Last edited: July 11, 2004

Documenting Berlin’s Gay History

Deutsche Welle, June 21, 2004
Public Broadcasting Service, Raderberggürtel 50 50968 Köln Germany
Fax: +49-221-389-3000,3367,1441_A_1242635_1_A,00.html

Barry McKay

Berlin is gearing up for the celebration of gay culture known as Christopher Street Day. The capital has long been known as a center for Germany’s homosexual community, as documented in the city’s Gay Museum.

Berlin’s Gay Museum is tucked away in the multicultural district of Kreuzberg. Established in 1985, the museum is a private institution dedicated to preserving, exhibiting, and discovering gay and lesbian history, art, and culture.

Although many organizations around the world collect historical material relevant to gay men and lesbians, the Berlin museum is the only institution of its kind which is open full time and has a dedicated building with changing exhibitions open to the public.

“We’re planning to open a permanent exhibit on gay history from 1800-1970 this December,” said Gerrit Horbacher, the musem’s spokesman. “People are often confused when they come here and only see art exhibits. They ask us where the history is, so that’s something we’ll have on show by the end of the year.”

Pioneer Hirschfeld

The museum’s extensive library includes a newspaper and magazine archive, which includes editions of the first gay magazine, “Der Eigene,” published in Germany in 1896. “Back then, the magazine was not really sold very openly. Instead there was a list of where to send them, and of places where people could buy them,” he said. “In the 1920’s, it was a lot easier. Then you could find gay and lesbian magazines in kiosks alongside newspapers and mainstream magazines.”

In 1897 in Berlin, the publishers of “Der Eigene,” Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and Adolf Brand, went on to form the world’s first gay liberation movement. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee was a political group that lobbied the German parliament to abolish the law forbidding homosexuality known as “Paragraph 175,” which had been on the books since 1871. Modified in 1969 and again in 1973, the law was eventually abolished in 1994.

Hirschfeld was a Social Democrat, a Jew and a medical doctor. He gathered support for the gay cause from German intellectuals and liberal politicians of the time. The Gay Museum includes many of his pioneering works.

“In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science, with which he aimed to make people conscious of their sexuality and allow people to live their sexual lives as they wanted, not just according to rules that were dictated by society,” Horbacher said. “He also conducted many surveys on homosexuality, and developed his theory of ‘the third sex,’ as he called homosexuals.”

The Golden 1920’s

The founding of Hirschfeld’s institute coincided with the suffragette movement, shorter skirts, cropped hair for women and the so-called flapper look. Differences between the sexes were being bridged, and gay culture in Berlin flourished. Much of the gay nightlife was centered around Nollendorfplatz in the Schöneberg district of Berlin, and still is today. One of the most famous nightclubs in the 1920’s was the Eldorado, which featured a number of transvestite performers.

“We’ve got coins from the Eldorado, which customers used to buy there. On one side, they show either a gay or lesbian couple dancing together. The customers would give the coins to one of the transvestites working there, to get a dance. And at the end of the evening, the transvestites gathered all their coins, and were paid according to how many they’d managed to collect,” Horbacher explained.

The Eldorado also regularly featured then up-and-coming star Marlene Dietrich, who went on to achieve international fame. Dietrich had left Germany by the 1930’s when the Nazis came to power.

After Hitler’s regime took control, all gay and lesbian bars and meeting places in Germany were closed. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science was looted in 1933 by the Nazis and his books were burned.

“Every gay person knew that the Nazis didn’t like homosexuals, and that they wanted to get rid of them,” Horbacher said. “They started to enforce Paragraph 175, so from 1935 on, it was punishable just to glance at someone of the same sex too intensively. Gay people lived in fear of being denounced by other people, and the police conducted raids, arrested gays, and sent them to concentration camps.”

Contemporary history

While the museum contains much research material documenting the lives of homosexuals in past eras, it also concentrates resources on collecting material on important modern-day developments for gays in Germany, such as the country’s new “registered partnership” law.

“Really, it’s just a kind of gay marriage,” Horbacher said, “because there aren’t equal rights like in a heterosexual marriage. There are quite a few couples who are doing it. In Berlin, there are lots of gay marriages, and also the first divorces. It’s quite normal here.”

Horbacher said that while the museum attracts many gays and lesbians from Berlin and abroad, heterosexuals are also among the patrons. “They see that there’s a gay museum, and think, ‘Let’s see what they’ve got on display.’ It’s a fun thing for them. At least they’re open to coming in, and that’s our aim—not only to have gay and lesbian visitors, but also to be of interest to heterosexuals.”

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