“Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: a History, 1880-1945” by Clayton Whisnant— Gay Rights Activism in Germany

queer identities and politics in germany

Whisnant, Clayton. “Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: a History, 1880-1945”, Harrington Park Press, 2016.

Gay Rights Activism in Germany

Amos Lassen

There was an emergence of various “queer identities” (‘what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender”) in Germany from 1880 to 1945 as well political strategies pursued by early gay and lesbian activists. In his book Clayton Whisnant looks at English and German research of late to add to the ongoing argument as to whether science contributed to social progress or persecution during this period. He presents new information on the Nazis’ preoccupation with homosexuality.

What many do not know is that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Germany, there were important developments in LGBT history. These included the world’s first homosexual organizations and the first gay and lesbian magazines. There was also an influential community of German sexologists and psychoanalysts. We get details about these from as we learn of the German gay social scene through the Nazi persecution during which many members of the LGBT communities were sent to the camps.

While Berlin was the center of German gay life there were several other cities that had vibrant gay communities and these included Munich, Hamburg, and Cologne. Gay men such as Thomas Mann, Klaus Mann, Stefan George, Wilhelm von Gloeden and others are introduced to us here and we are also taken into the lesbian world to read what so many others have not covered. The end of the book shows how Germany’s past connects with its gay life of today.

I cannot even begin to imagine how much research went into this book. It is reader friendly and both for the academic and lay reader. As I read I found interesting fact after interesting fact and I found myself still reading during the early morning hours when I usually sleep.

Queer German history has a great deal of relevance for American readers interested in LGBTQ issues. Some of what you will learn here includes:

  • The first writer to coin the term “homosexual” was a German-speaking Hungarian in 1869.
  • The first homosexual activists were German, in the 1890s.
  • The world’s first gay bar, one that catered entirely to–vs. one that was favored by or tolerated–homosexuals) opened in Berlin in 1880.
  • Berlin’s gay life became internationally renowned/infamous, by the mid-1920s supporting nearly 100 gay and 50 lesbian bars and nightclubs. Police harassment was a regular occurrence, however.
  • By the end of the decade, a national organization of underground gay social clubs in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart had over 48,000 members.
  • The first periodicals addressed to gay men, lesbians, and transgender people were all German. Dozens of gay and lesbian magazines flourished, though furtively and under various names, from the 1890s to 1928, when the Law to Protect Youth against Trash and Smut shuttered all but a small handful.
  • The first Institute of Sex Research was opened in 1919 in Berlin. As well as being a research library and housing a large archive, the Institute also included medical, psychological, and ethnological divisions, and a marriage and sex counseling office.
  • A German scientist coined the term “transvestism,” paving the way for the distinction that we make between homosexual and transgender.
  • The first step toward something like rights for cross-dressers came when the Berlin police agreed to issue “transvestite passes.”
  • The first sex reassignment operation was done by a German doctor in 1920.
  • The pink triangle attached to the inmate uniforms of homosexual men in the Nazi concentration camps has been transformed since the 1970s into one of the internationally recognized symbols of LGBTQ politics.

“Cogent, well-researched and readable. Useful as a reader in a first year undergraduate course in the history of sexuality or alternatively as a reference work for a course on the Racial State or the Holocaust. This book is certainly also of interest to LGBTQ community groups and LGBTQ Resource Centers.” – Jennifer Evans, author of Queer Cities, Queer Culture: Europe Since 1945 (Continuum, 2013) with Matt Cook, Carlton University

“This is an outstanding survey book in all respects: intelligible to a wider readership while still pursuing an intellectual ambition, knowledgeable and precise, including stories and telling details while also offering interpretative food for thought and never losing the red thread. Different aspects and layers of queer history in Germany c. 1880-1945 are expertly covered, from Sexualwissenschaft to media scandals, from literary life to urban space. Recommended with enthusiasm.” – Moritz Föllmer, former reviews editor, German History, University of Amsterdam

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