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The Beginnings of Queer Citizenship in West Germany

In the documentary My Wonderful West Berlin (2017), director Jochen Hick offers a snapshot of West Berlin in the 1970s, the rambunctious and joyfully queer decade that followed the reform of §175, a law that had criminalized all same-sex activity between men until 1969. After I viewed it with a friend at the Berlin International Film Festival, my friend commented that the documentary had primarily convinced him that gay West Berlin in the 1970s was basically a weak facsimile of New York or San Francisco at that time.

In so doing, the film pointed to a puzzling conflict that inhabits German memories of the decade. On the one hand, the 1970s are feted as having been years of riotous change and new possibility, and the era’s gay activists are lionized to this day. On the other hand, those same activists—as well as historians—often paint these years as ones during which very little was accomplished. In particular, German queer activist groups are seen as having been little more than copies—weak facsimiles—of supposedly more original, more successful movements in other countries, especially the United States.

This impression is difficult to square with the rather remarkable achievements of the period. A decade that began without a substantial gay movement ended with a national push on the part of numerous activist organizations to influence federal parliamentary elections. Those years also saw the rise of an extraordinarily rich gay culture that included not only bars and cruising spots but also cafés, bookstores, and magazines dedicated to queer people.

The sense that the decade was one of mixed successes for queer people may originate in part from how the period saw gay people actively struggling with—but never quite resolving—how to define themselves politically. During this time, gay men and lesbians sought to answer the then relatively novel question of what it meant to forge political solidarity from sexual identity. Their various answers to this question divided them as much as united them, fracturing activist groups along lines defined by class, ideology, age, and gender, in ways that will sound familiar to those versed in the U.S. gay and lesbian rights struggle of the same period. Although these disputes lent the movement energy, they also contributed to widespread perceptions of its ineffectiveness.

In 1969, months after the West German government legalized adult homosexuality, elections returned a majority for a new coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats. This new social-liberal government, led by Chancellor Willy Brandt, embarked upon a remarkable, decade-long reform of West German society under the banner of Brandt’s promise to “dare more democracy.” His first coalition (1969–72) opened a new era of investment in the welfare state and launched an era of détente in the Cold War. Brandt signed treaties with the Soviet Union, Poland, and East Germany that normalized relations with the Eastern bloc. For the first time since the Berlin Wall went up, West Germans were able to make regular trips across the border.

While the governing coalition did not actively advance gay interests, a measure of tolerance for gay people permeated the social climate. In 1969, as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal code, the Nazi-era anti-gay law §175 was revised to decriminalize sodomy, although it still set a higher age of sexual consent between men. The reform, which had been pushed by an elite group of doctors and lawyers who thought such a law had no place in a modern, liberal criminal code, marked a sea change in how the West German state treated gay men. Convictions of gay men for sex crimes dropped precipitously, from approximately 2,000 per year to around 400. The new law also opened social space for gay organizations, bars, and publications. By October 1970 there were at least forty bars and clubs in West Berlin and the northern metropolis Hamburg that publicly catered to gay people. In 1973 the Spartacus International Gay Guide, a kind of queer Zagat, wrote: “We . . . especially recommend Berlin, with more gay bars than the whole of Holland. A city of young carefree people, and all so attractive.” Some of the new bars also served lesbians, such as Sappho and Boccaccio in West Berlin.

Read entire article at Boston Review