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Gains cut short by 1989 counter-revolution

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 24

By Leslie Feinberg

The official gay and lesbian studies research group, formed at Humboldt University in 1984 at the behest of the Berlin city administration, examined the conditions of life for some three-quarters of a million gays and lesbians living in East Germany (GDR).

The following spring, this group issued the following findings. The lack of a clear social policy on homosexuality in the GDR had resulted in a lack of state-sponsored social services for gays and lesbians and contributed to emigration. And discrimination and intolerance led to sexual activity which could exacerbate the AIDS crisis. The study recalled the historic role of German revolutionary workers' parties in supporting the German Homo sexual Emancipation Movement's demand to remove 19th-century anti-gay legislation. And it concluded by calling on the Communist Party (SED) to aid in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

Researcher Raelynn J. Hillhouse says the Humboldt group proposed that, "The state should help homosexuals to integrate into socialist institutions and should strive to eliminate public prejudice toward homosexuality. These goals, the report held, should be accomplished through legal reform, continued research, the creation of gay and lesbian clubs, expansion of counseling centers and media campaigns. All these proposals were implemented on various government levels." (Slavic Review, Winter 1990)

This recommendation was sent to the party. In 1985, Hillhouse noted, "The Politburo responded to the study with the recommendation that the integration of homosexuals into GDR society should be encouraged."

And when the party responded to this call, it also recalled the history of German Communism's early and strong support in the battle against anti-gay laws.

East Germany issued an electrifying call for an end to all forms of legal and social discrimination against lesbian and gay people that sent shock waves around the world.

In the United States, The Advocate, a gay and lesbian news magazine, reported: "East Germany's official ADN news agency has issued what appears to be an officially approved call for an end to discrimination against gays in all levels of East German society. The news agency asserted that socialist guarantees of proletarian equality extended to gay people and that nongays should assist their gay comrades in casting off the bonds of anonymity, discrimination and disadvantage." (March 4, 1986)

Even if this had been merely lip-service to the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation, it would have been a striking call to raise societal consciousness. But the sweeping progress made within just a few short years showed that the left current of the Communist Party and the workers' state was taking action.

Walking the talk

The gay and lesbian Sunday Club (Sonntags-Club) won official recognition in 1986, becoming the first state-sponsored gay and lesbian group.

Researcher John Parsons added, "Other parts of the subculture have also come into greater public view, including regularly organized dances in public halls." (OUT/LOOK, Summer 1989)

In 1987, the Sunday Club affiliated with the House of Culture of Berlin-Mitte. Similar organizations were formed in Dresden, Gera, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Potsdam and Weimar.

"Also in Berlin," Hillhouse wrote, "the Kulturbund (League of Culture) has allowed the Magnus Hirschfeld Arbeitskreis (Magunus Hirschfeld Study Group) to organize under its auspices to promote scientific inquiry about homosexuality. The state-supported Ehe, Familien-, und Sexualberatunsstellen (Marriage, Sex and Family Coun selling Centers) began special staff training programs in issues of sexual identity. In addition, other organizations occasionally sponsored educational projects on homosexuality as well as social functions for gays and lesbians."

In 1987, she added, the ministry of health commissioned a volume on homosexuality in the GDR; it appeared in two unusually large editions. "The author, Reiner Werner, urged that lesbian and gay counseling centers be created, allocation of apartments to same-sex couples be expedited, new contact forums for gays and lesbians be established, and legal partnership for nonmarried couples to administer their common property be considered."

A national conference, similar to the "Psycho-Social Aspects of Homosexuality" in 1985, was convened in 1988, "explicitly to include lesbians and gays in East German society." Several speakers at the second conference emphasized the importance of changing family law to ensure state recognition of gay couples and families. (OUT/LOOK)

The Communist Party youth group, the FDJ--a mass organization, not a cadre party organization--produced several programs about homosexual and bisexuality on its radio station. A film and a forum on homosexuality, and a social for gays and lesbians, were components of the May 1989 FDJ Youth Festival. And the FDJ central council directed its local groups to help create gay and lesbian clubs wherever they were needed.

The former first secretary of the central council of the FDJ issued a statement that emphasized the importance of equality for homosexual youth. The statement added, "I can assure you that the FDJ will continue to give great attention toward the complete equality of homosexual youth and other citizens in its diverse forms of political and ideological work." (Slavic Review)

The process of liberation

When John Parsons, a Canadian researcher, published his 10-page report in 1989 on gays and lesbians in the GDR, he wrote from the vantage point of six previous years of research. "Back in 1983," Parsons recalled, "the lesbian and gay subculture in East Germany was still very much underground, although not illegal."

But, he explained, "By 1989 things have changed dramatically. Public displays of homosexual affection remain rare, but gay liberation has made significant and surprising progress in a short period of time. Not only is the gay subculture in the early stages of coming aboveground, but the process of liberation is now developing with the active support of the Communist Party. Lesbians and gay men, communists and non-communists alike, are exploring anew what sexual liberation means in a socialist society."

He stressed, "The public discussion of homosexuality now being promoted by the Communist Party is one in which homosexuality is finally recognized as a natural aspect of sexuality and society."

The lesbian and gay movement in the GDR debated whether to develop an autonomous community or integrate into society. The leading view of the movement and the state, Parsons reported, "is one in which autonomy is not set in conflict with integration. Lesbians and gay men have a need to meet together for personal, cultural, and political reasons. Their ability to collectively discuss and decide their views on their oppression and needs is an important step in enabling the society as a whole to address the issues.

"Integration, however, is also seen as a positive goal--not an integration in which lesbians and gays hide their identity, but one in which their unique identity contributes to and changes the whole."

Parsons reported these gains without glossing over the problems that still existed, bringing great sensitivity and objectivity to his observations.

He noted for example, "The Communist Party itself is not a monolithic institution. There are millions of members with various views on sexuality and sexual politics, and it is no surprise that different views should win sway at different times.

"But," he added, "what is striking is that the Party has moved so quickly from a position of, at best, benign neglect to one of clear advocacy for a reasoned, humanistic and in many ways radically progressive position."


During the late 1980s, as the more compliant Gorbachev leadership was weakening the socialized economic base of the Soviet Union in the name of perestroika, the imperialists--from Wall Street to Bonn--exerted tremendous pressure on the Soviet leaders to withdraw their support for East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe.

The deal was finally made in a 1989 meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker while boating on Jackson Lake in Wyoming. The USSR would not intervene if capitalism were restored in Eastern Europe. This left the GDR sandwiched between imperialist West Germany and Poland and Czecho slovakia, which themselves were being taken over by bourgeois elements.

In 1989-1990 the workers' state was overturned and the GDR was incorporated into capitalist West Germany. East German workers lost free health care and education, low-cost rent and the guarantee of a job.

And for lesbians and gay men, "re-unification" with capitalist West Germany meant the re-imposition of the hated 19th-century Prussian law against homosexuality--Paragraph 175--which had still not been repealed there, although that did finally happen in 1994.

Not to be forgotten is that in the relatively short space of little more than four decades after World War II, lesbian and gay liberation had made swift strides in socialist East Germany that had no parallel in the capitalist world.

In fact, during that same span of time, life for lesbians and gays in the U.S. and Western Europe was characterized by the iron fist of state repression.

Next: Post-World War II U.S.--capitalist anti-gay witch hunt.

Reprinted from the Dec. 30, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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