The Beginnings of Queer Citizenship
In the 1970s, gay and lesbian West Germans sought to answer the question of what it meant to forge political solidarity from sexual identity.
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.
New homoerotic publications also sprang up. Du & Ich (You & I) first appeared in October 1969 in West Berlin. The magazines Don and him both came out in 1970. The new periodicals published a mélange of reporting on gay issues, soft pornography, travel accounts, and personal ads. Of these, the personals were perhaps the most momentous. By the end of the decade, they had ballooned to become among the magazines’ most important elements and a major contributor to their solvency.
The personals were one of the most visible ways that emancipation changed everyday life for gay people. Instead of being forced to cruise surreptitiously in public toilets, baths, or parks, gay men could, for the first time, look publicly for sexual and romantic companions. The ads ran the gamut from “27-year-old looks for a nice, approximately same-aged friend” to “two young masters, 29/30, wish for many tender hours with a younger boy.” Although they catered primarily to gay men, issues also included personal advertisements for lesbians. Some men apparently even used the forum to look for lesbian friends, such as one 24-year-old man who, in February 1973, wrote that he was “looking for a lesbian friend or sincere friend for a beautiful friendship.”
New activist organizations also appeared in the late 1960s and early ’70s, such as the International Homophile World Organization in Hamburg, the Interest Group of Homophiles in Wiesbaden, and the German Homophile Organization in West Berlin. These activists, who envisioned their cause as equal parts political, social, and cultural, had their work cut out for them. Hosts of problems continued to plague gay men and lesbians. One 1971 article estimated that gay men experienced robbery and blackmail at a rate ten to fifteen times that of the general population. Anti-gay prejudices continued to color West German social views, and police persisted in raiding bars and cruising spots.
Moreover, political parties shied away from embracing homosexuality. No party in the 1969 or 1972 general elections publicly advocated gay rights of any shade. The federal government continued to sanction firing gay people for their sexuality. A 1978 report in the popular magazine Stern noted that, “The state, which according to the [Constitution] must treat all citizens equally, persecutes homosexuals with employment blacklists.” As late as the 1980s, a conviction under §175 was still a barrier to government employment in West Germany. Living in a society so deeply antipathetic to their plight, gay men became increasingly frustrated with the tepidly liberal strategies that had led to §175’s reform. They began to realize that emancipation from social prejudice as well as state-sanctioned oppression would require new idioms, ideologies, and political stratagems.
While scientific and liberal arguments advanced by the intellectual elite had proved effective at describing why homosexuality should not be criminalized, they were inadequate to the task of convincing West Germans that homosexuality ought to be accepted. As an answer to this problem, however, the new gay press and gay organizations began to shed the convictions of scientific liberalism in favor of more radical ideas. Their new rhetoric took up gay power motifs and the idea that gay people constituted a social minority.
In the 1960s the dream of gay power—that is, of the exercise of political influence by gay people—appeared in a novel by well-known author Felix Rexhausen. Titled Lavender Sword, the 1966 book described a fictional West Germany in which a clique of gay intellectuals and army officers overthrows the homophobic federal state after the suicide of a young gay dancer. The satirical novel played on conservative fears of gay conspiracies, taking their paranoia to its logical, albeit ludicrous, end in the establishment of a lavender state governed by and for queer people.
Credited though they were with power and influence by paranoid pundits, gay men in the 1960s were, and would have felt, powerless. Before the 1969 watershed, most would never have belonged to a homophile organization, read a gay magazine, or frequented whatever underground gay bars existed in their hometowns. Even after the seismic changes of 1969, many gay people despaired of ever living in a society that accepted their sexuality.
Rexhausen’s rhetoric anticipated discourses of gay power that would be observed across the spectrum of homosexual activism. A letter published in Twen in 1963, for instance, made a similar point. Its author wrote, “The ‘clever’ lawmakers in the Bonn Bundestag apparently live on the moon, or don’t realize that the shameful §175 turns the ‘immoral’ men—of which there are around 7,000,000 in the BRD!—into dangerous enemies of the state.” Using virtually identical language, Du & Ich wrote in March 1970 that gay people “are stronger than the F.D.P.” It was a bold assertion. Although the liberals were the Bundestag’s smallest party, they had been in every government but two since 1949 and had enabled the Social Democrats to take power in 1969. As the article contended, “3 million homophile men! That is three million consumers, three million magazine readers, three million car drivers and last but not least, three million voters! We are stronger than the FDP!”
