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Same-sex rights in East Germany

Legal and material progress

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 19

By Leslie Feinberg

After World War II, as productivity and social reorganization in the German Democratic Republic--"East Germany"--rose to meet the needs of the population as a whole, the more specific needs of individuals and groups within society, including gay men and lesbians, could be more easily addressed.

Canadian researcher Jim Steakley, who published the results of seven months of research in East Germany in 1976, outlined some of the concrete conditions under which East German workers tried to construct a planned economy--socialism.

He paid careful attention to the period between the establishment of the GDR in 1949 and the construction of the defensive Berlin wall in 1961. "With the formal founding of the GDR in 1949," Healey explained, "the cold war hostilities between socialism and capitalism intensified and entered a period of chronic crisis. The West used every means at its disposal to destroy the GDR, ranging from economic sabotage to CIA subversion."

He noted that a calculated "brain drain" lured away some 10 percent of the GDR's population--mostly middle-class professionals--and that a campaign of smuggling across the open border also served to bleed the resources of the workers' state.

"By subsidizing the costs of food, rents, and basic commodities, the GDR held living expenses at their 1945 level (which they continue to have today)," he wrote at the end of 1976. "Faced with costs five to 10 times higher at home, many West Germans did all of their shopping in the GDR, particularly in Berlin. Thus the GDR made relatively slow economic and social advances during this period, which was closed in 1961 by the construction of the tragically necessary wall along the border between the German states."

During the period between 1949 and 1961, he said, the "gay scene" in both Germanys was generally similar. Gays could visit a variety of clubs on either side of the border. He added, however, that some gays from the GDR felt uncomfortable about their clothing not being considered as "fashionable," and the price of drinks was steep in the West.

However, he added, considering that at 17 million the GDR had only about 30 percent of the population of West Germany, "the GDR matched the West in terms of subcultural institutions such as dance bars, steam baths, access to homophile periodicals, and so on."

And, Steakley stressed, "West Germany was scarcely a haven for homosexuals during these years. Ruled by the Christian-Democratic Party (the name tells it all), the federal government was adamantly opposed to law reform which might improve the situation of gay people; and local authorities were extremely intolerant of the gay subculture. Police entrapment and raids on bars and baths, unheard of in the GDR, were common in the West."

The published curators' notes from a 1997 Berlin art exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement stated that the number of convictions of individuals accused under the anti-gay statutes in West Germany was 1,920 in 1950; by 1959, the number soared to as many as 3,530--an all time record.

"Even people not sentenced suffered a great deal," the exhibit curators pointed out, "as employers and family members found out in the course of proceedings that they were gay."

Progress, not perfection

The Nazi anti-gay amendment was immediately struck from the laws of the newly created German Democratic Republic in 1949.

Formally the old Prus sian Paragraph 175 remained on the books in the GDR. But the activist efforts of Dr. Rudolph Klimmer--a gay communist and physician--during the 1950s had an impact.

Steakley explained that Klimmer set out to win the support of prominent people in the GDR for the campaign to rescind Paragraph 175 and win full equality for homosexuals. "His efforts were strongly backed by the GDR's then Minister of Justice, Hilde Benjamin; she urged repeal of Paragraph 175 in the country's leading legal journals. There was (and still is) a high degree of acceptance of homosexuals within the cultural sector of the GDR," he reported, "but the GDR's then Minister of Culture, the poet Johannes R. Becher, refused to take a public stand on law reform."

Becher's homosexuality was well known, since West German reporters had "outed" his relationship with a male construction worker.

"Klimmer did, however, receive the support of numerous other agencies and individuals," Steakley said, "including one of the GDR's most famous writers, Ludwig Renn, a party veteran whose novels frequently turned on gay themes."

The 1950s and 1960s were defined not by perfection, however, but by progress.

Backward views about root causes of homosexuality still circulated. And when Klimmer wrote a 1958 opus to answer this old prejudice, he could not find a publisher in the East. Klimmer had written that only two things differentiate homosexuals from heterosexuals: the object of sexual attraction and social discrimination.

However, Steakley wrote, "Klimmer's efforts during this period were rewarded by the judicial decision in 1957 to discontinue prosecutions on the basis of Paragraph 175 except in cases involving assault, coercion or minors."

Gains in East push West to follow

The year 1961 marked a period of economic change in the GDR that brought social change in its wake.

"Beginning in 1961," Steakley continued, "the GDR finally took measures which had long been delayed: the complete collectivization of farmlands and the expropriation of privately owned stores and industries. Since most bars and baths were privately owned and managed up to 1961, this had a direct impact upon the urban gay scene."

However, Steakley found that virtually every city with a population of more than 50,000 had a gay bar; Dresden and Leipzig each had four; and Berlin had five and a steam bath. In some cases these state-owned clubs were frequented by heterosexual patrons in the daytime, and gay clientele in the evenings. "Frictions have developed when a homophobic manager was assigned to a gay bar," he concluded, "but such managers generally request a transfer after a short time."

At last, in 1968, the hated Paragraph 175 was removed from lawbooks after almost a century of struggle since its inception in 1871--but only in the GDR.

Richard Plant, a Jewish gay man forced to flee Germany in 1933, hailed this progressive move in his 1990 article "East German Gay Laws--Years Ahead of West."

Plant wrote that "finally in 1968, perhaps spurred on by sexologists, scientists and gay activists, East Germany revoked all penalties concerning sexual relations between consenting male adults. This caused consternation for the leaders of other Eastern European nations. Officials in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest were bewildered.

"But more troubled were conservative power brokers of West Germany."

Plant said the legislative move by the GDR pushed West Germany to follow. "In 1969 the Bonn government began timidly to draw up new regulations; the legislators, however, were so scared of right-wing fanatics that another year passed before the rulings resembled those drafted in the East."

While the welcome legal move in the GDR did not in and of itself wipe out centuries of homophobia that lingered as a legacy of class society, the Communist Party in the GDR would soon demonstrate what strides in social progress could be made when the workers' party and the workers' state put energy into the efforts.

Next: Stunning gains for same-sex rights.

Reprinted from the Nov. 4, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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