour law, as all derogatory and exclusionary formulations are to be deleted from the basic order.
In our culture today, queer identities are getting more and more visibility and space, but the very history behind this achievement is often ignored or forgotten. The German culture of remembrance should be more diverse and the history should be reappraised. The more knowledge there is about different sexual and gender identities in the majority society, the sooner acceptance will be achieved. There is still a lot of room for improvement as far as the legal and social equality of queer people is concerned. So let’s continue to be loud.