Katie Sutton is Associate Professor of German and Gender Studies at the Australian National University. She is the author of Sex between Body and Mind: Psychoanalysis and Sexology in the German-Speaking World, 1890s-1930s (University of Michigan Press, 2019) and The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (Berghahn, 2011), and has published on sexuality, gender, and sexology in early 20th-century Germany, including interwar queer and trans subcultures. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1932 popular illustrated magazine Tempo took up a theme it believed captured the Zeitgeist: “Women who live as men.” This “reportage from an unknown world” by one C. A. Jank ran for almost thirty issues from April to June, detailing stories of individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) who lived and worked, sometimes for decades, in a society that viewed them as men.
It opens with the story of Karl, a working-class Swabian who runs into problems at the Berlin unemployment office because his ID document is issued to a “Henriette.” In a colourful report that speaks to Depression-era readers with its evocation of bored queues and timestamps, Karl confronts a perplexed official demanding to know the truth of his gender: “The thing is this: I’m a girl. But for fifteen years I’ve been living and working as a lad.” What might stories such as Karl’s tell us about the development of trans legal rights and cultures during the Weimar Republic?
Jank’s report of Karl’s encounter in the unemployment office forms part of longer biography that goes back to the persistent childhood demands of young “Henriette”: “Mother, when will I become a boy?” Today, we might be tempted to classify his identification as trans(*), although it is not clear whether Karl saw himself in a way that might easily align with such a twenty-first-century label.
By the interwar years, though, adopting the term “transvestite” to characterize gender-variant expressions and identities had become a possibility. Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld coined this popular label with a bulky 1910 study on the theme, publishing numerous case histories to help distinguish “transvestism” from older ideas of “inversion” or a “third sex.” He viewed cross-gendered identifications as most often a lifelong condition—a view we also see reflected in Jank’s narration of Karl, albeit in a more popular mode.
‘We are gay’. With these words, 682 men revealed their homosexuality to the estimated 18 million readers of Stern in October 1978, in the gay movement’s most visible public action of the decade. That there was not a single lesbian among them is symptomatic of the largely separate paths taken by gay male and lesbian activism in the 1970s, although the Stern front cover special does also reveal the threads of inspiration that connected various social movements. This queer intervention in the West German public sphere would scarcely have been imaginable without the foundations paved by feminists in 1971, when 374 women declared on the front cover of the same magazine that they had had an abortion.
By 1978, the gay movement had reached a certain traction in the mainstream media, the result not least of years of tenacious activism, following the liberalisation of Paragraph 175 in 1969. Indeed, that long-awaited reform to the law penalising male homosexuality had been met with another front cover special, this time in Der Spiegel. Until 1969, the Federal Republic had enforced the 1935 Nazi version of Paragraph 175, leading to more than 25,000 convictions in the 1960s alone.
Adrian de Silva is a trans and queer studies researcher at the University of Luxembourg with a background in sociology and political science. He received a PhD in gender studies from Humboldt University Berlin based on his interdisciplinary study “Negotiating the Borders of the Gender Regime: Developments and Debates on Trans(sexuality) in the Federal Republic of Germany”. Working across political sociology, sociology of law, sexology and political theory, Adrian’s research engages with processes of minoritizing less common genders and sexualities in liberal democracies, and struggles for social change in these areas.