Such language envisioned a kind of gay person who had hitherto not existed, one for whom his (and, increasingly, her) sexuality was a prime consideration in the social, economic, and political decisions they made every day. In this new estimation, the homosexual was no longer merely “a case history,” to quote philosopher Michel Foucault, but also a citizen. Moreover, these men and women were citizens belonging to a “minority,” as activists increasingly referred to West Germany’s homosexual population. Common interest, common oppression, and common need bound gay citizens to their fellow citizens culturally, socially, and, most importantly, politically.
The question of such a minority’s political leanings thus became paramount, as is evident in Du & Ich’s eye-opening declaration. In January 1972 a columnist in the magazine him wondered if “a politics for homophiles is even thinkable.” He argued: “If we can overcome our isolation as individuals and join together—yes.” That is, if gay people could do the positive work of forging a minority out of the mass of gay people, then there might indeed be a chance for a gay form of politics. These new writers were no longer interested in proving to the straight majority that they were not criminals or enemies of the state. Rather, they wanted to exercise political power—much like any other constituency in a modern democracy. Doing so, however, depended on having gay people recognize themselves as members of a minority.
The most famous example of this new idea of gay political power came from a 1971 film. With the rather cumbersome title It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but Rather the Situation in Which He Lives, the movie was the work of a young director named Rosa von Praunheim and sociologist Martin Dannecker. It depicted the life of a gay man named Daniel in West Berlin. When the film opens, Daniel is in a romantic relationship with another man. This affair soon ends, and he bounces from being the kept boy of an older man to cruising for sex at West Berlin’s beaches to, finally, looking for sex in public toilets at night.
The film was a polemical attack on West Germany’s gay subculture. It maintained that the 1969 reform had not brought genuine liberation. Rather, gay people still oppressed themselves by inhabiting an exploitive subculture. The film’s chief complaint was that the subculture revolved solely around sex and did not encourage solidarity among gay people, precisely the kind of solidarity on which the dream of gay political power rested.
At the end of the film, we find Daniel demoralized, depressed, and drunk at a well-known queer locale. Downing his umpteenth beer, he runs into an old friend, Paul, who lives in a commune of gay student radicals. Paul invites Daniel home with him, where they engage in a theoretical discussion about homosexuals’ social and political predicament with Paul’s roommates. “The most important thing for all gay men,” argues one of them, “is that we embrace our gay identity.” It fell to them, according to the film, to build a gay minority by being “proud of your homosexuality!” Only pride would lead gay people “out of the toilets [and] into the streets!”
The film thus argued that only by acting in tandem could gay people end their oppression. The film disputed the scientific liberalism of pre-legalization homophile activists, even accusing them of perpetuating the subculture in order to more readily seduce underage boys. Gay people, the film argued, were an oppressed minority who had first to develop self-conscious solidarity with each other before they could change West German society.
Although It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but Rather the Situation in Which He Lives is, to be frank, not a very good movie, it was a sensation. Conservatives, progressives, and homophiles alike attacked it—as both gay propaganda and homophobic trash. One conservative reviewer from Hanover denounced the film as “nauseating, vile and repulsive” and complained that it depicted people from the “bottom rung” of society. In the university town of Heidelberg in southwest Germany, another critic lamented that society could no longer “keep our children safe from acquired homosexuality.”
Progressives and homophiles were also appalled. One reviewer characterized the film as a “brutal attack” because it traded in stereotypes of the sex-obsessed gay man. Another raged that the film was “perversely distorted” and “full of a vicious joy in kitsch, triviality, and the extreme artificiality” of gay people. An English gay publication blasted Praunheim as “perverse” and carped that the film had been “made with all the expertise of a ten-year-old psychopath.” Nonetheless, the movie brought the topic of homosexuality to West Germans in a novel way. While the film’s portrayal of public sex, gay cruising, and quasi-pederastic relationships aroused considerable disgust among conservatives and progressives alike, for the first time, West Germans saw gay people depicted as social and political agents.
