Queer History

Queer as German Folk: exhibition at the Gay Museum Berlin

This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising but also the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in West Germany. The commemoration of these events has launched debate on both sides of the Atlantic about their interconnections and their role in the longer history of homosexual rights activism. As part of this process, Birgit Bosold and Carina Klugbauer of the Schwules Museum Berlin [Gay Museum Berlin] curated the exhibition Queer as German Folk to examine the transatlantic connections between the German and US homosexual rights movements across 1969. Developed in collaboration with Georg Blochmann, executive director of the Goethe-Institut New York, the exhibition opened in Toronto and Washington, D.C. in May before opening in New York in June and traveling to Berlin in July. Historian Christopher Ewing sat down with Birgit Bosold to discuss the making of this exhibition and the contested meanings of queer history.

Lesbian-feminist self defense class, West Germany, c mid-1970s. Photo courtesy the Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft.

CE: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. To start, I was wondering if you could tell me about how you conceptualized the exhibition.

BB: You need to think about which story, which narrative you want to tell. We decided not to tell a simple success story. We decided to find and include the stories that are not so well known. Of course, we also present some well-known, iconic moments, like the Tuntenstreit or the so-called Itzehoe-Prozess . But the focus was to feature the not-so-well known. We do have a focus on GDR stories and I’m really happy that we somehow managed to at least reduce the dominance of West German history. We also tried to focus on the conflicts, on disruptive moments. The restarts within the movements – not this continuing from the bad past to the wonderful future.

CE: What were some of those conflicts you tried to emphasize?

BB: One conflict is the lesbian-feminist split [from the gay rights movement]. Another important conflict was the Sex Wars. It was a really crucial moment in the lesbian-feminist movement. These debates, these discourses and conflicts, were one of the basic moments of queer politics, because it turned feminist politics towards a different direction. The capacity to reset your own politics, to criticize your own policies are something which seem specifically [to me to apply to] the feminist movement. We also focused on the interconnections and differences between the German politics and policies and the US discourses, such as Audre Lorde‘s work in Berlin. Trans* activism is another relevant force, [exemplified by] Leslie Feinberg or Jack Halberstam as well as the documentary Gendernauts by Monika Treut, which portrayed the trans*gender community of San Francisco. What I find interesting is that queer theory and Judith Butler don’t play a crucial role in the exhibition, it’s just a footnote. This wasn’t intentional, it occurred somehow. This illustrates that the success of queer theory was based on social grassroots processes. It’s not just a theory somewhere in the universities but it resonates with collective experiences. The academic discourse provides a language to formulate the social processes which are going on.

CE: Excellent – fascinating how that developed organically.

BB: The first chapter is called “before.” We want to show that there was queer life before Stonewall. We tried to represent this by presenting some biographies of protagonists. The show ends with questioning queer utopia. This came out of a cooperation we did with the HAU Theater in Berlin, it was just coincidence, but fantastic that they did it.

The HAU Theater festival called “The Present is Not Enough: Performing Queer Histories and Futures” had an open call for artists based in Berlin. The submissions, which were chosen by the jury, are presented as the final chapter of our exhibition: “What’x next” is a polyphonic chorus of concepts, images, imaginations of queer futures.

We also present three artists – all photographers, since otherwise it would be a little difficult to present their work in a proper way. The first is Jürgen Baldiga. His collection is part of the archive of SMU. His oeuvre is iconic for the West Berlin queer culture of the late ‘80s. He immortalized this specific period with his expressive portraits of the protagonists of the drag scene of this time and provoked with his artistic exploration of AIDS and of his own death. The second one is Krista Beinstein, I would say one of the most underestimated artists worldwide: grande dame of pornographic performance, enfant terrible of erotic photography, and pioneer of sex-positive feminism with a great sense of humor. The last one we present is Risk Hazekamp (The Hague/Berlin). Risk’s work revolves around the complex relationships between body and image, political and social systems through a combination of personal activism, analog photography, and intersectional thinking.

CE: It sounds like these works are an excellent way of sort of visualizing or conceptualizing this history from the 1970s on through the lens of photography.

BB: I hope that people will be interested and maybe include those artists in recent debates. Another element of the show is short video clips from different people within the community talking about their personal “Stonewall moment” or “snap moment.” You may know Sara Ahmed’s concept of snap where you say, “when you can no longer do something you have done before, something little that ends up being too much.” So we asked about ten to fifteen protagonists, different ages, East and West German, different backgrounds, lesbian, non-binary, trans* people.