On 01 Jan. 1981, the Act to change first names and establish gender status in special cases (Transsexual Act – TSG) came into force in the Federal Republic of Germany.[i] Sections 1-7 TSG lay down the rules for a change of first names and sections 8-12 TSG regulate a revision of gender status in cases of transsexuality. The Transsexual Act was, among other things,[ii] devised against the background of historically-specific manifestations of heteronormativity, which at the time included the delegitimization of homosexual relationships and, according to s. 175 StGB (Strafgesetzbuch; Criminal Code), demanded higher ages of consent for sexual activities between male individuals than between males and females, or between female persons. While gender and sexuality do not necessarily have to be linked to each other, they are, as Butler suggests, interrelated[iii] in contemporary Western societies. However, gender and sexuality are not static. The same applies to the relationship between these fields. The temporary outcome of struggles in one arena may directly or indirectly contribute to, or impede developments in the other. Drawing upon Federal Constitutional Court rulings on relevant provisions of the Transsexual Act and legislation on same-sex partnerships, this blog entry traces how the regulation of homosexuality and transsexuality impacted upon each other since the Transsexual Act was enacted.[iv]
Preventing same-sex marriages and violations of s. 175 StGB in the Transsexual Act
Jane Freeland is an historian of women and gender in modern Germany. She is currently a research fellow at the German Historical Institute London, where she coordinates the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment. She holds a PhD from Carleton University (Canada) and is completing a monograph on domestic violence activism in divided Berlin.
On April 14, 1976, the illustrated news magazine Stern ran a special report on rape in marriage in the Federal Republic of Germany. “Rape,” it began, “It was until today a matter of sexual offenders, perverts, criminals. …for the first time it is now revealed that nowhere is rape committed more than in the marital bed.” Surveying women throughout the Federal Republic on sex and intimacy in marriage, including their experiences of marital rape, for the first time the report revealed that in one in five marriages in West Germany women were raped by their husbands. It further showed that in a majority of cases marital rape was violent, and closely connected with physical and emotional abuse. “The bed,” it seemed to reporter Ulrich Schippke “has become a battleground.”
Chloë Kennedy is Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at the University of Edinburgh. Her main research interests are criminal law, legal theory, legal history and the relationships between these areas. Her work also focuses on law and gender. Chloë is currently writing a genealogy of legal responses to inducing intimacy. This research is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Leader Fellowship grant (AH/S013180/1).
Seduction is a slippery concept. Once associated with disloyalty and disobedience, seduction is now more commonly associated with the ‘art’ of persuading another person to have sex. Yet even in this context, seduction can refer to anything from gentle persuasion to substantial manipulation. Partly because of this, attitudes towards seduction are often ambivalent. Practices at one end of the seduction spectrum are considered innocuous, or even valuable, while practices at the other end are considered impermissible and condemned as such. Adding a final layer of complexity, it is not always clear where a particular practice belongs on this spectrum and answers to this question vary across time and place.
In this post, I explore the Scottish delict (i.e. civil wrong) of seduction and look at how, for two centuries, it was used to proscribe certain ways of persuading another person to have sex. Though there is much to say about seduction, in this post I focus solely on the conduct that was prohibited. Based on an examination of ~450 seduction cases, I want to suggest that the action of seduction is best understood as a wrong that involved being untrustworthy in socially and culturally significant ways, which revolved around contemporary understandings of marriage and the abuse of power.
Travel writer Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892) loved women. This article examines how various generations of writers have represented her same-sex desire, which material and conjectures underpinned their representations, and how we might approach reading and writing about the desires of Victorian-era women-loving women today.
Bianca Walther is a freelance historian and conference interpreter based in Berlin. She produces the podcast Frauen von damals and hopes one day to finish her dissertation on women-loving women in Germany and Sweden around 1900. She is also interested in historical women travellers and has edited the Indian travel diary of German feminist Anna Pappritz. While simultaneously working on a podcast on Amelia Edwards and studying anti-lesbian rhetoric in early 20th-century literature, she stumbled across an obscure reference to an English tribad who married a pastor’s wife. This blog post is the result. Helen Ferguson is a freelance conference interpreter and translator based in Berlin, specialised in art/architecture, film, and cultural history.
Amelia Edwards was a talented writer, passionate traveller, and self-taught Egyptologist. She was a successful novelist by the time she was in her mid-twenties, but it was a trip to the Dolomites and a subsequent journey up the Nile that were to establish her fame as a travel writer. Her bestsellers Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873) and A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877) captivated their audience with humorous observations and evocative descriptions of landscapes.
