“Ich bin schwul und das ist auch gut so,” – I’m gay, and it is good that way – are the famous words of today’s mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, during the mayoral elections of 2001. Berlin is known for its laissez faire-attitude towards sex and sexual orientation. The city ranks high up the list of ‘gay capitals’ of the world, along with San Francisco, Sydney and Amsterdam. But it has not always been like that.
In Germany, in 1871, ‘paragraph 175’ was accepted. This law marked the beginning of 123 years of legal discrimination against gay men. Paragraph 175 defined any sexual activities between men, as well as between men and animals as perverse sexual offenses. A crime that could result in imprisonment of six months up to four years and the loss of citizenship.
Chic and avant-garde
Psychologist and scholar of sexual science Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the first who fought against paragraph 175. In 1897 he founded the ‘Wissenschaftliche-humanitaires Komitte’ in Berlin. Two years later, the first version of ‘Der Eigene’ was published. ’Der Eigene,’ became the first gay journal in the world that published articles, nude pictures and prints. In 1919, the first gay German silent movie, ‘Anders als die Anderen’ (‘Different from the other’), was shown in Berlin’s Appolo cinema and after the First World War a mass gay movement flourished in Germany. Over a hundred lively bars and restaurants for gay men, lesbians and transvestites opened up all over Berlin.
This all changed in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The already ongoing persecution of homosexual men and women peaked after Hitler ordered a purge of the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, in June 1934. Ernst Röhm, an openly homosexual leader of the SA, was arrested and executed. Two years later a law was passed that legalized imprisonment of homosexuals without a trial and a department was created in Berlin that specialized on the elimination of homosexuals. Many were deported and often murdered in concentration camps.
After the Second World War a short renaissance took place in Berlin’s gay life. In 1945 the first gay bar reopened and the first drag ball was organized. Meanwhile the Federal Republic of Germany kept the Nazi version of paragraph 175 in West Germany until 1967. As of then, only adults who engaged in same-sex sexual activities with minors under the age of twenty-one were punished. On the other side of the Wall, the German Democratic Republic adopted the original version of paragraph 175 until 1968. It was replaced by a law that punished only same-sex activity with minors under the age of eighteen. This new law finally disappeared from East German law books in 1989.
As a result of the contrasting laws in divided Berlin, the gay movement developed in different ways. In West Berlin, where democracy was restored and capitalism flourished, a gay culture and community developed along similar lines as in other western cities. Here, the gay movement defined itself more left wing in its political agenda and included critique on capitalism.
For the gays and lesbians in East Berlin, it was hard to become visible in a state with a doctrine that focused entirely on the heterosexual family as the basis of the socialist society. During the eighties, the Eastern German government changed its attitude towards homosexuality. As a result, the first gay newspaper was published in 1986, state sponsored gay meetings were organized in cafes and restaurants. Finally, in 1994 any remaining anti-gay laws were abolished from all German law books.
Since 2001, German gay- and lesbian couples can obtain a registered -civil- partnership. More then a decennium later, homosexual couples still do not have all the same rights as hetrosexuals when it comes to tax and adoption. Recently Germany’s top court ruled that a taxation law, granting only hetrosexual unions a tax break, was unconstitutional. As of now, civil partnerships, including those of same-sex couples, should have joint tax filing benefits equal to those of married opposite-sex couples.
In Germany more and more people have expressed their support for allowing same-sex marriage. Current chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, CDU, is still against it.