Most important, the film advanced discourses of gay power that had been circulating among intellectuals and activists since the mid-1960s. It also drew clear inspiration from the 1960s student movement, in particular the idea that the personal is political. These discourses proposed a new kind of sexual citizenship, no longer predicated on homosexuals’ ability to fit in with the heterosexual majority. Only by recognizing their otherness could gay people exercise social and political power.
This new rhetoric was revolutionary precisely because it reimagined homosexuality as a political identity. Comfortable as we are today with the totems of identity politics, it is hard to remember that, for much of the twentieth century, most people did not see sexuality as inherently political. In the 1970s the idea that gay people should or even could behave as a social, economic, or political bloc was iconoclastic. As Hamburg gay activist and Green Party politician Corny Littmann recalled in the 1980s, “It was unheard of, to characterize one’s subjectivity as ‘political.’” The discourses of gay liberation that attended the new decade thus marked the birth of a new political subjectivity: the gay citizen.
In the summer of 1971, It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but Rather the Situation in Which He Lives premiered at the International Forum for New Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. Throngs of West Berliners came to see the movie, which sparked “angry, even brutal, discussion,” according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Holger G., an activist who had moved to West Berlin in his early twenties after a two-year-long relationship with a famous director in Munich, recalled that when he first saw the film, “I was disgusted.” But after the “brutal discussion” that followed the film, a list circulated in the audience. Interested individuals could sign up in order to continue the debate.
Several months later that group formulated a “Statement of Principles” that called for the “emancipation of homosexuals” and named itself the Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW). It was among the first of a new kind of gay liberation group that rejected both social animus and what it perceived as the staid tactics of its homophile predecessors. The HAW’s statement formulated the problem as one of solidarity, arguing: “discrimination . . . generates a kind of communal spirit. Transforming this phony solidarity into real solidarity would be a precondition for the emancipation of homosexuals.” The group hoped to get gay people “to mediate their existence as homosexuals with their economic-political existence,” and to “support them in their conflict with society.” In this way, the group described a very different citizenship ideal than had reformers of the 1950s and ’60s. These young activists hoped gay men and lesbians would recognize themselves as a social minority and would begin to comport themselves politically and economically in ways that furthered homosexual interests.
As It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but Rather the Situation in Which He Lives premiered in other cities around West Germany, it drew large crowds of people, who, in turn, founded local action groups. By 1976 there were more than forty around the country. These new organizations espoused political views to the left of homophile organizations, rejected much of the subculture, and were primarily composed of university students steeped in 1960s radicalism. In their push to combat anti-gay animus, remake the subculture, and campaign for political power, they are today collectively remembered as Germany’s “second gay movement” (the first having occurred during the doomed Weimar Republic of the 1920s).
To formulate their goals, these groups drew inspiration not only from It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but Rather the Situation in Which He Lives but also from the American civil rights movement, feminist movements around the world, and anti-colonial movements. The founding document of the group RotZSchwul in Frankfurt am Main, for instance, compared gay men and lesbians to “ethnic subcultures (Jews, Negroes) in which one is a mandatory member from birth.”
These comparisons were, of course, not original to 1970s discourse. Already in 1951, Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America had made similar contentions about gay people in the United States, and comparisons of Germany’s Jewish and homosexual populations have abounded since the early twentieth century. Associating themselves with other minorities in this way helped activists to name a concept of citizenship grounded in their minority status. That said, it must be noted that while comparisons with other oppressed groups allowed activists to diagnose the prejudices they continued to face, it did not prevent racism from flourishing in West Germany’s gay communities. In the 1970s, and increasingly in the 1980s, Turks and Black Germans faced both racialized desire and disgust from white, gay West Germans.
West Germany’s new gay groups saw themselves as having two major tasks. First, they had to forge solidarity in order to create a minority consciousness among West Germany’s gay population. The HAW, in a 1972 pamphlet, wrote, “we must awaken the consciousness of these 100,000” gay Germans. Second, the movement had to radicalize that gay minority. It had to stop, as the same flyer insisted, “yammering for understanding and begging for recognition,” and instead take up political arms.
