When I think of queer Berlin, I think – albeit narrowly – of the men dancing with me to DJ Boris at the Snax party at Berghain last Easter Sunday: thousands of sweaty revelers, some wearing leathers, some wearing nothing, grinding away all night to the best techno on the planet, seeking out their desires right there on the dance floor. This gay cis-male utopia is but a slice of the German queer world – there are many other parties for other kinds of queer. That queer identities should be facilitated by such hedonistic spaces is neither a Berlin phenomenon, nor a recent one. Queer spaces – from cafes and nightclubs to public toilets – make queer lives possible. How these spaces flourish or fall shapes the kinds of sex lives that non-straight people lead.
The regulation of these spaces is a key to understanding how alternative sexualities are accepted, or not. With increased legal regulation in the nineteenth century came efforts to control the lives of non-heterosexual people by psychiatrists, eugenicists and criminologists, which were often rejected in a counter-discourse of artistic celebration of LGBTQ lives. Resistance to such legal and medical regulation was a key driver of the acceptance of sexual diversity, yet we should never forget that this acceptance is precarious; we can slip back into being targeted as soon as the need for a scapegoat is required by conservative social forces – as evidenced by the rise of National Socialism and their persecution of sexual minorities following the comparatively free 1920s, and as is seen now in contemporary political landscapes. Many of these themes are explored historically in Clayton J. Whisnant’s Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, and it is the historical connection with contemporary queer politics that makes this book so fascinating.
Queer sex is at the political limits of society. Gayle Rubin noted in “Thinking Sex” that acceptable sex is delineated from other forms, which are controlled according to political interests. Whisnant shows how queer identities were formed in response to the ways in which they were policed across Germany from the “homosexual panic” at the end of the nineteenth century, to the aftermath of the Nazis. Following the availability of sources, most of his attention is to cities, which facilitate gay lifestyles by allowing queer people to gather in greater numbers and in relative anonymity, and most of the focus is on Berlin, which has remained a gay capital since the 1880s. His argument is both synthetic of the existing English and German historiography and heavily reliant on primary sources. The resulting book is a very good guide to queer Germany, and would enrich the experience of any historically-minded tourist looking to explore Germany’s LGBTQ past as they wander around nocturnal Schöneberg looking for evidence of past gay lives. Like most books on this broad subject, lesbian and trans interests are less of a focus than cis-male gay sex, but this is largely because homosexual men bore most of the brunt of the regulation of alternative sexualities, from scandals that stemmed from the illegality of male homosexual sex after German unification adopted the Prussian legal code, to the Nazi persecution of those forced to wear the pink triangle, thus leaving a greater archival legacy. Whisnant is careful to tell more than this narrowly homonormative story, giving us a pluralistic view of the persecution of sexual minorities.
Medical authorities played a significant part in shaping responses to queer people, and it is well-known that German-speaking psychiatrists since Carl Westphal did the most to construct theories of sexual perversion. Doctors variously constructed queer people as degenerate, mentally abnormal, sexually infantile, and biologically inferior from the late nineteenth century, although occasionally medical authority was used to support LGBT rights, such as by Magnus Hirschfeld and, after WWII, Hans Giese. By the 1930s psychiatrists picked up where the law left off by claiming to treat gay men, forcing them to watch gay pornography while keeping them awake for days in their excrement with methamphetamines and making them vomit constantly with apomorphine to form an involuntary association between gay pleasure and psychological terror. These medical sources, because they are so explicit about LGBTQ sexualities, have been major sources used by historians to reconstruct homosexual histories, although Whisnant also draws heavily on the gay press, literary sources, films, queer political tracts, newspapers and legal reports to reconstruct queer identities.
Despite the heavy focus on legal, political and psychiatric discourses, queer lives remain at the centre of this book. From the lectures given at Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology, to the art, film and literature that portrayed gay and lesbian lives, we see a constant struggle to find acceptance for sexual diversity in a climate that was often hostile. We are also privy to positive glimpses of love, political radicalism and sensuality that flourished despite the general persecution of those whose sexuality was outside the narrow confines of heterosexual monogamy. This is characteristic of the history of queer lives everywhere, although as is so often the case, Germany led the way – which is why it is today celebrated as one of the most unfettered places on earth.
The history of queer Germany shows that alternative, permissive spaces are necessary for LGBTQ cultures to thrive. How they are policed affects relations between people. If the nightclubs are closed, there are fewer places for people to fall in love, have sex, or form other queer relationships. Laws that overtly regulate these queer spaces where homosociality prospers are inherently homophobic. Even when they are not rigorously policed, queers sit in attention, waiting for the political climate to require a target for negative focus. This is why the history of LGBTQ life reads like a political history of resistance. As has so often been noted, “Silence = Death”. One has to look carefully among the devastation to find the beauty of twentieth-century queer lives, which Whisnant has done with considerable skill.
Clayton J. Whisnant. Queer Identities and Politics in Germany. A History, 1880-1945. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2016.
Ivan Crozier is a historian of psychiatry at the University of Sydney whose interests include sexuality and techno.