Gay pride, gay marriage: change blows Berlin’s way

The marriage-equality vote in Ireland has reignited the same-sex marriage debate in Germany – where, as the capital held its Gay Pride parade, a remarkable new exhibition, documenting 150 years of homosexual life, had just opened

Berlin Pride: German marchers began to march, wondering: if even the Irish can do marriage equality, why can’t we? Photograph: Britta Pedersen/ EPA

Berlin Pride: German marchers began to march, wondering: if even the Irish can do marriage equality, why can’t we? Photograph: Britta Pedersen/ EPA

 

After five years of being draped in drab euro-crisis colours, Ireland’s image in Germany has set sail under a new, rainbow flag. That much was very clear last weekend, at Berlin’s Gay Pride march and at a remarkable new exhibition, at the German Historical Museum, documenting 150 years of homosexual life.

Last Saturday morning the buzz on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm boulevard was all about the US supreme court’s marriage-equality ruling, just hours earlier. But for many marchers – the usual Berlin pride mix of drag queens, leather lesbians and heterogeneous heterosexuals – the delight was clear at the way Ireland’s May vote had revived the marriage-equality debate in Germany.

And, as the Irish Embassy was invited to speak at the opening ceremony, German marchers began to march, wondering: if even the Irish can do marriage equality, why can’t we?

It’s an uncomfortable question for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who says she has no majority for the issue in her party, the Christian Democratic Union.

Her go-slow approach contrasts with 2001, when the centre-left coalition of Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party and the Greens agreed civil-partnership legislation and sparked a gay stampede to German town halls.

The civil-partnership legislation was criticised for being full of holes on inheritance, pension and tax rights. The criticism has continued in the interim, and the gaps have been largely filled, putting civil partnership within spitting distance of full marriage, but each additional right came after gay couples sued their government at the constitutional court.

For Germans who pride themselves on being tolerant and socially progressive, it’s unsettling being overtaken by Ireland in the social-politics lane.

 

Shameful

“It’s shameful that everything has to be clarified by the courts here,” Klaus said as he marched last Saturday in Berlin, carrying a placard: “Thank you for saying yes, Ireland. Berlin must be coming more Irish.”

Asked this week whether marriage equality might be coming in Germany, a government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that recent events in the US and Ireland “change nothing”. Off the record, though, a senior government source admitted to The Irish Times: “Of course the wind of change comes from the west.”

Just how much change has already come is clear from Homosexuality_ies, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, the first time a state-run museum has staged such a show on gay history.

It is a thoughtful exhibition that highlights the sometimes contradictory path Germany has taken on gay rights, oscillating between progressive and regressive. For instance, Germany was the home of Magnus Hirschfeld, the groundbreaking researcher who contextualised homosexuality as just another facet of human identity. But Germany is also where Nazi yobs ransacked his institute and destroyed much pioneering research.

And although Germany had, in 1896, the world’s first gay magazine, Der Eigene (the Unique), in 1987 the Bavarian government drafted a law demanding forced blood tests for homosexuals, with a view to locking up HIV-positive people in camps.

Germany is the country of “statute 175”, which from 1872 outlawed “unnatural lewdness”. A Nazi-era version of the law, tightened up to persecute gay men, remained on West Germany’s statue books, after 1969 with modifications, until 1994 – a year after Ireland decriminalised homosexuality.

And decades before New York’s Stonewall riots of 1969, considered the birth of the modern gay-rights movement, Berlin gay men started a riot over demeaning caricatures of homosexuals in a new operetta. The Freundschaftsblatt journal reported on July 8th, 1927, that “there was such a deafening racket of whistles and jeers . . . that the actors were completely rattled” – and the offensive number was removed from the show.

Although the Berlin exhibition has huge scope, spread over two venues, it takes a light and illuminating touch to even the heavier issues of gay history. Among the Irish stars of the show is a delightful double portrait of the Kilkenny-born couple Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, better known the Ladies of Llangollen, after the Welsh home they found after leaving Ireland in 1878.

Their haven of literature and languages attracted Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. The German prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau visited them on his tour of the British Isles and dubbed them “Europe’s most famous virgins”.

The actor Charles Mathews wrote of the couple, who were inseparable for more than 40 years, that there was “not one point to distinguish them from men”.

“The dressing and powdering of the hair; their well-starched neckcloths; the upper part of their habits, which they always wear, even at a dinner party, made precisely like men’s coats; and regular black beaver men’s hats. They looked exactly like two respectable, superannuated old clergymen.”

Another 19th-century Irishwoman in the exhibition who mixed up gender identity is Ellen Tremaye. When she arrived in Australia in June 1856 she stepped off the boat as Edward de Lacy Evans, after reportedly having had three “intimate friendships” with three fellow female passengers.

Ellen eventually married one – the 34-year-old governess from Waterford, Mary Delahunty – while dressed as Edward. As Pádraig Collins noted in these pages last September, the priest at St Francis’s church in Melbourne unwittingly performed what may have been the world’s first Catholic gay marriage.

(The Irish women are in good female company in the show, alongside a Tamara de Lempicka portrait of Suzy Solidor, queen of Paris’s first lesbian cabaret, and a luminous 1830 portrait of Anne Lester, an openly lesbian Yorkshire landowner, who kept a diary in her own secret code, mixing algebra and ancient Greek.)

The final Irish exhibit is the fateful calling card passed between the marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde, which later emerged during the latter’s trial for gross indecency. The card and envelope are, in the era of marriage equality, a sobering reminder of darker times – and by no means the only ones in the exhibition.

 

Nazi era

The grim Nazi era, when 100,000 gay men were arrested and 10,000 murdered in concentration camps, is given ample space. On audio benches, meanwhile, visitors with strong nerves can listen to hate speech against homosexuals through the ages – right up to the present day. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from dark patches in Germany’s gay movement, either, such as a dubious alliance with paedophiles that lasted right into the 1990s.

Another bizarre highlight is an A-Z of gay history in exhibits from stencilled pamphlets to the graffitied wall of a “tea room”, a toilet favoured for sex by gay men. With no mention of the hook-up app Grindr, it’s hard not to feel that this exhibition is bringing the curtain down on an era.

The history of homosexuality and its modern campaign for equal rights, the exhibition’s curators tell visitors, is a crucial part in the invention of modernity. And, like the rest of modernity, this exhibition is a catalogue of historical highs and lows, dignity and disgrace.

But what is the next chapter? Walking out of the museum show past a final, scurrilous installation – a white bench labelled “For Homosexuals Only” – it’s hard not to wonder if the next chapter of western gay life is a postpolitical one, a chapter where the concerns are less of exclusion and persecution than of the extortionate cost of wedding-reception seat covers.

Homosexuality_ies is at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, in Berlin, until December 1st; dhm.de

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