As with other movements of the era, outsize ambitions clashed with ideological differences within the action groups and the gay community. Many activists, for instance, considered the commercial subculture to be one of the primary obstacles to their efforts to build gay solidarity. Activists of this bent actively sought to undermine West Germany’s gay bars, magazines, and homophile organizations. One afternoon, while distributing pamphlets, around forty members of the HAW went to the bar Your Place on Grolmannstrasse near Kurfürstendamm. Though they “did not disturb the guests in any way” (or so they claimed), the bartender recognized them and refused service. “Under police escort,” members grumbled, “we were thrown out of the bar.” They responded by launching a campaign accusing bar owners of “oppressing gays.”
The action groups also suffered foul relations with the gay press, which they saw as commercial enterprises catering to the subculture’s basest demands. In a 1972 flyer, the HAW fumed that him only published “masturbation templates that limit our imagination.” The magazines retaliated by refusing to write about the action groups. Not until the end of the decade would the press regularly report on their activities.
The kerfuffle between the subculture and the action groups paled, though, in comparison to the internecine struggles that gripped the movement itself in the middle of the decade. These struggles were defined by four overlapping debates about radicalism, socialism, feminism, and pedophilia.
Organizations were often divided between so-called radicals and integrationists, or pragmatists. The conflict between these two camps revolved around how forcefully (and in some cases, violently) to oppose existing social and political structures. Franz G., a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front in Cologne (its name giving away its indebtedness to U.S. models of gay organizing) and the Bonn action group, considered himself a pragmatist. He recalled that while one side “propagated radical activism including unlawful property damage like the leftist student movement,” the others “sought concrete reforms for the equality of hetero- and homosexuals.” Pragmatists tended to advocate specific policy change, including equalizing the age of consent; reparations for Nazism’s gay victims; and abolition of employment blacklists. At the base of this division sat two competing views of German government and society. While the pragmatists believed existing social and political structures were adaptable to the aims of gay emancipation, radicals thought only a revolutionary overhaul could bring about genuine liberation.
The conflict over socialism mirrored this debate between pragmatists and radicals. Many of the new action groups, such as RotZSchwul in Frankfurt, were explicitly socialist or communist. As the Frankfurt Homosexual Working Circle—a competing group—wrote in 1973, “We strive for the realization of socialism in an enlightened society.” Similarly, the HAW identified closely with West Germany’s leftist parties. “Our goal,” recalled historian and activist Ralf Dose playfully, “was world revolution.”
Within the action groups, the principal struggle took place between those who thought the fight for gay emancipation was merely one battle within the larger socialist war against capitalism and those who believed it to be an independent struggle. In its “Statement of Principles,” the HAW insisted that anti-gay animus was only “a special case of the general oppression of sexuality.” That is, liberation for gay people would only come about in the context of broader social liberation efforts. Members who questioned the group’s Marxist orthodoxy would be shouted down or told, as activist Holger G. remembered, “shut up, you stupid cow!” The conflict over socialism also echoed in activists’ debates over homosexuality in East Germany, specifically over whether or not the socialist government oppressed its gay citizens.
On the other side were those who argued that gender, and not class, ought to be the primary lens through which to view their oppression. Belonging to this group were the so-called Tunten, a term variously translated as fairies, faggots, nancies, or queens. Tunten were effeminate gay men who rejected stereotypical masculinity. Many of them considered gender conformity to be a far greater foe than the capitalist class system.
The conflict over gender nonconformity in the movement reached its height in the legendary Tuntenstreit (Tunten Controversy), which began in 1973. In June of that year, a West Berlin activist, writing under the camp pseudonym Winfrieda von Rechenberg, distributed a jeremiad about a recent political demonstration in West Berlin. Winfrieda accused socialist-leaning HAW members of “hiding your homosexuality behind leftist slogans.”
The Tunten thus denounced a new kind of hetero-conforming respectability politics among socialist-leaning activists, and their attack eventually led to the foundation of a feminist faction within the HAW. Its members saw gender as a better frame than class through which to understand the subjection of sexual minorities. The group engaged in what one of its opponents characterized as “hooligan methods . . . and perverse tricks” in order to “either conquer or destroy the HAW.” Franz G., who had moved to Berlin at the high point of the Tuntenstreit, remembered that the controversy repelled him from the group.
