Last edited: November 07, 2004

Lesbian and Gay Rights Blossom

East Germany in the 1970s

Workers World, November 11, 2004
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011

By Leslie Feinberg

“The legal situation of GDR [East German] gays improved considerably in 1968 with the elimination of Paragraph 175,” historian Jim Steakley concluded in his published research. He credited the abolition of the almost century-old Prussian anti-homosexual law to the pioneering work of Dr. Rudolph Klimmer, a gay communist physician.

This move, part of an overhaul of the criminal code, elevated the GDR to the same progressive level as Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which also decriminalized homosexuality in the mid-1960s. (Body Politic, December 1976-January 1977)

Writing in 1976, the Canadian researcher described an East German gay population characterized by long-term relationships, apparently more so than in West Germany or the United States. “The durability of such relationships may also reflect the relative lack of anomie and competitiveness in socialist society, yet the prevalence of gay couples is all the more striking in light of the fact that at 50 percent and still climbing, the GDR’s divorce rate is the highest in the world.

“Although it deserves a more detailed analysis,” he continued, “GDR citizens properly interpret the divorce rate as an index of women’s emancipation rather than social collapse. In any case, the gay couples are seldom burdened by the ideology of pure monogamy, and affairs on the side as well as casual sexual encounters are standard.

“Parks, beaches (where nude bathing is widespread), and other public places have never been the locus of police entrapment, and arrests for public indecency are virtually unknown.”

However, one last thorn of legal discrimination remained in the body of East German law. While the age of sexual consent was the same for same-sex and heterosexual minors, under the provisions of Paragraphs 150 and 151, homosexual adults penalized for relationships with under-age youths could be sentenced to three years behind bars, while heterosexuals only faced two-year sentences.

Steakley met with Klimmer during his research in the GDR. “Dr. Klimmer regards it as his greatest success,” he reported, “that these paragraphs explicitly contain a provision allowing prison terms to be suspended in favor of probation, and court practice shows that this option has been widely adopted in cases which do not involve assault or coercion.”

Before the GDR was overturned, even this legal inequity was removed.

Housing and employment, however, continued to be sites of struggles for equality after 1961. Partly this was due to lack of resources in the workers’ state that made the early goal of socialism—equal distribution—difficult to attain. And age-old prejudice was also an obstacle.

Steakley gave voice to the frustration of gays with the GDR’s governmental housing agency, which allocated space based on family size. This made it virtually impossible for single men to rent more than a studio apartment. But he did not examine this social crisis out of its economic context.

“Housing is still at a premium in the GDR, and it was only in 1975 that Berlin, for example, attained the per-capita level of housing that it had prior to World War II,” he explained, “In order to keep the country from sinking below its current zero population growth, the government makes no bones about rewarding childbirth; and while abortion and contraceptives are freely available, premarital sex and unmarried motherhood are promoted in pop songs.”

While the housing crunch Steakley described in 1976 constrained singles, he found that gays in East Germany were “optimistic that the GDR’s ongoing, high-priority construction program will open new options within the next decade.”

When examining the housing crisis in the GDR, it’s important to reiterate that, by law, rent could not exceed 10 percent of an individual’s income.

And when it came to jobs, Steakley stressed, “homosexuals are occasionally fired by a homophobic superior. But gays have successfully argued their cases in special GDR workers’ courts and had their jobs restored with back pay.”

Unlike a capitalist economic system, where wages are always in danger of being driven down by an “army of unemployed” competing against the employed, jobs are a right in a planned economy. Steakley stressed, “In a country with the right (not the obligation) to work and a serious labor shortage, job performance has become the sole criterion for hiring and firing.”

Flowering of lesbian, gay subculture

In his 10 pages of results of a study of the lesbian and gay movement in the GDR, published in 1989, researcher John Parsons explained that during the 1950s and 1960s an underground gay subculture had developed. But, he continued, “The 1970s and early 1980s were a time when this lesbian and gay subculture grew and flowered, creating a broad self-consciousness and assertiveness.” (OUT/LOOK, Summer 1989)

The Berlin Association for Homosexual Concerns (HIB) was established in the spring of 1972 by both women and men. They organized public and private discussion groups and programs, held film showings and book readings, and hosted speakers from the fields of medicine, psychology and sociology.

Steakley added an important point about the class character of the association. “Unlike most gay organizations in West Germany, the HIB is largely made up of workers and professional people rather than students.” Two of the three members of the steering committee belonged to the Communist Party.

