[Marxism] Same-sex rights in East Germany

Dogan Gocmen dgn.gcmn at googlemail.com
Wed Nov 25 00:08:54 MST 2009

Same-sex rights in East Germany Legal and material progress Lesbian, gay, bi
and trans pride series part 19

*By Leslie Feinberg*

After World War II, as productivity and social reorganization in the German
Democratic Republic--"East Germany"--rose to meet the needs of the
population as a whole, the more specific needs of individuals and groups
within society, including gay men and lesbians, could be more easily

Canadian researcher Jim Steakley, who published the results of seven months
of research in East Germany in 1976, outlined some of the concrete
conditions under which East German workers tried to construct a planned

He paid careful attention to the period between the establishment of the GDR
in 1949 and the construction of the defensive Berlin wall in 1961. "With the
formal founding of the GDR in 1949," Healey explained, "the cold war
hostilities between socialism and capitalism intensified and entered a
period of chronic crisis. The West used every means at its disposal to
destroy the GDR, ranging from economic sabotage to CIA subversion."

He noted that a calculated "brain drain" lured away some 10 percent of the
GDR's population--mostly middle-class professionals--and that a campaign of
smuggling across the open border also served to bleed the resources of the
workers' state.

"By subsidizing the costs of food, rents, and basic commodities, the GDR
held living expenses at their 1945 level (which they continue to have
today)," he wrote at the end of 1976. "Faced with costs five to 10 times
higher at home, many West Germans did all of their shopping in the GDR,
particularly in Berlin. Thus the GDR made relatively slow economic and
social advances during this period, which was closed in 1961 by the
construction of the tragically necessary wall along the border between the
German states."

During the period between 1949 and 1961, he said, the "gay scene" in both
Germanys was generally similar. Gays could visit a variety of clubs on
either side of the border. He added, however, that some gays from the GDR
felt uncomfortable about their clothing not being considered as
"fashionable," and the price of drinks was steep in the West.

However, he added, considering that at 17 million the GDR had only about 30
percent of the population of West Germany, "the GDR matched the West in
terms of subcultural institutions such as dance bars, steam baths, access to
homophile periodicals, and so on."

And, Steakley stressed, "West Germany was scarcely a haven for homosexuals
during these years. Ruled by the Christian-Democratic Party (the name tells
it all), the federal government was adamantly opposed to law reform which
might improve the situation of gay people; and local authorities were
extremely intolerant of the gay subculture. Police entrapment and raids on
bars and baths, unheard of in the GDR, were common in the West."

The published curators' notes from a 1997 Berlin art exhibit commemorating
the 100th anniversary of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement stated
that the number of convictions of individuals accused under the anti-gay
statutes in West Germany was 1,920 in 1950; by 1959, the number soared to as
many as 3,530--an all time record.

"Even people not sentenced suffered a great deal," the exhibit curators
pointed out, "as employers and family members found out in the course of
proceedings that they were gay."

*Progress, not perfection*

The Nazi anti-gay amendment was immediately struck from the laws of the
newly created German Democratic Republic in 1949.

Formally the old Prus sian Paragraph 175 remained on the books in the GDR.
But the activist efforts of Dr. Rudolph Klimmer--a gay communist and
physician--during the 1950s had an impact.

Steakley explained that Klimmer set out to win the support of prominent
people in the GDR for the campaign to rescind Paragraph 175 and win full
equality for homosexuals. "His efforts were strongly backed by the GDR's
then Minister of Justice, Hilde Benjamin; she urged repeal of Paragraph 175
in the country's leading legal journals. There was (and still is) a high
degree of acceptance of homosexuals within the cultural sector of the GDR,"
he reported, "but the GDR's then Minister of Culture, the poet Johannes R.
Becher, refused to take a public stand on law reform."

Becher's homosexuality was well known, since West German reporters had
"outed" his relationship with a male construction worker.

"Klimmer did, however, receive the support of numerous other agencies and
individuals," Steakley said, "including one of the GDR's most famous
writers, Ludwig Renn, a party veteran whose novels frequently turned on gay

The 1950s and 1960s were defined not by perfection, however, but by

Backward views about root causes of homosexuality still circulated. And when
Klimmer wrote a 1958 opus to answer this old prejudice, he could not find a
publisher in the East. Klimmer had written that only two things
differentiate homosexuals from heterosexuals: the object of sexual
attraction and social discrimination.

However, Steakley wrote, "Klimmer's efforts during this period were rewarded
by the judicial decision in 1957 to discontinue prosecutions on the basis of
Paragraph 175 except in cases involving assault, coercion or minors."

*Gains in East push West to follow*

The year 1961 marked a period of economic change in the GDR that brought
social change in its wake.

"Beginning in 1961," Steakley continued, "the GDR finally took measures
which had long been delayed: the complete collectivization of farmlands and
the expropriation of privately owned stores and industries. Since most bars
and baths were privately owned and managed up to 1961, this had a direct
impact upon the urban gay scene."

However, Steakley found that virtually every city with a population of more
than 50,000 had a gay bar; Dresden and Leipzig each had four; and Berlin had
five and a steam bath. In some cases these state-owned clubs were frequented
by heterosexual patrons in the daytime, and gay clientele in the evenings.
"Frictions have developed when a homophobic manager was assigned to a gay
bar," he concluded, "but such managers generally request a transfer after a
short time."

At last, in 1968, the hated Paragraph 175 was removed from lawbooks after
almost a century of struggle since its inception in 1871--but only in the

Richard Plant, a Jewish gay man forced to flee Germany in 1933, hailed this
progressive move in his 1990 article "East German Gay Laws--Years Ahead of

Plant wrote that "finally in 1968, perhaps spurred on by sexologists,
scientists and gay activists, East Germany revoked all penalties concerning
sexual relations between consenting male adults. This caused consternation
for the leaders of other Eastern European nations. Officials in Prague,
Budapest and Bucharest were bewildered.

"But more troubled were conservative power brokers of West Germany."

Plant said the legislative move by the GDR pushed West Germany to follow.
"In 1969 the Bonn government began timidly to draw up new regulations; the
legislators, however, were so scared of right-wing fanatics that another
year passed before the rulings resembled those drafted in the East."

While the welcome legal move in the GDR did not in and of itself wipe out
centuries of homophobia that lingered as a legacy of class society, the
Communist Party in the GDR would soon demonstrate what strides in social
progress could be made when the workers' party and the workers' state put
energy into the efforts.

Dogan Göcmen
Author of The Adam Smith Problem:
Reconciling Human Nature and Society in
The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, I. B. Tauris,
London&New York 2007

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