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East Germany

Forming of gay groups ignites church struggle

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 21

By Leslie Feinberg

In January 1982, in East Germany, the Evangelical Academy Berlin-Brandenburg held a conference titled, "Can One Speak About It? Homosexuality as a Question for Theology and Pastoral Care."

Lesbians and gay men took part in the conference. The agenda reportedly focused on how to use insights of modern sexology to reduce prejudice and harmful concepts about homosexuality, and how to provide a structure for lesbians and gay men to get together and discuss their own issues.

This conference generated a public forum about same-sex love.

Later that year, some gay and lesbian activists in Berlin and Leipzig formed the Homosexual Working Group within the Youth Section of the Lutheran Church.

The group quickly spread to more than 20 cities, not just the big urban areas like Magdeburg, Chemnitz and Rostock, but in small towns like Zwickau, Plauen and Neu strelitz. The Leipzig and Dresden groups were founded by theologians who had been denied ordination because they were an out gay man and an out lesbian woman.

Buried in that last fact is a reminder that organizing by lesbians and gays continued to face opposition from the Protestant hierarchy, even if tactically it was a useful political tool for the church.

Like the Catholic Church in the Polish workers' state, the Protestant Church battled the socialist German state. Raelynn J. Hillhouse stated that during the early years of the GDR, "the church and state often were in an undeclared war in which neither expected the other to survive. Because of its close relations with the West German church, the East German church was seen by the state as a foreign institution." (Slavic Review 49, 1990)

The East German church had close ties to the hierarchy in the capitalist West.

While the young workers' state curtailed the church's social role, it did not seize church property and continued to use public funds for pastoral training. In concessions to the church in the early 1960s and in 1978, the state signed accords which opened the door for the church to expand its outreach.

As a result, close to 200 groups formed under the organizational umbrella of the church. These included lesbian and gay, environmental, disabled--and the dubiously vague category of "human rights."

Specifically, the objectives of the gay groups--offering support and counseling and educating parishioners about homosexuality--was not political in nature. However, the goal of addressing social problems, while vague, did open the door to criticisms of the socialist state.

The overall coalescing of more than 200 organizations under their aegis gave the church hierarchs a wider social base from which to pursue their anti-communist opposition to the workers' state.

Struggle broke out within church

Not everyone at the top of the church ladder was so happy about allowing lesbians and gays into the fold under any circumstances.

Hillhouse observed in her 1990 article on sexual politics and social change in the GDR that, "The presence of lesbian and gay organizations has brought about a major controversy both within the church, which has customarily condemned homosexuality, and among gays and lesbians, who have traditionally been persecuted by the church."

She explained that in 1986, based on the results of a church-commissioned study, a bishops' conference did conclude that biblical condemnations of same-sex love should no longer be used as justification for discrimination. However, she stressed, "Although the bishops settled one controversy by officially allowing gay and lesbian groups to meet within the church, they refused to take a clear position on the ordination of homosexuals. The church has, however, demonstrated the limits to its acceptance of homosexuals in its repeated denial of ordination of Eduard Stapel, the director for homosexual work of the Magdeburg city mission, because he lives in a homosexual partnership."

Denis M. Sweet, a researcher quite unsympathetic to the socialist state, did note the hostility to gays within the church. "These working groups did not advance without concerted resistance from within certain well-situated Lutheran and charismatic factions within the church, particularly from the south of the GDR with its own traditions of theology and piety--so much so that the church authorities in Saxony felt obliged to append within the territory of their administration a publication that countered the largely positive and tolerant brochure Homosexuelle in der Kirche? (Homosexuals in the Church?) issued in 1984 by the central office of theological study of the East German Church (Theolo gische Studienab tei l ung der Evangelischen Kirchen).

"This Saxon alternative bro chure warned about 'militant homosexuals' forcing an entry into the church to advance the 'ideology of homosexual emancipation.'" (Sexual History of the Political Left)

And lesbians and gay men were not so thrilled about working under the auspices of the church, either. John Parsons made this point sharply: "Of course, many homosexuals, including those who were members of the Communist Party, were not comfortable with the church and did not find this association helpful." (OUT/LOOK 1989)

Hillhouse added, "As was the case with groups from the other social movements within the church, the gay and lesbian associations were not entirely religious: Perhaps as few as 10 percent of the members identified themselves as Christians."

But a new and dramatic development was emerging in the mid-1980s that allowed the lesbian and gay movement to burgeon. The GDR workers' state opened up a widespread secular campaign to combat prejudice and discrimination against same-sex love.

Next: Unprecedented gains

Reprinted from the Dec. 2, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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