Peter Tatchell is a very admirable man; I don’t agree with all his politics, and I sometimes think he chooses the wrong targets, but he has done a fantastic job at challenging homophobia, often at personal risk; and his inspiring bravery and his preparedness to speak truth to power have helped to change for ever the public perception of gay people.
It would therefore be a shame if Peter Tatchell should be used to eclipse and write out of history the achievements of another brave gay man, Dr. Rudolf Klimmer, who successfully campaigned for anti-gay legislation to be removed from the statutes in East Germany.
We need to understand the historical context. During the 1920s there had been a robust questioning of sexual stereotypes in Weimar Germany, for example through Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s “Scientific-Humanitarian Committee” (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee) that campaigned for gay rights. However, Bismark’s Paragraph 175, the Prussian law from 1871 against male homosexuality, was never repealed under the Weimar Republic.
In the Nazi era, gay rights received two catastrophic reverses. Firstly, the law was made much more repressive by clause 175a, that made it a criminal offence for a man to look at another man in a “lewd manner”. This allowed the Nazis to arrest and persecute tens of thousands of people for simply “being gay”. But secondly, the Nazis thoroughly institutionalised their bigoted views in the judicial and criminal justice system, in universities, teaching hospitals and medical organisations. This consolidation of social attitudes meant that in West Germany – where de-Nazification was very shallow – law 175a was in force until 1969.
In contrast, in 1948 the Superior Court in Halle, in the Soviet Occupied Zone, struck down section 175a, removing legal sanction against people for simply being gay, 21 years before this happened in the West
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s West Germany had a conservative social culture, and homosexuals were arrested and incarcerated for breaching this law – simply for being gay. A thought crime, where people could be and were sent to prison simply for their desires and dreams. Indeed, during the 1950s in particular Church and conservative politicians in the West continually contrasted their own family based morality with what they described as sexual licence and debauchery in the East.
This was a particularly important ideological battleground, as sexual conservatism was the mainstay in the West for the state to emphasise its discontinuity with the Nazis. The Nazis had ridiculed Christian prudery, and encouraged pre-marital sex. Precisely because the West German state did not purge out leading Nazis from many government positions, and because it continued with most of the economic structures of the Nazi regime, it played greater emphasis on a return to what they saw as personal morality, and gave a leading voice to the Catholic church. The 1950s and early 1960s saw major state sponsored campaigns from the Catholic Church and CDU party against pre-marital sex, and against sexual experimentation
In the East, the economic and social reorganisation, and the thorough de-Nazification meant that the state had no need to invent differences with the Nazi era. They did however stress the sexual exploration of the Nazi era was often exploitative. In contrast, love and mutual respect were encouraged as a pre-condition for sex: in 1963 the Youth Committee of the SED issued a memorandum, responding to reports of teenagers becoming sexually active younger, in which they praised romantic love as the “path to happiness”, and encouraged parents to respect their teenage children’s rights to have loving relationships that became sexual.
The reform of law towards gay sex was led by Rudolf Klimmer, a gay man and a communist, who kept his head down during the Nazi era, marrying a lesbian for mutual self protection; and who chose to go and live in East Germany after the war. (Many gays did, due to the better legal situation there.)
Klimmer wanted not only section 175a, but also the whole of section 175 repealed. He campaigned tirelessly, gradually winning support for his position in the Party. He re-established the “Scientific-Humanitarian Committee”, and appeared as an expert witness in countless trials against people being prosecuted for consensual gay sex throughout the 1950s. He became director of a sexual counselling and health institute, on a model that was replicated in other towns in East Germany. It became a peculiarity of East German society that issues of sexual politics and relationships were debated and promoted by the medical profession, not because these are actually medical issues, but because the Doctors had the political space to do so.
Gradually, he won the party around, and in 1957, the police and prosecutors were told that there should be no more prosecutions for any consensual sexual activity between adults. Furthermore, in 1968 Statute 175 was removed completely from the statute book – meaning there was no legal prohibition against gay sex (though both gay and straight people needed to be carefully of the strictly enforced Article 151, that prohibited intergenerational sex, between someone over 18 with someone under 18). It is interesting that one of the factors which inhibited faster progress in the East was the homophobic campaigning from West Germany, depicting the DDR as immoral.
Two further issues need to be explored. Decriminalisation and legalisation did not end discrimination; and the official attitude to sexual experimentation. The question of homosexuality was part and parcel of the government’s overall attitude to all sexual activity.
