The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Communist states have sometimes been havens for LGBTQ rights

When communism was queer

Football supporters with LGBT pride flags at the Allianz Arena in Munich on June 23. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

Cuba is considering a new family code that could allow marriage equality for the first time in the communist nation. In the last year, the Cuban health ministry unfurled an enormous rainbow flag to mark International Day Against Homophobia, and former president Raúl Castro declared that confronting homophobia remained one of the government’s chief goals.

To some Americans, these developments might seem to fly in the face of the country’s communist history. After all, Fidel Castro’s government interned gay people in camps in the 1960s and sent HIV-positive individuals to government sanitariums in the 1980s. As one columnist wrote of the American left in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “it is remarkable that any [liberal] could look at the Castros’ history on race and sexuality and conclude they had shared values.”

It has been common for U.S. commentators to use queer people to discredit socialism — a kind of pinkwashing in reverse. But doing so flattens the historical relationship between queer politics and communism. Centering only the homophobic elements in communism, this rhetoric ignores the truly impressive advances made by some communist regimes on queer rights (and papers over long histories of intolerance of LGBTQ people in non-communist countries). A more careful examination of this history shows us that communism and queerness might actually belong together.

Sexuality was not a preoccupation of communism’s earliest theorists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who penned “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, had little to say on the topic. What they did was contemptuous.

But other early leftists were not so dismissive. August Bebel, leader from 1892 to 1913 of the German Social Democratic Party, the largest socialist party in Europe, was a forceful proponent of legalizing homosexuality. He even took to the floor of the German parliament in 1898 to demand a repeal of the country’s sodomy law. Similarly, after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they introduced a modern penal code in 1922 that abolished Russia’s sodomy law. In the 1920s, communist and socialist parties were often proponents of legalizing same-sex acts.

The middle of the 20th century, however, witnessed a backlash. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s regime recriminalized male homosexuality and imprisoned thousands of gay men under the new law. Communist partisans also came to see accusations of homosexuality as a convenient way to smear their right-wing enemies. The famous gay author Klaus Mann, an exiled opponent of Hitler’s government, complained in 1934 that queer people were becoming “the Jews of the antifascists” — the left’s favored scapegoat. Gay men and lesbians were not only convenient targets, whose persecution allowed communists to cast themselves as morally superior to their foes. In transgressing gender and sexual norms, they also fit poorly with the increasingly macho ethos within communist parties and regimes.

This repressive tendency endured after World War II. Russia would not decriminalize homosexuality until 1993. Other communist states strengthened laws against homosexuality after the war. Even more tolerant countries such as Poland also did not abide queer activism. When gay activists began to organize in the 1980s in communist Poland, the government cracked down in a mass action known as Operation Hyacinth, probably fearful of what it perceived as organized resistance to the government.

But in other communist countries, queer people made remarkable strides. Archives and oral histories reveal that for many gay and lesbian people in East Germany during the Cold War, the communist nation was a more open and tolerant place than many Western states. These obscured histories fly in the face of rhetoric that suggests communism and queerness are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, East Germany pursued a markedly more tolerant policy than did West Germany. Its democratic twin retained the Nazi-era law criminalizing gay men. East Germany reverted to a far less stringent version, drawing on the German Communist Party’s historic support for decriminalization.

The difference was striking; while West Germany convicted over 50,000 men between 1949 and 1969 of homosexuality, East Germany convicted only a tiny fraction of that number. At the same time, it began to liberalize its penal code much earlier than West Germany, largely ceasing to prosecute consensual adult homosexuality in 1957. Other Soviet-bloc countries also decriminalized homosexuality in the postwar decades: Czechoslovakia in 1962, Hungary in 1961 and Bulgaria in 1968.

This relative tolerance allowed queer subcultures to develop in East Germany, particularly in its larger cities. Gay men cruised for sex in public baths and parks, while certain bars tacitly catered to queer clientele. House parties became a staple of the queer scene in those years. In her memoir, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps the most famous trans woman in German history, remembered going to lively house parties in Berlin full of queer East Germans.

In the 1970s, a group of gay men and lesbians began to meet in East Berlin, determined to carve out a public space for themselves. Hosted by von Mahlsdorf in the basement of the museum she directed, the group peppered the communist regime with petitions. They requested that leaders agree to open a communication center for gay and lesbian citizens, a space where they could meet freely, discuss their sexuality and educate the East German public. The group was largely unsuccessful, as the government remained skeptical of the need for such public engagement.

But in the 1980s, other gay and lesbian activists began organizing under the auspices of the Protestant Church, the only nominally independent organization in the country. In city after city, new groups arose — over a dozen across the tiny country (East Germany had a smaller population than Florida). They forced the regime to take them seriously, and eventually it decided that the best way to defuse the possible political challenge that queer activism posed was to accept the groups’ demands. It did so, in part, because activists had been adamant about framing their requests in terms of the needs of socialism, emphasizing that creating greater opportunities for queer East Germans would only strengthen their commitment to communism.

In short order, the dictatorship promulgated a slew of liberal policies, from allowing queer people to serve in the military to equalizing the age of consent to commissioning new books and movies about homosexuality. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that doing so would strengthen socialist society by better integrating queer people into it and dismantling social homophobia.

As a result, the 1980s were a truly remarkable time for queer East Germans, what one of my interview partners called “the most beautiful gay time.” When the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified, many of these gay men and lesbian women expressed a sense of loss. They felt alienated by the consumerist, Western gay subculture. Whereas the growing subculture in the East had made many of them feel more closely aligned with the communal, socialist project, the West German subculture revolved around a highly individualized identity and the right to express it commercially.

Other Eastern bloc countries were also defiantly queer. Hungary had long been known as a friendly place for gay and lesbian people, its capital Budapest seen as Eastern Europe’s Amsterdam. Prague, too, was a desirable destination for gay vacationers behind the Iron Curtain. In both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, gay and lesbian activists also made efforts to organize in the 1980s and convinced the respective communist regimes to make changes to social regulations.

The history of queerness and communism is not simply one of repression. It contains moments of both ambiguity and genuine advances — advances that often outstripped the supposedly freer West. At a time when the left still debates whether identity or class is the best basis on which to build progress and whether socialism can be reconciled with a politics from the margins, it is important to remember that socialism and queerness have and can again walk hand-in-hand.