The Lesson of Germany's Most Famous Trans Woman? Freedom Requires JoyRoundup
tags: transgender, LGBTQ history, German history
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Europe and assistant professor of history at George Mason University. He is the author of “States of Liberation: Gay Men Between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany” and “A Queer Theory of the State.” Huneke is currently at work on a book about lesbian women in Nazi Germany.
The air is growing muggy, and corporations are splashing rainbows across their logos: It’s LGBTQ Pride Month again. But unlike years past, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot to celebrate this June.
Across the country, conservative legislators have been proposing record numbers of laws targeting queer and especially trans people. These measures seek to ban LGBTQ books from libraries, deny trans youth the care they need, bar trans athletes from school sports and even prohibit teachers from mentioning sexual or gender identity. Far from the days of “love wins,” legislative persecution is now the order of the day.
Yet while queer joy is alive and well everywhere from drag culture to TikTok, it can be hard to remember happiness when we’re fighting for our lives. Some, whether activists focused on preserving narrow rights or critics who tell us that there shouldn’t be “Kink at Pride,” would prefer to forget it.
But if we look to the past, there is a long history of queer joy to inspire us. In fact, some of the most famous works of queer history focus not only on persecution but also on how LGBTQ people were able to find meaning and pleasure even in the face of violence. John Boswell, the pioneering historian of homosexuality in the Middle Ages, revealed gay subcultures and relationships that crisscrossed medieval Europe. George Chauncey, author of the seminal “Gay New York,” uncovered a vibrant world of queer cruising — looking for sexual partners, often in public places — in the early 20th century. His work challenged the view that the queer past was solely the domain of persecution.
In my own research on sexuality in modern Germany, queer joy also appears in the unlikeliest of places. Take East Germany — an infamously repressive communist dictatorship from 1949 to 1989. Despite the best efforts of the notorious secret police, the Stasi, the country was home to a rambunctious gay and lesbian rights movement.
The first group to organize in the 1970s met in the cellar rooms of a museum run by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Germany’s most famous trans woman. There, they hosted poetry readings, political conversations, summer fetes and raucous cabarets. Men in dresses twirled with each other, while others clad in garish costumes performed skits. On one occasion, a member dressed as the fictional character Sally Bowles sang songs from the musical “Cabaret.”
Of course, East Germany was hardly the most violently homophobic or transphobic place in human history. Take the Nazi government, which convicted 50,000 queer men in its 12 years, sending around 10,000 to 15,000 of them to concentration camps along with an unknown number of trans and lesbian victims. It was undoubtedly one of the most violently anti-queer states in history.
But even here, queer joy persisted. In cities across the country, some bars kept serving queer clientele, defying the government’s homophobia and offering queer Germans small sanctuaries where they could mingle, dance and fall in love.