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Lesbians and gay men

Great gains in 1980s East Germany

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 22

By Leslie Feinberg

"Finally, in the late 1980s, public discussion backed by the Communist Party and the state was revived," wrote researcher John Parsons in his extensive article about gains for lesbians and gay men in the German Democratic Republic. "It included lesbians and gay men speaking out as self-conscious voices for their community." (OUT/LOOK, Summer 1989)

Scientists and health professionals convened a conference in June 1985 on "The Psycho-Social Aspects of Homosexuality."

Parsons stressed, "An important feature of this conference was that it was organized with the open participation of lesbians and gay men, both as contributors and discussants."

He continued, "Two major demands were voiced at the conference: first, that the discussion should be taken outside of these exclusively professional circles and made a public one; second, that the state should sanction institutions through which lesbians and gay men could discuss and organize among themselves."

A year earlier, this same demand for independent groups had been voiced by a Humboldt University interdisciplinary research group that had been organized at the request of the Berlin city administration. This was the first official gay and lesbian studies committee at a German university, according to researcher Raelynn J. Hillhouse.

The Communist Party's 11th Congress in 1986 debated the recommendations of the research group. Parsons said that a member of the Humboldt University group relayed that there was "a good deal of success in moving the national Party apparatus to support the work of these groups." Parsons talked to other acquaintances who added that there was continued backwardness from some Party officials.

But what is indisputable is that in 1985, an historically unprecedented, state-sponsored campaign set out to eradicate all forms of discrimination based on sexual and emotional preference and to raise social consciousness about same-sex love.

The momentum of gains for sexual liberation in the German Democratic Republic that resulted was dramatic. The facts speak for themselves.

Gov't-backed media campaign

A government-supported public discussion broadened and deepened in the period between the 1985 conference and a second held in the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1988.

Hillhouse concluded in her 1990 article that "The new openness concerning homosexuality was evident not only in literature and scientific publications, but also in print and broadcast media. In 1984 the popular monthly health magazine, Deine Gesundheit (Your Health), began printing a series of readers' letters on homosexuality; soon after, several other major publications published substantial articles on sexual orientation."

More than 200 articles on homosexuality were printed in the GDR during the 1980s, she continued, mostly about gay males. (Slavic Review, Winter 1990)

Articles about same-sex love appeared in the press and were incorporated into some state radio and television station programming. Much of this information was aimed at youth--an audience with many questions about sexuality.

When public media focused on AIDS education, same-sex relations were not portrayed as a central feature. And it is important to recall that everyone in the GDR enjoyed free medical care.

The television health program "Visite" broadcast a report in September 1987 "that described homosexuality as an entirely natural variation of human sexuality." (Hillhouse)

The following year, the state film company DEFA, working with gay and lesbian activists, produced East Germany's first documentary about "the satisfactions and problems" facing same-sex couples, called "Die andere Liebe" (The Other Love).

In 1989 DEFA also released "Coming Out," a feature film about a gay teacher.

The same year, literature with gay themes was published, including a book about the life histories of several gay men in the GDR, compiled and written by a gay man.

Mass education campaign

"Important social institutions also began to implement reforms with great speed," Parsons continued.

"For example, the Commission on Marriage and the Family, which is responsible for running a system of counseling centers, passed a resolution asserting that the national network of sexuality and family counseling centers should aid in dismantling prejudices regarding homosexuality and foster the integration of gay men and lesbians into society."

Same-sex love was significantly included in a new sex education curriculum for the public school system.

A chapter on lesbian and gay identity in the 1984 edition of the standard sex-education textbook presented homosexuality as a natural variation of sexual identity. Lesbianism was part and parcel of this chapter. The book included among its sexually frank and romantic photos two men together and two women lying naked in each other's arms.

And most significantly, the book acknowledged that the main problems faced by homosexuals result from persecution and isolation, which themselves stem from social discrimination and homophobia.

Next: More gains.

Reprinted from the Dec. 9, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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