During her trip to Egypt, Amelia Edwards acquired a lasting fascination with Egyptology. In 1882, she therefore co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (today: Egypt Exploration Society) and, during the last ten years of her life, dedicated nearly all her time and energy to it. Her will stipulated that monies from her estate be used to endow the Edwards Chair of Egyptology at University College London, which still survives as the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology.
Amelia Edwards and Women
While Amelia Edwards’ achievements already made her a well-known public figure during her lifetime, her private life has long remained an enigma – even to her biographers Joan Rees (1998) and Brenda Moon (2006). Amelia Edwards formed emotional attachments almost uniquely with women. As an adult, she lived with Ellen Drew Braysher, a friend 27 years her senior, whose husband and daughter had died not long after Edwards had lost her parents. In early 1864, they moved to Westbury-on-Trym, where they were to live until both women died within the first months of 1892.
However, Edwards always had other attachments to women too. Her papers, archived at Somerville College, Oxford, contain a number of letters from painter and world traveller Marianne North (1830-1890), whom she had befriended in 1870. While Edwards’ letters have not survived, Norths’ replies reveal that Edwards had developed quite a crush on her new friend. North, who did not reciprocate these feelings but was obviously relaxed about them, set her boundaries in a gentle and light-spirited tone: “Bless you, what love letters you do write”, she wrote one Friday in May 1871, “what a pity you waste them on a woman!” (SCO ABE 228). A few days later, after Edwards had come up with the suggestion (or should it be ‘proposal’?) of giving North a ring to wear on her next journey, Marianne North writes:
Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory[I]
Maria Bühner is a PhD candidate at the Department for Cultural Studies, Leipzig University. Her project focuses on the subjectification of lesbians in the GDR and looks at politics of the lesbian rights movement, the psychiatric treatment of female homosexuality, as well as life stories, relationship practices and self-understandings. At Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden she did research on the material culture of sexualities. Her research interests cover gender history, the history of sexualities, affect studies and material culture studies. Contact: email@example.com.
Introduction: Queering Memory
The search for and, sometimes the imagination of, a shared queer history and practices of commemoration have been constitutive practises for lesbian and gay emancipation movements since the 1970s. To feel and look backward helped them to form a collective identity and pushed the politicisation of homosexuality. A well-known, and still very visible, example for this is the transnational use of the pink triangle as a symbol of recognition for queers worldwide. I argue that, besides the Stonewall Riots, the persecution of queers during the Nazi era has been an important point of reference for queer memory cultures.
As a starting point I turn to Heather Love’s reflections on loss and the politics of queer history. In Feeling Backward she states: “Homosexual identity is indelibly marked by the effects of reverse discourse: on the one hand it continues to be understood as a form of damaged or compromised subjectivity; on the other hand, the characteristic forms of gay freedom are produced in response to this history.” Love argues that backward feelings like depression, shame and regret are essential for homosexual identities, that they stay with us even after things changed and that they are an essential part of queer culture and should therefore be included in our analysis. She also points our attention to the deep desire to form connections, analogies and genealogies across time: “The longing for community across time is a crucial feature of queer historical experience, one produced by the historical isolation of individual queers as well as by the damaged quality of the historical archive.”
With regards to Love I want to explore the politics of memory by lesbian activists in East Germany. I focus on the efforts of the East Berlin-based group Lesben in der Kirche (Lesbians in the Church) at the memorial site of the former Ravensbrück concentration camp in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1982 Lesben in der Kirche was the first and very influential separatist lesbian group founded in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They understood lesbian as a political identity, were very feminist, and critical of the state. They were the first ones to publicly commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution. This practice was rooted in their general interest in lesbian herstory and at the same time an attempt to make lesbians, their existence, and experiences in the past and the present (and/or for the future) visible. I am especially interested in the function of these commemorations for forming a shared collective memory as part of their identity politics that went hand in hand with a politicization of homosexuality and womanhood. Nevertheless, I argue that feeling backward and the longing for community across time and space are ambivalent in their practise and outcome.