Generally, we tried to bring in more diverse perspectives into the whole discourse, which is not easy.  Our collections are basically 99 percent white, male, gay – ok, not 99 percent, but it’s still a lot – and it’s hard to represent stories, positions and perspectives of the complete community visually. We tried to undermine this dominance a bit. For example, one of the objects is photos of a lesbian-feminist self-defense course in the GDR in a private space. Another component is a photo from an attack against a sex shop by the radical militant feminist groups in the ‘70s.

Courtesy FFBIZ/The Feminist Archive

CE: Snap moments are an interesting way of thinking about Stonewall – did you find other moments of connection between the United States and Germany?

BB: I think there has to be more research done about it. There were strong connections from the feminist movement [in] the US – the work of Kate Millett, Mary Daly, [Shulamith] Firestone, or Valerie Solanas and others– all these iconic feminist authors were well known in the feminist movement in Germany. The lesbian movement in West Germany was very much influenced by this. I can’t see that there were any authors of the US gay movement who had [a] similar impact on the gay movement in West Germany, at least in the ‘70s.

The influence of the US on the gay movement started a bit later. The reception of Stonewall basically started only in the late ‘70s. The first parades, called “CSD” [Christopher Street Day], took place in ‘79 in Berlin, Cologne, Bremen and Stuttgart, they refer to the Stonewall riots 10 years after [they happened]. What we have found is that [the link to Stonewall] was very much based on personal connections, as people were traveling. Michael Holy’s amazing database, which we present in the exhibition, shows that. Also Bernd Gaiser, one of our video testimonial speakers tells that his friend Andreas Pareik went to the US in ‘79 and he came back in March or April saying “there will be huge marches on occasion of the Stonewall riots and we also have to do something similar.”  For sure, there is also the Rosa von Praunheim‘s film (Army of Lovers, 1979) but in comparison to the strong impact US feminism has had [on] the feminist movement in West Germany, the connections between the gay movements in the US and in West Germany seem somehow weaker.

CE: Thinking then too about the archive of the Schwules Museum, how did this exhibit and the archival practices of the museum shape each other?

BB: They shape each other in different ways. We very often get some objects from artists we exhibit and the other way around, the objects and documents the archive contains determine the shows as well. The most exciting thing about our archive is that it somehow grew up unattended, uneducated. So we do have a lot of strange things in the archive, like the Klappentür [public toilet door] which was on display first in the Homosexualität_en show or a collection of Lederstiefel [leather boots]. These are archive holdings that you would otherwise probably not be able to find.

Photo courtesy Gay Museum Berlin

CE: That’s exciting too that you can find and exhibit these surprising objects to reconstruct this longer history. Apart from Stonewall, do you see other key events and are these useful in reconstructing history?

BB: The idea of key events is based on the way our brain works, the way we “organize” stories. This is why I find exhibitions such an interesting medium: You have to focus on the key moments, which is at the same time wrong, because there are no key moments in history, it is just a re-construction.

One of the key events is the Rosa von Praunheim film, Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt [It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, 1971]. Another one is the Tuntenstreit [Fairy Conflict] –  the admittedly steep thesis is that with the way this conflict went, the gay movement said goodbye to feminism with consequences that continue to this day. Also the emergence of queer theory is one of the key moments, maybe with the iconic book Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. But the fact that it became so important had a long history. ACT UP is very prominently acknowledged [in the historiography of the 1980s], whereas the Sex Wars are much less recognized. This groundbreaking restart within feminism in the ‘80s – it was certainly one of the most important midwives of the emergence of queer theory and its success.

Back to Rosa’s film – it is somehow amusing, to compare the kick-off moments of gay liberation in West Germany and the US: Whereas in the US there was this militancy, the riots, [and] people were fighting, in Germany people were sitting in a cinema watching a movie.

CE: Would you also make this comparison between ACT UP in the United States and Gender Trouble in Germany?

BB: The ACT UP movement in the United States was so much shaped by this brutal ignorance of the government and the society. In Germany there were also some heavily homophobic voices, like Gauweiler who demanded to imprison HIV-positive people in camps. Rita Süssmuth, the minister for public health, from the beginning made completely clear that HIV was a public health issue and politics and society have to treat it like that. She refused moral judgments as well as criminalization. So in a way the ACT UP movement in Germany was not so necessary, there was this relative rational way the government dealt with the crisis. The US activism had to be much more radical. I think if the German government would have acted in a similar way like in the US, German groups would have been as well much more militant. Nevertheless, there were also strong militant moments of ACT UP [in Germany], for example the occupation of the Cathedral in Fulda.

CE: This is such a complex history, and I can’t wait to see the exhibit. Before we wrap up – how would anyone who’s interested in hosting this exhibit go about doing it?

BB: They can contact the Schwules Museum as well as the Goethe Institute. Until 2020 it will only travel within the United States and Canada and Mexico, but from 2020 on people can request it. And it’s like an exhibition on demand. You can order it via internet.

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