Gay Liberation Behind the Iron Curtain
A gay golden age in East Germany reveals that Soviet politics were more dynamic than we admit—and that gay rights has less to do with democracy than we tend to assume.
April 18, 2019
Apr 18, 2019
15 Min read time
A gay golden age in East Germany reveals that Soviet politics were more dynamic than we admit—and that gay rights has less to do with democracy than we tend to assume.
Soldiers, the directive read, should strive to “deconstruct traditional moral prejudices against homosexuality.” These words come from neither some long-suppressed Obama-era executive order nor the fantasies of a gay rights group. They constituted one of five “tenets” that communist East Germany’s military adopted in September 1988, around a year before the Berlin Wall was toppled.
The order made East Germany one of the first countries to allow gay men into its military, an achievement that the United States took twenty-three years to match. And if that were not striking enough, the policy was part of a larger suite of pro-gay reforms that the East German dictatorship promulgated between 1985 and 1989.
The LGBTQ movement tends to assume that gay rights are a natural extension of democracy and capitalism. But gay liberation is not as dependent on either as we think.
The rhetoric of the modern LGBTQ movement has tended to assume that gay rights are a natural extension of the promise of democracy. Their spread has become an integral part of the narrative of democracy’s progress, of “the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people,” to quote a character in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America (1991). In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama cited the U.S. gay rights movement, alongside women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, as pivotal moments in our democracy’s story, of its promise “that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still.”
When we imagine what a liberated queer minority looks like, the gulags and breadlines with which we associate twentieth-century communism do not spring to mind. We think rather of our metropolises’ gay neighborhoods—of New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro, of West Hollywood and Chicago’s Boystown—and their bars, cafés, bookstores, sex shops, and theaters that have defined queer culture in this country for decades. Should we ruminate on it at all, we are likely to believe that gay liberation is not only a natural outgrowth of democracy, but also a fundamentally capitalist enterprise. The great gay historian John D’Emilio even went so far as to argue capitalism made the manifestation of modern gay subcultures possible.
At the same time, we know queer people have been a favored scapegoat of authoritarian regimes for at least a century, from Adolf Hitler’s Germany to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As recently as early April, the Sultan of Brunei made international news for authorizing the stoning to death of gay people. So how on Earth could a communist dictatorship have issued an order that not only legalized homosexuality in its military, but also enjoined its soldiers to take an active part in ridding the country of homophobic prejudice?
The short answer is that gay liberation is not as dependent upon capitalist democracy as we have tended to assume. The strange case of East Germany illustrates just how incomplete our view of gay liberation really is.
This story begins with two men in their early twenties, Peter Rausch and Michael Eggert, who met in an East Berlin public bath in the early 1970s. Rausch remembers that Eggert “rose out of the water like an Adonis,” and they soon became friends. It was a serendipitous meeting. Eggert had recently met with West German gay activists who had ventured behind the Berlin Wall. They had shared their aspirations with the young Eggert, who in turn began discussing them with Rausch. Of the significance of the moment, Rausch said, “It had never occurred to me that [homophobia] was wrong, rather that I was wrong.” It was the birth of gay political activism in East Germany.
East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, was a communist dictatorship ruled by the Socialist Unity Party that hung onto power with an arsenal of carrots and sticks. The regime’s most feared organ was the Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious secret police. A sprawling bureaucracy of tens of thousands, the Stasi also employed tens of thousands more as unofficial collaborators, whom they cajoled, coaxed, and intimidated into giving up information. In total, between a tenth and a third of East Germans collaborated with the Stasi at some point. In this respect, East Germany was an archetype of today’s surveillance society.
The East German state was never particularly hostile to homosexuality. German socialists had a grand tradition of fighting against homophobia that stretched back to socialist leader August Bebel’s 1898 address to the Reichstag, “On Homosexuality and the Penal Code,” in which he advocated for the repeal of Germany’s sodomy law, §175 of the penal code. By contrast, the Nazis had strengthened the law in 1935, criminalizing all homosexual acts, from holding hands to kissing, a change that led to the imprisonment of almost 50,000 men. Soon after the war, in 1950, only a year into its rule, the East German government shifted to a milder version of the sodomy law, which it repealed entirely in 1968 (the only holdover was a higher age of consent for homosexual sex). It did so not only because of German socialism’s legacy of fighting §175. The regime also hoped that by purging the country of fascist relics, it could draw a favorable contrast between itself and West Germany. Indeed, East Germany’s reform of the sodomy law stood in stark contrast to democratic West Germany, where the new regime, led by conservative chancellor Konrad Adenauer (who won a landslide reelection in 1957 running under the slogan “No Experiments!”) kept the Nazi version of §175 in place.
East Germany quickly repealed its sodomy laws, hoping that by purging the country of fascist relics, it could draw a favorable contrast between itself and West Germany, where homosexuality remained illegal.