Along with effeminate men, lesbians in these groups often also felt alienated by the macho socialists who ran them. In the HAW’s plenary meetings, according to one of its male members, “the gay men were too dominant . . . they rode roughshod [over the lesbians].” Women in the HAW, and in other action groups around Germany, thus founded their own sub-groups, which in turn broke off to form independent organizations in the mid-1970s.
By 1978 there were two primary lesbian organizations, the Lesbian Action Center in West Berlin and the Lesbian Center in Frankfurt am Main, while women in Hamburg had plans to found their own group. Though these organizations continued to coordinate with gay male groups, they often found more in common with the women’s movement. Dorothea R., an activist in the West Berlin Lesbian Action Center who also experienced the lesbian scene in Münster in the late 1970s, recalled that the lesbians she knew never socialized with gay men. The first joint activity she remembered was collaboration on a museum display about gay and lesbian Berlin in the 1920s, the famed Eldorado exhibit of 1984.
Finally, the problem of pedophilia confounded gay activists. While large age gaps between same-sex sexual partners had been normal in the 1950s and ’60s, the advent of a robust public subculture made similar-age relationships more feasible. In fact, historians of sexuality mark the 1970s as a turning point in which gay relationships became more equal in age across the United States and Western Europe. At the same time, the imposition of a higher age of consent for gay men made a political issue of age.
On the one side were those who argued that there should be a unified age of consent for hetero- and homosexuals. On the other were those who wanted the age of consent abolished completely. Activists thus began to distinguish between most homosexuals and those who “primarily or only feel attracted to very young partners,” as Du & Ich wrote in 1978. Men attracted to boys increasingly banded together in new sub-groups, such as the Pederast Group of the HAW, the Working Group Pedophilia of the West Berlin General Homosexual Action Group, and the Pederast Group of the Homosexual Action Hamburg. By the decade’s end, the extent to which gay activists accepted these men began to divide the movement.
These four ideological fault-lines—radicalism, socialism, feminism, and pedophilia—led to strife within and among different groups, and often resulted in the establishment of multiple gay organizations in the same city. Gay people in Frankfurt am Main split early in the 1970s among three different groups: RotZSchwul, the Homosexual Working Group (HAF), and the Gay Cell. The three groups “differ[ed] on the question of political means,” explained the liberal daily Frankfurter Rundschau: “While, for example, Rotzschwul is more oriented toward Marxism, the HAF identifies with democratic socialism.” Likewise, in Cologne and Bonn in the Rhineland, action groups splintered into factions of pragmatists and radicals. Göttingen, Hamburg, and West Berlin too were home to multiple action groups.
They could be vicious toward one another. When, after the 1973 Tuntenstreit, members of the HAW broke away to found the General Homosexual Action, the groups wanted nothing to do with each other. Torsten V., a General Homosexual Action leader, remembers that another member “called a special member assembly of the AHA when he discovered that I was in a relationship with someone from the HAW. That’s how it was then.”
The infighting contributed to perceptions of the movement’s decline in the late 1970s and continue to color memories of the period. It also mirrors similar debates playing out on the left across Europe and the United States today. Gender, for instance, has become a major point of contention in recent years, as conservatives have sought to weaponize transphobia in an effort to split queer activists. Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016 set off a series of recriminations by those who argued that progressives are overly concerned with identity and have forsaken the broad-based coalition-building of class politics. And if nothing else, Black Lives Matter has exposed the degree to which white leftists still have not dealt with the pernicious cancer of racism. Even the question of integration continues to confound queers today, with thinkers and activists debating the degree to which queerness can or should be part of the mainstream.
At the same time, memories of the 1970s risk ignoring how these conflicts were constitutive of the movement’s zeal and led to unprecedented social, cultural, and political efforts. They can obscure the ways that young activists transformed West Germany’s political landscape. Increasingly, both gay and straight individuals thought of homosexuals as a well-defined minority possessed of political and social agency. Through social activities and protests, action groups reshaped not only how West Germany’s gay men and lesbians thought of themselves, but also the bounds of modern politics itself. Much of this struggle continues into the present, as queer people work to realize the political and social promise of citizenship.