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Fighting Uphill: Uncovering Lesbians in Germany’s Queer Community

 

The homosexual community in Berlin, Germany, is not only thriving but is also a pioneer in Western liberal practices. Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, as an openly gay male, is a role model to many homosexuals in Germany. The existence of queer bars, clubs, festivals and events demonstrate that homosexuals are not only tolerated but are openly accepted, recognized and integrated in German society. 

However, there is a striking discrepancy within the queer community.  The female homosexual representation is noticeably absent. Goya, a gay club in Nollendorfplatz, Berlin, reports a male to female patronage ratio of almost 10:1. The German media is interlaced with gay actors, broadcasters and producers while lesbians are almost invisible. Very few prominent women have come out despite the fact that statistics regarding human sexual preferences tell us that they exist in the ranks of professional life. Lesbian politicians are virtually unheard of.

Berlin’s queer community demonstrates an apparent rift between lesbians and gays within the queer minority. There are many more visible gays than lesbians in Germany. Are lesbians in general hesitant to come forward and openly proclaim their sexuality? Why is it that Berlin’s lesbian community has settled in the shadow of the queer umbrella? It is critical to explore the social structure in and out of the lesbian community and identify reasons why queer women are so under-represented in Germany. 

Brief Historical Overview

Traditionally, German society has treated lesbian culture as irrelevant or invisible. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code was the first law that targeted homosexual activities. The law, which criminalized any homosexual acts between males, completely disregarded any kind of interaction between females. From 1871 until it was eradicated in East Germany in 1968, and in unified Germany in 1994, Paragraph 175 underwent several revisions but was never expanded to incorporate the female population. 

Regardless of the statute, the queer community grew dramatically in the 1920’s. Homosexual bars and theaters emerged in Berlin’s subculture and the ‘Cabaret’ lifestyle flourished. The well-known scholar Magnus Hirschfeld founded the world’s first Institute of Sexology in Berlin. The Institute served as a university which specialized in gay and lesbian gender studies. 

When the Nazi party rose to power queers began to see a public backlash to their ‘malevolent’ behavior. While gay men were regularly harassed, embarrassed or imprisoned around Germany, lesbians received relatively little attention. This hostile atmosphere towards homosexuals continued after the Second World War and well into the division of Germany. 

The German Democratic Republic was surprisingly more liberal with its treatment of homosexuals. Its government abolished Paragraph 175 from East German law in 1968, and permitted several homosexual bars and associations in the following years. 

In Western Germany, like the rest of the world, queer rights did not take a dramatic turn until the Stonewall Inn revolt of June 28th, 1969. The New York Police Department targeted the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City, for a raid. Upon entering the establishment, the unsuspecting police officers were met by violent resistors who were frustrated with the continual attacks on homosexuals. The Stonewall Riots would come to symbolize the fight for equality for homosexuals around the globe. 

Campaigns and programs promptly began in Western Germany to fight for homosexual rights. In 1971, The Homosexuelle Aktion WestBerlin (HAW) was founded by university students and gay advocates hoping to further publicize the difficulties homosexuals were facing throughout Europe. HAW and other parallel associations aimed to inform the public about sexuality, participate in public demonstrations and create forums for discussion. They hoped to strengthen the queer population by combating the fears associated with coming out. “Mach Dein Schwulsein öffentlich!” (Make your homosexuality public!) was a popular slogan among the queer groups.

Many of the queer movements coincided with the feminist movements that were also sweeping the Western world. While many of the feminist programs were actually led by lesbians, they tried not to associate the two for fear of creating a ‘lesbian problem’ versus a ‘female problem.’ Either way, the feminist movement was fundamentally inspired by lesbian ideology – slogans such as “Feminism is the theory, Lesbianism is the practice” were common place. In September of 1974, the popular German magazine Der Spiegel depicted two lesbians on its cover. Germany was slowly beginning to acknowledge the reality of homosexual women. 

A unified German government completely abolished Paragraph 175 in 1994 and since then, both the gay and lesbian communities have made significant headway in achieving legal and social equality. Despite their gains, an imbalance between lesbians and gays does exist in Germany today. More than 13 years after the eradication of Paragraph 175, many female homosexuals choose to remain in the closet.

Only by interacting with the queer German populace will we be able to develop an understanding of why lesbians are underrepresented.  Several key interviews and site visits presented in the following pages will better allow us to do this.    

A Visit to the Schwules Museum

Tucked down a slim concrete alley at Mehringdamm 61, lies the only recognized gay museum in the world. Its façade shows signs of recent renovation, but it is an old building that does not first appear to be a homosexual historical haven.

