New Book Reveals Surprisingly Modern, Relevant Gay Rights Activism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Germany

In the fascinating new book Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880-1945, author Clayton J. Whisnant recounts the emergence of various “queer identities”–what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender–in Germany from 1880 to 1945 and the political strategies pursued by early gay and lesbian activists.

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The Rocky Twins

Drawing on recent English and German-language research, Whisnant enriches the debate over whether science contributed to social progress or persecution during this period, and he offers new information on the Nazis’ preoccupation with homosexuality.

Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed key developments in LGBT history, including the growth of the world’s first homosexual organizations and gay and lesbian magazines, as well as an influential community of German sexologists and psychoanalysts. Queer Identities and Politics in Germany describes these events in detail, from vibrant gay social scenes to the Nazi persecution that sent many LGBT people to concentration camps.

Additionally, jumping off from discussions began in Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin,Queer Identities goes on to examine gay life in a range of cities beyond Berlin, including Munich, Hamburg, and Cologne. It reveals various lesser discussed aspects of lesbian life at the time, while also addressing the sexuality of several well-known literary and artistic figures including Thomas Mann, Klaus Mann, Stefan George, and Wilhelm von Gloeden. Perhaps most importantly, Queer Identities concludes with a consideration of how the Weimar and Nazi past connects with gay and lesbian life in Germany today.

Transvestites at The Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1929 Photo: Herbert Hoffman
Transvestites at The Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1929 Photo: Herbert Hoffman

Queer German history has a great deal of relevance for contemporary readers interested in LGBTQ issues:

  • 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.
The Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1932
The Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1932
  • 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 organisation of underground gay social clubs in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart had over 48,000 members.
Gay magazine Die Freundschaft (1919–1933) and its sister lesbian magazine, Die Freundin (1924-1933)
Gay magazine Die Freundschaft (1919–1933) and its sister lesbian magazine, Die Freundin (1924-1933)
  • 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 counselling office.
Students of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, organized by the Nazi party, parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin on May 6, 1933. They later attacked it, looting the archives, and setting afire much of the material.
Students of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, organized by the Nazi party, parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin on May 6, 1933. They later attacked it, looting the archives, and setting afire much of the material.
  • 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 Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1933, after being shut down by the Nazi party and covered with propaganda posters
The Eldorado Club, Berlin, 1933, after being shut down by the Nazi party and covered with propaganda posters
  • 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.

Buy Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880-1945

Cover photo : Norwegian brothers, The Rocky Twins, who performed in clubs across Europe and America in the late 1920’s, often in drag impersonating the legendary twin sister act, the Dolly Sisters.