Aside from the street festivals, corporate platitudes, and sex parties, LGBTQ+ Pride is meant to be a living embodiment of LGBTQ+ history. The tradition started in June 1970 as a commemoration of the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, when queer people rebelled against police harassment in New York City. But the history we remember remains myopically focused on the United States. The LGBTQ+ past on display each June is a heroic one with familiar, American milestones: the tragedies of the Lavender Scare and the AIDS crisis offset by the triumphs of Stonewall and marriage equality. This story has even become part of the progressive narratives of American democracy. In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama declared, “The most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
This heroic narrative is, of course, incomplete. The U.S.-centric story of LGBTQ+ liberation ignores that sexual minorities abroad have fought just as hard and sometimes faced even greater discrimination. When we look beyond the United States, it becomes clear that liberation is far from the inevitable end of a progress narrative. Rather it is a local, subjective, and ever-changing project. LGBTQ+ rights have come with hard fought battles and the progress can sometimes be very slow.
If we look at some other countries, we see that LGBTQ+ liberation didn’t even start in the United States, and we have often lagged behind. Germany is a particularly compelling place to examine. The term homosexual comes from the German language. The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 19th century by an Austrian-born Hungarian psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert, who wrote extensively on the subject. In his pamphlets, Kertbeny argued that the Prussian sodomy law, Paragraph 143 (which later became Paragraph 175 of the penal code of the German Empire), violated the “rights of man.”
In Berlin in 1919, Germany, Doctor Magnus Hirschfeld co-founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research), a pioneering private research institute and counseling office. That same year, Different from the Others, one of the first explicitly gay films, was released. Magnus Hirschfeld had a cameo in the film and partially funded its production. In 1922, Dora Richter became the first transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Hirschfeld’s Institute, the first operation of its kind in the world. Then on October 16, 1929, a Reichstag Committee voted to repeal Paragraph 175. The Social Democrats and other leftist parties backed the repeal, while the Catholic Center party and other right-wing parties opposed the repeal.
Berlin has a long history of gay culture and influence on popular entertainment, and in the 1920s the city was the Gay Capital of Europe. In 1896 the world’s first gay magazine started in Berlin, called Der Eigene (“The Self-Owning”). During the 1920s and 1930s the world’s first gay village was in Berlin’s Schöneberg. Gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs flourished, as did queer artistic expression through films, music, and print publications. Cabaret singer Claire Waldoff and actress Marlene Dietrich lived and worked in Berlin’s queer neighborhoods during this time. The first gay demonstration anywhere occurred in Berlin in 1922.
The Nazis’ rise to power prevented the implementation of the vote on Paragraph 175 and ended the gay culture of Berlin. In 1933, the Nazi Party banned homosexual groups. Gay men were sent to concentration camps, and the Nazis burned the library of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research and destroy the Institute. The first use of the pink triangle for gay men in Nazi concentration camps came in 1937. Then in 1945, when Allied forces liberated the Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces, but those interned for homosexuality were not freed and were required to serve out the full term of their sentences under Paragraph 175.
After World War II, Germany was divided by the Cold War and charted two very different paths when it came to gay liberation. In 1949, the country formally split into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany. Yet, of the two, it was the liberal democracy that continued Nazi-era persecution of gay men. Over the course of the 20 years between 1949 and 1969, West German courts convicted more than 50,000 queer men under Nazi statutes that remained on the books. East Germany began to repeal parts of Paragraph 175, and in 1968, Paragraph 175 is largely ignored in East Germany, decriminalizing homosexual acts over the age of 18. West Germany followed in 1969.
Groups of same-sex desiring men who labeled themselves homophiles (a word they thought sounded more respectable than homosexual) cropped up in West Germany in the early 1950s. Unlike similar groups in the United States and other western European countries, however, they quickly faded. By 1960, they had all but disappeared. There was no Stonewall moment in West Germany, nor any memorable stand against the oppressive policing and sexual morality of those early postwar decades.
Instead, West German politicians reformed the laws banning homosexual conduct in 1969 as part of a broader revision of the penal code. After this legislative change, new gay and lesbian bars, saunas, and periodicals soon arose. A radical liberation movement also appeared in those years. But it was strikingly different from its cousin in the United States. Its members opposed the commercial gay scene, viewing it as a barrier to the kind of solidarity that would be necessary to win real social and political change. The groups attacked gay publications, denouncing them as nothing more than “masturbation templates.”