The first floor sells tickets and postcards. Here too are the showcases for temporary exhibitions – today a compilation of photographs of male bodybuilders throughout the mid-20th century. The display highlights the photographers’ desires to capture the sexuality of the male body through unique poses and athletic positions. On the second floor one can find the permanent exhibit – a history of homosexuality from the dawn of man to present day. 

The museum’s goal is to illustrate the continual plight of the homosexual community and the tenacious efforts of gay men to recognize and cultivate their identities. But there are few, if any, women depicted. Towards the end of the permanent exhibit there are several captions that mention the lesbian community, but for the most part the female involvement with the homosexual movement is largely overlooked. 

Founded in 1985, the museum originally was constructed as a half-male, half-female exhibition. There were hopes of creating a long-standing museum but at that point, the founders were not certain of anything. As the exhibition gradually evolved into the Schwules Museum, the female presence in the art and history ebbed away. The lesbian history and data was eventually transferred to the Spinnboden Archive – a more textual museum that men can only visit by appointment. Today the Schwules Museum’s board of directors and a strong majority of the staff are male. 

Karl-Heinz Steinle, one of the Schwules Museum’s curators and Jörg Leidig, who heads the photo art exhibition, both acknowledge the lack of Lesbian representation in the museum but emphasize the fact that “schwul”, literally translated, means gay male.

Steinle emphasizes that they understand the one-sidedness of the museum, “Oh we definitely get negative feedback from most women that visit the museum. They all agree that lesbians aren’t depicted in the museum, and well, that is the truth. It’s a gay male museum.” 

Leidig further defends their current approach, “We would one hundred percent support a lesbian museum but they have the Spinnboden Archive already. We also have plans to incorporate some temporary lesbian exhibitions in the coming years.” 

Steinle and Leidig mentioned that some schools and groups come to the museum on tours. Considering the long history of homosexuality and the importance of its universal acceptance, it is important that the community continues to be educated on human rights issues. But one would expect that most of those groups will not go on to visit the lesbian archives in pursuit of a further understanding of homosexuality’s evolution. From this unilateral approach, male homosexuality is seen as an appropriate, welcoming reality while lesbians are once again neglected and conceivably invisible. Women in these tour groups that are questioning their own sexuality are not more likely to explore the issue if they see it as primarily a male matter.

Confronting Lesbian Discrimination

Unfortunately in Germany the Schwules Museum is not the only gay venue that marginalizes the lesbian lifestyle. A majority of the planning board for Christopher Street Day (the parade and subsequent celebrations that are practiced annually in remembrance of the Stonewall Inn riots) is comprised of gay males. Gay men are visible throughout the political scene, the media and academia. There are even celebrations and parades for homosexual rights which are labeled as schwule events instead of queer or homosexual. Perhaps the problem is not that lesbians are disregarded but rather, that they are not presenting themselves in the public arena. Furthermore, it may be a cyclical dilemma where lesbian women are just further reinforcing others trepidations by not coming out themselves. 

Theories and Ideas, but Nothing Concrete

There is a lot of speculation behind why lesbians appear more reluctant to come out than gay males.   

One gay male at Christopher Street Day argued that homosexual men have had to overcome the prejudices to a different degree than lesbians. Gay men have traditionally been the targets of ridicule and harassment and thus, they launched a more visible and wide-stretching unification. This union battled directly with Paragraph 175 and fought for homosexual rights in other theaters as well. It was in this manner that lesbians ‘band-wagoned’ behind the gay movement. They essentially did not need to fight for their acquisition of rights. The interviewee also mentioned his belief in the inherent behavior of men as naturally being more boisterous and rowdy than women. 

Leidig and Steinle from the Schwules Museum further added that men were “forced to react” much more than lesbian women were. They contended that when men are seen together in a playful way they are frequently regarded as homosexuals, while women in the same scenario “can just be friends.”  Men have had to deal with homosexual accusations and attacks more directly than lesbians, therefore, they were “forced to react” in a more unified way. This reaction led to a stronger gay community that was not only more visible but more internally supportive as well.

Most of the females interviewed at Christopher Street Day argued that women have been more reserved in the past, but they have consistently fought step for step with their gay counterparts. Constanze Körner, a mediator with “Lesben und Schwulenverband Deutschland – Berlin und Brandenburg” (Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany Berlin/Brandenburg Branch), clarified that gays and lesbians have encountered the same dilemmas as time has passed. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s there were more issues arising from existential fears as a gay or lesbian. Today, most issues that “Lesben und Schwulen Verband Deutschland” deal with are marital or relationship based. 

Manuela Kay and L-Mag: A Beacon for Lesbians?

Manuela Kay is one of the most influential lesbian protagonists in Berlin. She is not just the editor-in-chief of Germany’s only lesbian magazine, L-Mag, but also a guiding voice for the lesbian community at large. She has an adamant and purposeful approach to establishing a legitimate lesbian identity that need not yield to gay men or heterosexual society. She is not afraid to voice her controversial opinions.

