This heroic narrative is, of course, incomplete. More troublingly, centering American experiences implies a necessary correlation among democracy, capitalism and queer liberation. This U.S.-centrism suggests that sexual minorities abroad must hit the same milestones to be liberated. But when we look beyond the United States, it becomes clear that liberation is far from the inevitable end of a progress narrative. Rather it is a local, subjective and ever-changing project.
Germany is a particularly compelling place to interrogate these concerns, for the nation divided by the Cold War charted two very different paths when it came to gay liberation. In 1949, the country formally split into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany. Yet, of the two, it was the liberal democracy that continued Nazi-era persecution of gay men. Over the course of the 20 years between 1949 and 1969, West German courts convicted more than 50,000 queer men under Nazi statutes that remained on the books.
Groups of same-sex desiring men who labeled themselves homophiles (a word they thought sounded more respectable than homosexual) cropped up in West Germany in the early 1950s. Unlike similar groups in the United States and other western European countries, however, they quickly faded. By 1960, they had all but disappeared. There was no Stonewall moment in West Germany, no memorable stand against the oppressive policing and sexual morality of those early postwar decades.
Instead, West German politicians reformed the laws banning homosexual conduct in 1969 as part of a broader revision of the penal code. After this legislative change, new gay and lesbian bars, saunas and periodicals soon arose. A radical liberation movement also appeared in those years. But it was strikingly different from its cousin in the United States. Its members opposed the commercial gay scene, viewing it as a barrier to the kind of solidarity that would be necessary to win real social and political change. The groups attacked gay publications, denouncing them as nothing more than “masturbation templates.”
When it came to politics, the movement also diverged from the center-left alliance that arose between queer activists and the Democratic Party in the United States. Over the course of the 1970s, West German activists enjoyed their greatest support from the centrist Free Democratic Party. But activists ultimately had little success pushing their policies in the federal government and grew cynical about the possibilities of parliamentary politics. As a result, LGBTQ West Germans never fully coalesced behind any of the major parties, even after German reunification in 1990, and they continue to divide their votes across the political spectrum.
During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, West German history also diverged from the U.S. path. Whereas the Reagan administration stayed silent and let LGBTQ Americans perish, the West German government, in particular federal health minister Rita Süssmuth, partnered with AIDS self-help groups to circulate information about the disease and safer sex. West Germany never shut down its gay saunas and still managed to bring infection rates down dramatically over the course of the decade. Because of the government’s success fighting AIDS, radical groups like ACT UP played a much smaller part in the German activist scene.
If, by the end of the 1980s, West Germany’s activists were far less politically radical than those in other countries, they had nonetheless managed both to preserve their subculture and find ways to collaborate with politicians and bureaucrats. West German queer activism was not characterized by the same triumphal moments or catastrophic setbacks as the American version, but nonetheless forged a kind of liberation no less real than that in the United States.
Yet this distinctive West German history is largely forgotten, submerged beneath the dominant U.S. narrative — even in Germany. The annual Berlin Pride celebration is known as Christopher Street Day, named for the Stonewall Inn’s address. Even by the mid-1980s, activists and historians, dispirited by a lack of parliamentary political victories, had begun to compare West Germany’s liberation movement unfavorably with that in the United States.
The East German experience with gay liberation was yet more surprising. Although most Westerners assumed such activism could not possibly have been successful in a communist state, by the end of the 1980s, East Germany could realistically lay claim to being one of the most sexually progressive countries on Earth. In the 1970s, gay men and lesbians began to organize together in East Berlin. While the Stasi, the secret police, denied the group the right to organize in public, these tenacious women and men coordinated house parties, steamboat cruises and birthday dinners. In the middle of the decade, they met Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a trans woman who ran a museum in one of East Berlin’s outer neighborhoods. She offered them the museum’s basement to host their activities, and for several years they “bopped and danced like it was 1904.” This arrangement lasted until 1978, when the East Berlin police forbade the group to continue meeting.
But only a few years later, lesbian and gay activists mobilized again, this time under the umbrella of the Protestant Church, the only nominally independent organization in the communist state. Spreading rapidly across the country, they pressured the regime to change laws and social policies, such as allowing gay men to serve in the military, repealing a law that set a higher age of consent for gay and lesbian sex and making it easier for same-sex partners to find housing together. The government tried cracking down on the groups, but to no avail: They continued to grow in size and number. So worried was the Stasi that its functionaries convinced the East German government to accede to activists’ demands. Stasi officials began circulating memos in 1985 insisting that government bodies address gay men and lesbians’ “humanitarian problems,” that is, taking their complaints seriously.
As a result, change came rapidly. The government equalized the age of consent, years before most other countries, including West Germany and the United States. It promulgated a policy allowing openly gay men to serve in the military. Queer people were given the right to seek sexual and mental health counseling. The regime greenlighted the first gay feature film, “Coming Out,” which premiered Nov. 9, 1989 — the night East Germans breached the Berlin Wall. Local governments began sanctioning queer organizations and staging gay disco nights.
In the years after reunification, these two distinct German paths converged. The principal LGBTQ organization in Germany today was founded by East German activists in 1990 and the West German federal states abolished the last vestiges of their antigay statutes as a direct result of East Germany’s more progressive lawmaking. The West German subculture began to bleed into the Eastern lands, in particular East Berlin, which has become synonymous with queer nightlife in recent decades.
The point is not that East or West Germany achieved a liberation better than that in the United States, but rather that queer life and activism take distinctive forms in different local and national contexts. At the same time, this history should caution us that there is nothing inevitable about the conjunction of capitalism, democracy and gay liberation that we fete this time of year. The American version of LGBTQ liberation is not the only path that sexual minorities can travel.