Parsons noted the role of women. “Parallel with these efforts, lesbians and feminists were organizing their own discussion groups centered on questions of women’s liberation.”

He added that although public discussion focused on male same-sexuality, “One fact that is striking, however, is that lesbian and gay cultural institutions and friendship circles in East Germany historically have been integrated much more across gender lines than those in either West Germany or the United States.”

Steakley, writing closer to the period of the formation of HIB, said that while the organization waited until 1976 to apply for state recognition, “it by no means had an underground status during its first four years.”

In its first year, the group approached the Ministry of Health to request public meeting space. But the HIB delegation angrily withdrew its request after a psychiatrist offered to turn those weekly meetings into group therapy.

So the group turned to the national labor union—the FDGB. Steakley reported, “The FDGB was unable to provide rooms but urged the HIB to continue its search, noting that gays had legitimate concerns and should not be required to continue meeting in private homes.”

He added that activists protested a lack of protection from anti-gay bashers to the Berlin police “and the HIB got a positive response.”

The group also lodged complaints with city administrators when one of Berlin’s gay bars was closed in 1975. “Protests to municipal authorities brought assurances that the measure was not intentionally anti-gay but part of a larger urban renewal program designed to enhance the capital’s ‘cosmopolitan character’ which would soon lead to the opening of several new bars ‘for every taste.’”

And Parsons pointed out that during the 1970s, a number of gay-identified clubs and cafes opened up in major East German cities.

Answering the “Rat Man”

On June 1, 1976, HIB organized a very successful forum publicly sponsored by the Urania Society—a public education agency.

The event, a talk by Dr. Peter G. Klemm entitled “Sex Roles in Socialist Society,” filled the meeting hall to capacity. Of the 500 who attended, only an estimated one-third were gay or lesbian.

Klemm’s speech and the discussion that followed demonstrated a progressive current in a raging polemic against the work of Dr. Gunter Domer, a Berlin endocrinology researcher dubbed “Rat Man” by HIB activists.

Dorner claimed to be able to produce “homosexual” or “heterosexual” litters of rats based on injecting pregnant rats at different stages in the gestation period. Steakley emphasized, “Dormer’s experiments raise the specter of pregnant women being tested for hormonal ‘normalcy’ and given booster shots if the results indicate that the fetus is ‘homosexual.’”

East German gays and lesbians recalled all too well that under capitalism, the fascist eugenics wing of biological determinism rose to power with Nazism. But in the GDR, Dorner’s theories and the faction of science he represented did not prevail.

Klemm argued against drawing broad generalizations about human sexuality based on animal research. His eloquent elaboration of this position, clarifying even today, appeared in a 1975 article in Fur Dich, a women’s magazine with the largest circulation in the GDR.

“It is one of many human achievements to have liberated sexuality from its function as biological reproduction and to have made it into an independent source of pleasure and life enrichment. Once we have acknowledged this and accepted the fundamentally human, and therefore social, function of sexuality, we must also grant that the source of pleasure cannot be set by biological criteria; the ‘wrong’ taste in pleasure cannot be declared a ‘sickness’ in need of treatment.

“Homosexuals suffer only in an intolerant milieu! Homosexuality is a form of ‘deviance’ only in terms of traditional sex-role concepts! Any halfway imaginative heterosexual couple deviates from the ‘natural’—e.g., the sexual behavior of rats—just as much as a homosexual couple.

“It is therefore quite proper to doubt whether the problem of bi-, homo- or hyposexuality can be actually solved with a shot of hormones in the fourth month of pregnancy, or even should be. Changes in the traditional concept of sex roles are certainly the more correct and above all the humane approach, and these remarks are intended as a contribution to that goal.” (Body Politic)

Steakley concluded in 1976 that these views by Dr. Klemm were “a sample of the progressive psychological standpoint which is becoming increasingly influential in the GDR. It is perhaps significant that the founding of the gay movement has come since 1971, when the government announced that the GDR had achieved the level of a ‘developed socialist society’ and could now begin to lay the groundwork for the transition to communism.

“Not just experts but gay people from all walks of life are playing a role in the broad, democratic discussion of the socialist personality and sexuality, feminism and the future of the family.”

That was East Germany in the 1970s. But by the 1980s, efforts by the Communist Party and the state created a historic milestone for same-sex emancipation.

Next: 1980s East Germany: stunning social gains in workers’ state.

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