These are complex areas. The SED party as a whole did not take an attitude on social and personal sexual issues. However, the leadership were themselves personally socially conservative, older men; and what is more they were very sensitive to negative international opinion about the DDR. The fact that the USSR persecuted gays to the bitter end, and that West Germany was, until perhaps the early 1970s, a conservative and sexually repressive society provided an inhibiting context.
But the party were also not opposed to sexual liberalism; which created enormous space for policy to be shaped by specialist groups, like the SED’s youth committee; by debate in the medical profession; and also just by what ordinary people did.
This last factor was very important, as we can see from one of the most characteristic aspects of East German life was nudity (Freikorpskultur (FKK)) ; with absolutely no official encouragement, from the 1960s onwards public nudity, and very commonly nudity in the home, became normal; and early municipal attempts to stop it were simply overwhelmed by the public mood. Research has shown that these second generation DDR families practising FKK had very liberal attitudes about sex.
Over issues of abortion, teen marriages and divorce, the party increasingly liberalised the law following evolution in social practice. Throughout the 1960s, medical professionals used evidence of what people actually did as a wedge to drive SED policy in a progressive direction. The push from informed expert opinion is what decided public policy.
Society was torn in two directions, and liberalism was winning, so that while Volkmar Sigush reported a puritanical attitude among party members in the 1950s, and Wolfgang Bretschneider was fighting a losing battle in the medical profession against condoning pre-martial sex; at the same time a number of guides to sex and relationships were published that encouraged people to take a relaxed and permissive attitude to sex, for example Rudolf Neubert’s “Das Neue Ehebuch” in the 1950s or the best selling book by the Weber’s “Du und Ich” in the 1960s.
Admitedly, gay sex was completely absent from the official guides and discourse (despite one mention in “Du und Ich” recommending that heterosexual women avoid marrying gay men. Which in its own terms is perhaps not bad advice). But simply ignoring the gay expereince in offical discussion of sex and relationships is not unusual even today in the West.
The official position was therefore to remove legal discrimination, but not to otherwise acknowledge that gay relationships existed. This evolved so that by the 1980s, gay social groups and clubs were able to openly organise, as long as they took the precaution of making some tenuous linkage with the Protestant churches. (Gay groups that sought to link with West German gays could expect repression, for different reasons). All the evidence is that ordinary people took a permissive view that it was a private matter between consenting adults. Towards the end of the 1980s the East German government opened a state-owned gay disco in Berlin; and in 1987 the East German Supreme Court affirmed that “homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, represents a variant of sexual behavior. Homosexual people do therefore not stand outside socialist society, and the civil rights are warranted to them exactly as to all other citizens.”
The difficulty in making comparisons is that this is all more than twenty years ago. The social attitudes in Britain and Germany have also moved in a long way since then. But generally the DDR was more progressive on liberalising attitudes to gays earlier than other European countries. The medical profession continued to promote gay rights to the very end, and indeed a happy postscript is the progressive influence of doctors from the former DDR in shifting social attitudes in Cuba.
So what about the absence of openly gay German role-models, and people in higher positions? Well, we need to acknowledge that 20 years ago these were very rare in Britain as well ; but the biggest problem was that the SED leadership were completely ossified as a bizarre club for old men. There were not even any women (except Honneker’s wife) at the top table, let alone gays. There was only one person under 40 years old in a senior leadership position in the SED, and he was only a candidate member of the politburo, in charge of the youth section!
So gays were not being discriminated by not raising to the top. No-one rose to the top. The party was a completely dysfunctional and failed institution, with no social mobility; where the senior leadership lived all together in a bizarre little village and never met anyone socially, they even had their lunchtime sandwiches together every single day. They might as well have been on the moon.
Generally, we have to say that in the area of personal sexual relationships, and respect for women as being the equals of men, then the DDR was a surprisingly innovative and successful society. It also provided both a relatively liberal attitude and legal permissiveness towards gays and lesbians at the grassroots level, but advance towards gay rights were compromised and thwarted by the general perception of any social non-conformity as political opposition. Given that the DDR collapsed in 1989 our comparators need to be with other societies in 1989 and earlier, and it is a correct judgement that the DDR was progressive in this area.
This is worth commemorating especially because the advances in gay rights were not handed down by the party leadership, but campaigned for and bravely fought for by gay activists like Rudolf Klimmer, who used the space open for medical professionals to change public attitudes and party policy; and by thousands of gay men and lesbians who simply persevered in demanding to be treated with respect and dignity.