The Problem with a U.S.-Centric Understanding of Pride and LGBTQ RightsRoundup
tags: European history, LGBTQ history
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Germany and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University.
Pride month is upon us. Aside from the street festivals, corporate platitudes and sex parties, LGBTQ Pride is meant to be a living embodiment of queer history. The tradition started in June 1970 as a commemoration of the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, when queer people rebelled against police harassment in New York City. But the history we remember remains myopically focused on the United States. The queer past on display each June is a heroic one with familiar, American milestones: the tragedies of the Lavender Scare and the AIDS crisis offset by the triumphs of Stonewall and marriage equality. This story has even been dragooned into progressive narratives of American democracy. In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama declared, “the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
This heroic narrative is, of course, incomplete. More troublingly, centering American experiences implies a necessary correlation among democracy, capitalism and queer liberation. This U.S.-centrism suggests that sexual minorities abroad must hit the same milestones to be liberated. But when we look beyond the United States, it becomes clear that liberation is far from the inevitable end of a progress narrative. Rather it is a local, subjective and ever-changing project.
Germany is a particularly compelling place to interrogate these concerns, for the nation divided by the Cold War charted two very different paths when it came to gay liberation. In 1949, the country formally split into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany. Yet, of the two, it was the liberal democracy that continued Nazi-era persecution of gay men. Over the course of the 20 years between 1949 and 1969, West German courts convicted more than 50,000 queer men under Nazi statutes that remained on the books.
Groups of same-sex desiring men who labeled themselves homophiles (a word they thought sounded more respectable than homosexual) cropped up in West Germany in the early 1950s. Unlike similar groups in the United States and other western European countries, however, they quickly faded. By 1960, they had all but disappeared. There was no Stonewall moment in West Germany, no memorable stand against the oppressive policing and sexual morality of those early postwar decades.
The East German experience with gay liberation was yet more surprising. Although most Westerners assumed such activism could not possibly have been successful in a communist state, by the end of the 1980s, East Germany could realistically lay claim to being one of the most sexually progressive countries on Earth. In the 1970s, gay men and lesbians began to organize together in East Berlin. While the Stasi, the secret police, denied the group the right to organize in public, these tenacious women and men coordinated house parties, steamboat cruises and birthday dinners. In the middle of the decade, they met Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a trans woman who ran a museum in one of East Berlin’s outer neighborhoods. She offered them the museum’s basement to host their activities, and for several years they “bopped and danced like it was 1904.” This arrangement lasted until 1978, when the East Berlin police forbade the group to continue meeting.
But only a few years later, lesbian and gay activists mobilized again, this time under the umbrella of the Protestant Church, the only nominally independent organization in the communist state. Spreading rapidly across the country, they pressured the regime to change laws and social policies, such as allowing gay men to serve in the military, repealing a law that set a higher age of consent for gay and lesbian sex and making it easier for same-sex partners to find housing together. The government tried cracking down on the groups, but to no avail: They continued to grow in size and number. So worried was the Stasi that its functionaries convinced the East German government to accede to activists’ demands. Stasi officials began circulating memos in 1985 insisting that government bodies address gay men and lesbians’ “humanitarian problems,” that is, taking their complaints seriously.
As a result, change came rapidly. The government equalized the age of consent, years before most other countries, including West Germany and the United States. It promulgated a policy allowing openly gay men to serve in the military. Queer people were given the right to seek sexual and mental health counseling. The regime greenlighted the first gay feature film, “Coming Out,” which premiered Nov. 9, 1989 — the night East Germans breached the Berlin Wall. Local governments began sanctioning queer organizations and staging gay disco nights.
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