Kay agrees with the mentality that men are more boisterous and rowdy than women. However she would see this as a trained behavior and not as a natural occurrence. She believes that throughout history women have been conditioned to fill subservient roles to men – as wives and child-bearers. Society has essentially taught women to fulfill the needs of others and hide their sexual feelings. Kay also holds that such roles are not women's natural behavior but rather their trained behavior.  Kay is not just revisiting feminist thought, she is expressing it for a new generation.

Kay adopts the argument that society has overly institutionalized sex and gender roles. Women have been ‘educated’ to act in a subservient role to men – where female emotions are shelved for the well-being of the ‘institutionalized relationship.’ To Ms. Kay, propagating the idea that women exist to have children is not only socially dangerous but also sexist. It puts them in a role that they may not want to conform too. Partially through L-Mag and partially through her own articulation, Manuela Kay aims to turn off the “heterosexual societal remote control” that is manipulating German society. The idea of marriage and children should not be imposed on anyone, she believes. To some it is a basic pillar of society, but is not where some hope to direct their life. Ms. Kay feels that a lot of gay couples adopt or have kids –commonly known as rainbow families- solely to ‘prove’ to society that they are normal. "But should you have to prove something if you don’t necessarily believe in it?" Ms. Kay asks. 

L-Mag is read by lesbians throughout Germany and is considered an influential journal across the European continent for the queer community.  The publication claims its goal is not to create a lesbian mind frame but to provide an environment where lesbians can comfortably communicate. L-Mag has articles, reviews, advertisements and support group hotlines. Its success is evident when most lesbians encountered at Christopher Street Day acknowledge that they do in fact read the magazine. Manuela Kay's teachings are undeniably having an impact on the lesbian community. 

Lesbenberatung Berlin

Ute Hiller acts as a coordinator and councilor for Lesbenberatung Berlin (Lesbian Counseling Berlin). Her job supports the lesbian lifestyle by providing a forum for discussion about topics ranging from depression to relationship counseling. They have a special center for lesbian minorities – inclusive of Muslim, black, Arabic, or trans-gender women. She estimates that her organization will annually receive approximately 8,000 contacts from women looking for some kind of direction or assistance. 

Hiller definitely adopts a more conservative stance than Kay does. While Kay is more concerned with the lesbian identity as a whole, Hiller targets individuals hoping to ‘come out’ phase by phase. ‘Coming out’ is a very arbitrary measurement – when is someone completely out: when they have told their family and friends or is more publicity required?  A lot of Hiller’s work deals with treating the apprehensions that lesbians have about approaching these various phases. 

Interview with Anne Stalfort

Anne Stalfort, the director of the Humanity in Action German internship program in Berlin, comments that lesbians have a larger battle to face than gay men. Stalfort made a comparison between lesbians and the Asian minority living in Germany. Both exist and are active across the country, but they are extremely underrepresented in the media, the corporate world, and the political spectrum. 

As well as dealing with family and social issues, women already experience discrimination in the work environment – many investigations show that females receive lower wages for doing the same work and do not have as many promotions as men. Closet lesbians fear that ‘coming out’ could only add more complexity to the employment process. An example is Annette Schavan who ran for prime minister of the German state of Baden-Württemberg. She was a single woman without children and the press claimed that she was a lesbian. Schavan denounced what she considered a false accusation and an extreme insult. She lost the election, but her reaction illustrates how detrimental being openly lesbian is believed to be. 

Developing the Identity

The experts cited in this paper unanimously agreed that what the lesbian community desperately needs are more prominent role models. The gay community is represented in almost every walk of life, but lesbian women in prestigious positions are still hesitant to come forward and voice their sexuality. Be it for reasons aforementioned or their own personal agenda, the reluctance of these women to come forward perpetuates the hesitation that so many other women have about ‘coming out.’ With the presence of role models, tentative lesbian women 'coming out' can finally compare themselves to positive, well-known figures.

The sports world needs to be heavily targeted because it is an area that many young people look up to. It is believed that most of the women on Germany’s World Cup soccer squad are lesbian, but they are disinclined to ‘come out’ because of the discriminatory undertone that accompanies lesbianism. Between 5 and 7 percent of individuals in the world are queer.  Germany has an extremely low number of ‘out’ homosexual athletes – less than 1%.  Likely the low number demonstrates the hesitation in openly joining the queer community.  

‘Out’ the ‘Closeted’ Lesbians?

It does not make statistical sense that there would be more homosexual men than homosexual women in Germany - especially when places such as San Francisco have an almost equal distribution of homosexuals between the genders. 

