Xav Judd reports on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of two divided gay communities…
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell in a symbolic sense when East Germany (DDR) allowed individuals to pass through its checkpoints.
It was erected in 1961 by the aforementioned country, so that she could stop her population from emigrating to her western counterpart. However, as it fulfilled this task, it permanently split families, lovers and friends who were now unable to cross the 12ft high, almost 100-miles long concrete barrier. Yet, the thoughts, feelings and even lives of human beings were somewhat irrelevant in relation to ideology because it was the height of the Cold War: the political and military tension between the Communist Bloc and the capitalist nations. Thus, QX has decided to see what day-to-day existence was like for gay people in the two halves (one controlled by a liberal democracy; the other by a totalitarian state) of the present-day German capital, during this era.
Despite Paragraph 175 (1871), a German criminal code measure that made homosexual relations illegal, Berlin was the place to be if you were gay in the 1920s and 1930s. There were over 150 bars and clubs that catered to the LGBT community; non-straight magazines and pamphlets were displayed openly in shops and on stalls; and there was even an Institute of Sexology that was instrumental in calling for our rights. Yet, in 1933, Hitler and the Nazis assumed power and there was no place for ‘queers’ in their philosophy of hate. Once they had been defeated in the Second World War (1945), in East Germany and East Berlin at least, another autocratic, bigoted regime – the Soviet Union – took control of affairs.
Flash-forward to East Berlin in the 1960s (and as with her western counterpart), same-sex relations were still banned. In this communist-dominated enclave, a person’s loyalty was meant to be to a traditional nuclear family and the nation, and any form of perceived nonconformity was seen as contemptible. Therefore, strenuous efforts were made by the state to prevent non-straights from organising a visible community. In fact, it was routine for the police to break-up public events. More alarmingly, the Stasi – East Germany’s feared secret security service – would root out and entrap males who weren’t heterosexual for political purposes.
Nevertheless, homosexuals often met up in small networking groups, cottages, swimming pools and saunas, which weren’t just for making out but for establishing camaraderie. What should also not be forgotten during this epoch is that centralised censorship stopped the presentation of all gay activity in print and electronic media, as well as the import of such materials.
In the more progressive, Capitalist Bloc-influenced West Berlin of the 1960s, it’s no surprise that there was a gay scene. Indeed, by 1964, over 20 bars for our community existed – an amount the police calculated had doubled just three years later. One particular establishment that illustrated homosexuals growing confidence in this era was the 1963-opened Moby Dick. Situated in the hip Charlottenburg area, it was the first bar to include an open terrace and an interior that it was possible to see from the street. In this part of the city, therefore, it can be said that there was a tolerant atmosphere where men who weren’t straight could dance with each other in public. Nonetheless, it was still a comparatively repressive period and there were raids by law enforcement on gay venues throughout the decade. There was a campaign against such actions and in 1971 an activist group that canvassed for our rights was set up: Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW).
In 1968, homosexuality was decriminalised in East Germany, with its Western sister following suit a year later. By 1980, there was even a state-sponsored queer disco in the East. Then, on November 9th 1989, the Wall fell (not, as some might believe, because David Hasselhoff’s huge hit that year ‘Looking for Freedom’ literally made the foundations of it crumble!). One year later, both halves of Berlin and Deutschland were reunited, and it finally seemed like our community was in a position to seek equal rights.
• More on LGBT travel in Germany: www.germany.travel/en/ms/lgbt/home/home.html
• For QX’s Guide to LGBT Berlin, check out: https://www.qxmagazine.com/feature/gay-travel-in-berlin