That difference meant that while East Germany convicted approximately 4,000 men under the statute between 1949 and 1968, West Germany convicted over 50,000 men between 1949 and 1969—a fivefold per capita difference. This does not mean that East Germany was a gay paradise. Only a handful of bars in its cities catered to gay male clientele. For the most part, gay men had to cruise in parks, train stations, public toilets, or baths such as the one at which Rausch and Eggert met. These could be dangerous locations, where thugs waited to beat and rob unsuspecting men. Lesbians, if anything, had it worse. There were no bars for them, no cruising spots, no opportunities to meet one another.
Rausch, Eggert, and a few of their friends decided to do something. They believed the socialist government would help them carve out a gay-friendly space in society, if only they described for it the tribulations they faced. For the most part they seemed to believe in the socialist experiment. And so they began meeting regularly, planning social events and strategizing about how best to lobby the government.
Eventually they began submitting petitions, requesting first that the state open a gay and lesbian “communication center” that would act as a social hub for queer people and spread information about sexuality to all East Germans. When that effort failed, they requested permission to form a so-called “interest community” (akin to a club for entomology or philately). They argued that such an organization would allow them, as gay individuals, to “accomplish the full development of our socialist personalities.”
All that Rausch, Eggert, and their by now dozens of comrades really wanted was a place to meet regularly with other gay men and lesbians. But the government—and especially the Stasi—went into high alarm at the thought of such a group existing. Not, however, because they believed homosexuality might have deleterious social effects or because they were opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds. Rather, the Stasi was concerned that a gay and lesbian club would be a target for “enemy intelligence services,” and believed that gay men had already been targeted for recruitment by the West German state. In one internal memo, the secret police emphasized that “homosexuals with their labile personalities have long been a target of enemy activity.”
Nonetheless Rausch and Eggert’s group—which came to be known as the Homosexual Interest Group Berlin (HIB)—continued having unauthorized meetings for several years, eventually finding a semipermanent (though still illicit) home in the basement of a furniture museum whose director, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, was a trans woman and, as it turned out, a Stasi informant. When one of the HIB’s members, a pugnacious lesbian activist named Ursula Sillge, tried to organize a countrywide meeting of lesbians in 1978, the police intervened, forcing the group to disband.
But the early 1980s brought significant change for lesbians and gay men in East Germany. Disillusioned with the government’s refusal to acknowledge its gay citizens, groups began organizing themselves under the auspices of the Protestant church. The church was East Germany’s only genuinely (if only incompletely) autonomous institution and home to many East Germans critical of the regime. Other groups, including feminists, environmentalists, and peace activists, also found space to organize within the church in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many church leaders actively opposed giving gay activists space to organize, but the church’s loose structure meant that younger, more progressive clergy had leeway to offer space and resources to whomever they desired.
Organizing under a religious umbrella guaranteed activists a modicum of independence. They could gather, plan activities, and pressure the government without needing to seek permission from the regime or worry that the police might arrest them for participating in an illegal group. Because these groups provided such a convenient setting for queer social life and political activism, they spread rapidly throughout the country. By 1984 there were around a dozen of them, each of them drawing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of attendees to their events.
Ralf Dose, a West Berlin gay activist and historian, recalls: “When we organized something, we had to send around lots of invitations just to get 10 people to show up. [East German activists] were used to hanging up just one small notice and then there were 250 people.” Unlike their West German confreres, of course, they were not competing for attention with an extensive commercial subculture.
Under pressure to stem the tide of gay liberation, the Stasi arrived at a novel solution: give activists what they wanted. No complaints to be made, they reasoned, meant nothing to organize about.
The Stasi, which had thousands of informants within the church, soon caught wind of these efforts. Nothing had changed in the secret police’s view of gay rights and they set to work undermining the new crop of activists. They recruited informants within the groups, both to gather information and to sow discord. Moles accused gay men of misogyny and encouraged lesbians to form their own groups. They cultivated antagonism between the church and the activists, and even accused other activists of being Stasi agents.
But to little avail. Membership continued to swell and activists began to coordinate strategy at national meetings. They soon agreed on a set of wide-ranging policy goals, including better access to housing, abolition of the higher age of consent for homosexual sex, ability to serve in the military, and better access to sexual health services. As the groups grew, the Stasi became increasingly concerned that they posed an existential threat to the socialist regime.
Under pressure to stem the tide of gay liberation, the secret police began debating new strategies. Departments exchanged flurries of memos debating what course of action the government should pursue. In 1985 the Stasi finally produced a new set of guidelines on how to prevent what it termed “the political misuse of homosexuals.” Some of its recommendations were unsurprising, such as ramping up surveillance of gay activist leaders. But its final recommendation was entirely novel. It insisted that the government find “resolution[s] to homosexuals’ humanitarian problems.” That is, the Stasi decided to actually address activists’ demands.
Their rationale for doing so was actually rather simple. If the government tackled gay men and lesbians’ concerns, then all those church-affiliated activist groups would have no reason to exist. No complaints to be made, Stasi officials reasoned, meant nothing to organize about.