Back in the 1990’s the film maker and gay activist Rosa von Praunheim sat on the TV show The Hot Chair and ‘outed’ some prominent gay men in Germany such as Alfred Biolek and Hape Kerkeling, both TV celebrities. While criticized by some as a blatant attack on private life, von Praunheim defended his actions by stating that we are in a time when it is safe to be out and the gay community needs them as role models. 

Perhaps a similar approach should be taken toward closet lesbians. Apprehensions about ‘coming out’ are largely unjustified in a present day Western country – the majority of those ‘coming out’ will see little if any consequences from their actions. The lesbian community needs them to serve as icons and mediators. It needs more recognized faces – more women that are famous and openly queer. Hella von Sinnen and Maren Kroymann are examples of some recognized celebrities that were proud enough to ‘come out.’ Anne Will – one of Germany’s most famous news anchors – depicts a woman who is suspected to be lesbian but refuses to publicly ‘come out.’ Her reluctance to ‘come out’ exemplifies what many other German women probably experience. While Anne Will is just one example, it is women of this stature that if publicly recognized as lesbians, would act as powerful beacons for the queer community. There is no concrete evidence that Will is lesbian, yet if she was, her coming out would act as a powerful beacon for the queer community.  

Additional Theories

The Schwules Museum and its materialization can tie into a significant event that impacted the queer community in the 1980’s.  The museum’s focus on the male sex can largely be credited to the emergence of HIV/AIDS.  The gay community solidified its cohesion to unprecedented levels during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Lesbians, largely unaffected by HIV/AIDS, were side-stepped as the museum underwent construction. One thing that everyone interviewed during the research for this paper failed to mention was the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay community. Lesbian women are much more unlikely to come into contact with the virus because of the nature of their sexual practices. Gay men, on the other hand, have been the number one victims of HIV/AIDS since its emergence in the early 1980’s. This disease led to massive campaigns aimed at not just safe sex, but educational programs and community awareness. Famous men publicly came out, stating that they were HIV positive and gay. The invisible killer drew the entire gay community together in defense. While banded together through empathy and compassion, lesbians never had to experience an analogous union in order to combat HIV/AIDS. 

Conclusion

Germany is one of the world’s leading liberal countries, yet gay males dominate its queer community. Lesbians have traditionally been a taboo minority.  Today, many women still struggle with revealing their sexuality. Female versus male behavior and gay male struggles have been cited as reasons for the strength of homosexual male unity as compared to lesbian hesitation. One legitimate argument is that lesbians need more role models. If several renowned women ‘came out’ as lesbians they could act as a catalyst for a lesbian revival in Germany. 

At first glance, lesbians may not seem to be discriminated against in Germany.  However, the reality persists that lesbian women are still not widely recognized in the public sphere. Lesbians cannot be categorized with gay males because they are different minorities, with different struggles and characteristics.  However, women shouldn’t be afraid to voice their sexuality. They are living in a time when there is enough genuine support and acceptance that almost any lifestyle can be appreciated.

 

References

 

Interviews:

Manuela Kay, Editor-In-Chief of L-Mag, Germany’s only lesbian magazine. (June 22nd, 2007)

Karl-Heinz Steinle, Curator at Schwule Museum Berlin. (June 25th, 2007)

Jürg Leidig, Chair of Photo Art Exhibition at Schwule Museum Berlin. (June 25th, 2007)

Ute Hiller, Coordinator, Councilor and Chair Elect at Lesbenberatung Berlin [Lesbian Counseling]. (June 26th, 2007)

Constanze Körner, Mediator at Lesben und Schwulen Verband Duetschland – Berlin und Brandenburg [Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany]. (June 26th, 2007)

Anne Stalfort, Humanity in Action Deutschland E.V.,Germany Internship Program Director at HIA Berlin. (June 27th, 2007)

Sabine Balke, Representative at Spinnboden e.V. [Lesbian Archive] (June 27th, 2007)

Eight anonymous interviews with homosexual individuals at Christopher Street Day celebrations in Berlin. (June 23rd, 2007)

Books:

Bührmann, Traude: Lesbisches Berlin: Die Stadtbegleiterin, Berlin, Orlanda Frauenverlag GmbH, 2nd edition. Auflage (2002)

Articles in Journals:

Schultz, Kathrin: ´Doppelaxt gegen Brautkleid`, in: L-Mag, March-April 2007, pp. 10-11

Hergeth, Andreas: ´So will ich auch mal werden!`, in: G.Mag, Nor. 2, July -August 2007

Lippitz, Ulf: ´Kiss and tell – die 30 wichtigsten Homosexuellen Berlins`, in: zitty, Nor. 13, June-July 2007

Websites:

www.sensjs.berlin.de/gleichgeschlechtliche

www.berlin.lsvd.de

www.lesmigras.de

www.lesbenberatung-berlin.de

www.schwulesmuseum.de

 

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Germany Germany 2007

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