When it came to politics, the movement also diverged from the center-left alliance that arose between LGBTQ+ activists and the Democratic Party in the United States. Over the course of the 1970s, West German activists enjoyed their greatest support from the centrist Free Democratic Party, but activists ultimately had little success pushing their policies in the federal government. They grew cynical about the possibilities of parliamentary politics. As a result, LGBTQ+ West Germans never fully came together behind any of the major parties, even after German reunification in 1990, and they continue to divide their votes across the political spectrum.
During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, West German history also diverged from the U.S. path. Whereas the Reagan administration stayed silent and let LGBTQ+ Americans perish, the West German government, in particular federal health minister Rita Süssmuth, partnered with AIDS self-help groups to circulate information about the disease and safer sex. West Germany never shut down its gay saunas and still managed to bring infection rates down dramatically over the course of the decade. Because of the government’s success fighting AIDS, radical groups like ACT UP played a much smaller part in the German activist scene.
If, by the end of the 1980s, West Germany’s activists were far less politically radical than those in other countries, they had nonetheless managed both to preserve their subculture and find ways to collaborate with politicians and bureaucrats. West German LGBTQ+ activism was not characterized by the same triumphal moments or catastrophic setbacks as the American version, but nonetheless forged a kind of liberation no less real than that in the United States.
Yet this distinctive West German history is largely forgotten, submerged beneath the dominant U.S. narrative — even in Germany. The annual Berlin Pride celebration is known as Christopher Street Day, named for the Stonewall Inn’s address. Even by the mid-1980s, activists and historians, dispirited by a lack of parliamentary political victories, had begun to compare West Germany’s liberation movement unfavorably with that in the United States.
The East German experience with gay liberation was yet more surprising. Although most Westerners assumed such activism could not possibly have been successful in a communist state, by the end of the 1980s, East Germany could realistically lay claim to being one of the most sexually progressive countries on Earth. In the 1970s, gay men and lesbians began to organize together in East Berlin. While the Stasi, the secret police, denied the group the right to organize in public, these tenacious women and men coordinated house parties, steamboat cruises, and birthday dinners. In the middle of the decade, the East German LGBTQ+ communnity met Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a trans woman who ran a museum in one of East Berlin’s outer neighborhoods. She offered them the museum’s basement to host their activities, and for several years they “bopped and danced like it was 1904.” This arrangement lasted until 1978, when the East Berlin police forbade the group to continue meeting.
But only a few years later, lesbian and gay activists mobilized again, this time under the umbrella of the Protestant Church, the only nominally independent organization in the communist state. Spreading rapidly across the country, they pressured the government to change laws and social policies, such as allowing gay men to serve in the military, repealing a law that set a higher age of consent for gay and lesbian sex, and making it easier for same-sex partners to find housing together. The government tried cracking down on the groups, but to no avail: They continued to grow in size and number. So worried was the Stasi that its functionaries convinced the East German government to accede to activists’ demands. Stasi officials began circulating memos in 1985 insisting that government bodies address gay men and lesbians’ “humanitarian problems,” that is, taking their complaints seriously.
As a result, change came rapidly. The government equalized the age of consent, years before most other countries, including West Germany and the United States. It promulgated a policy allowing openly gay men to serve in the military. LGBTQ+ people were given the right to seek sexual and mental health counseling. The East German government greenlighted the first gay feature film, “Coming Out,” which premiered Nov. 9, 1989—the night East Germans breached the Berlin Wall. Local governments began sanctioning LGBTQ+ organizations and staging gay disco nights.
In the years after reunification, these two distinct German paths converged. The principal LGBTQ+ organization in Germany today was founded by East German activists in 1990 and the West German federal states abolished the last vestiges of their antigay statutes as a direct result of East Germany’s more progressive lawmaking. The West German subculture began to bleed into the Eastern lands, in particular East Berlin, which has become synonymous with queer nightlife in recent decades.
The point is not that East or West Germany achieved a liberation better than that in the United States, but rather that LGBTQ+ life and activism took distinctive forms in different local and national contexts. The American version of LGBTQ+ liberation is not the only history we should pay attention to. Germany led the way for many years before the United States began its LGBTQ+ liberation movement. When America was undergoing the Lavender Scare, East Germany was relaxing laws against homosexuality.