Thus began a series of genuinely radical changes in East German society. The state-censored newspapers, which for decades had hardly ever mentioned homosexuality, suddenly started printing dozens of stories about gay men and lesbians. The government also freed periodicals to accept personal advertisements from gay men and lesbians looking for partners.
The state tasked Berlin psychology professor Reiner Werner with writing a book titled Homosexuality: A Call to Knowledge and Tolerance, which appeared in 1987. Its initial run of 50,000 copies sold out in a matter of weeks. (It would also approve a gay film, Coming Out, that premiered on November 9, 1989, the night the Berlin Wall fell.)
In addition, the state began granting official recognition to gay groups, such as the Sunday Club, a secular activist collective run by Sillge that had been meeting in East Berlin since the early 1980s. And it authorized East Germany’s first gay discos, such as Die Busche, a club that still exists today.
The government even allowed gay chapters within the Free German Youth (FDJ), the state’s official youth scouting organization, and mandated that all FDJ members attend educational sessions dealing with homosexuality. All of a sudden, East German youth were required to attend meetings of gay groups such as the Sunday Club. Remembering this moment, Rausch told me, “The joke was that suddenly everyone was standing in line to get into the Sunday Club,” only a couple years after it had been a target of state repression.
In 1987 the East German Supreme Court struck down the law that set a higher age of consent for gay men and lesbians. The following year, the military allowed gay soldiers, reversing a policy the government had instituted in the 1950s.
The unexpected gay golden age in East Germany reveals a much more dynamic politics in the former Soviet bloc than we are wont to acknowledge.
West Germans caught wind of these changes and began venturing across the Wall in larger numbers to see East Germany’s gay liberation for themselves. Some even found the subculture there more pleasing than the commercialized one in the West. Martin, an American gay man who lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, recalled, “The gay community in East Berlin was kind of warmer and more friendly than in the West.”
It must be noted that these rapid changes, which Rausch described as a “gay and lesbian Wende” (turning point), were accompanied by continued Stasi surveillance of activists. At least a tenth of the members of gay activist groups passed information to the Stasi. The secret police also resorted to petty torments. One leader, for instance, was forbidden from pursuing graduate study as punishment for their activism. But for many queer people in East Germany, life improved dramatically in those years. Gay men and lesbians in the East still lacked the kind of sprawling, commercial subculture that defined queer life in West Germany. But for all that, West German activists had not succeeded in convincing their national government to act on their concerns.
• • •
By 1989 two very different visions of gay life and politics existed in the two Germanies. It is by no means clear which of the two states was more modern or progressive on the question of homosexuality by our standards today. That very ambivalence is the point: West Germany was not de facto a better place for gay men and lesbians in the Cold War era.
East Germany’s unexpected liberation of its queer minority poses a complex problem for historians of socialism, especially the fact that the greatly feared Stasi stood behind it. The unexpected gay golden age in East Germany reveals a much more dynamic politics in the former Soviet bloc than we are still wont to acknowledge. And East Germany was not alone: while homosexuality remained illegal in the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, other communist countries, including Czechoslovakia and Hungary, pursued more progressive trajectories similar to East Germany.
Socialism is not necessarily the best form of government for queer people. Stalin, after all, recriminalized sodomy in 1934 and sent an untold number of queer people to the Gulag. Nonetheless it is also true that queer people were sometimes better off under socialism. Just as other historians have begun to argue for a more nuanced picture of socialism—Kristen Ghodsee recently contended that “women have better sex under socialism”—this history shows that socialism is not inimical to gay rights. Neither is capitalism necessarily good for gay rights.
Policies related to sexuality are poor prognosticators of other politics. Gay liberation is not always a result of liberal democracy, nor is its absence isometric with authoritarianism.
The complex relations between a state and its citizens, and the specific ways in which states function, are what determine gay liberation’s path more than raw ideology. Gay activists in East Germany knew their government’s pressure points better than did those in West Germany, and they were better able to leverage that knowledge.
Furthermore, this history reveals that policies related to sexuality are poor prognosticators of other political metrics. Gay liberation is not always a result of liberal democracy, nor is its absence isometric with authoritarianism. Different political systems treat queer people in different ways that are orthogonal to their other values.
In March 1990, East Germany’s Congress of Writers held its final meeting. One of the speakers was a twenty-nine-year-old gay man, Ronald Schernikau, who had been born in East Germany, fled westward with his mother at the age of six, and then returned to East Germany in 1986. A committed communist, he was also one of the few openly gay authors West Germany produced in its forty years. His address eulogized the departed socialist state and offered a searing indictment of capitalism. “Whosoever wishes the West’s colorfulness,” he told the gathered writers, “must reap the West’s despair.”
Schernikau died of AIDS the following year as Germany began the still-painful process of reunification. With him went the gay liberation for which East Germans had for two decades campaigned. Queer Germans would wait years until the new republic adopted similar measures, and the unified country never again saw the kind of vivified queer activism that had coursed across the socialist countryside in the 1980s.
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April 18, 2019
15 Min read time