The Marginalization of Lesbians in the GDR and their Activism
After suffering persecution and the destruction of their subculture during National Socialism, queers and their desires continued to remain socially marginalized in the GDR until the 1980s. There was hardly any representation, either positive or negative, of (female) homosexuality in the public sphere. Marginalisation and discrimination created an affective state that was characterised by isolation, fear, shame, confusion, depression, and sometimes even self-hate. Some did not even have a word to name their own desires and experienced great difficulties to find other like-minded queers.The formation of political groups can be understood as a reaction to this complicated affective state. Given the challenges that unofficial political movements faced in the GDR (such as being unable to freely assemble, publish literature, and form associations), the protection offered by the Protestant Church starting at the beginn of the 1980s was crucial for their activism because it offered the only semipublic and nongovernmental space where political activists in the GDR could gather.
During the 1980s more than 20 homosexual activist groups were founded. In most of the groups people of different genders worked together, but some exclusively lesbian and gay groups also emerged. Their regular meetings provided a space for meeting other queers, discussing one’s experiences and feelings. Supported by exchanges with activists from other countries, these groups sought to make sense of the negative emotions that many experienced. Consciousness-raising meetings became an important political practise. Talking and writing about their experiences and feelings helped participants to see their lives in a broader perspective and to transform their emotions, not at least because groups offered support and ideas of a positive self-understanding. Another important practise of the groups were regular visits to the memorial sites of the former concentration camps Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück.
For the lesbian activists Ravensbrück was especially interesting since mainly women had been imprisoned in the concentration camp: about 123.000 of which around 25.000 were murdered there. After the foundation of the GDR in 1949 Ravensbrück quickly became an important national memorial site. In the official political understanding the GDR was an anti-fascist state founded by the communists that had been persecuted by the Nazis. Therefore, the sites of the former concentration camps were transformed into national memorial sites to remember the communist resistance fighters as the victims of fascism and to stage the power of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany on a regular basis. Ravensbrück was the place to commemorate especially the female communists that had fought against fascism. Other groups like the jewish inmates, the so called asocial and criminal prisoners, romani people, homosexual men and lesbian women were not included in the official memory culture that became permanently manifested in the architecture of the memorial site and the huge memorials that took place every year.
Since Ravensbrück was a place of such great political significance to visit and commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution meant nothing less than to make the existence of lesbians in the past and the present highly visible and to seek for public attention. This was one reason for the Lesben in der Kirche to visit Ravensbrück several times in the mid-1980s. Before they visited Ravensbrück in 1984 for the first time, they wrote to the archive and asked to see files of prisoners. In their letter they wrote: “You will wonder, why do we collect all this information? We are women, and we have a past, a history that should be reviewed, and especially processed to develop our emancipation and our self-understanding further.”
At their regular meetings lesbian herstory was a recurring topic throughout the decade. Their main sources of information were two books: The exhibition catalogue “Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur” on gays and lesbians in Germany covering the period 1850-1950 and “Berlins lesbische Frauen” by Ruth Margarete Roellig — a description of lesbian bars in Berlin from the 1920s. Their collective memory was focused on the 1920s as a golden era and the destruction of this subculture by the Nazis. The Stonewall Riots were not part of their shared narrative. Their knowledge on the actual situation of lesbians during the Nazi era remained very limited since back then there was hardly any state of research to back up their assumptions. A situation that changed in the meantime.
10th of March 1984, Lesben in der Kirche visited the memorial site Ravensbrück and followed the traditional protocol of a group visit: They had a guided tour, laid down their wreath, and wrote in the visitor’s book: “Our remembrance is for all those women who lost their lives in the concentration camp Ravensbrück and suffered, especially our lesbian sisters. We also commemorate all those women who are still suffering from fascism and oppression today. Working Group Homosexual Self-Help — Lesbians in the Church.”
The ribbon of the wreath and their entry were both signed with their group name — despite the fact that given the restrictive laws their group was illegal. During the tour they noticed a sign that listed the different categories of prisoners but missed the pink triangle.
Also in the years to come the group used the phrase “lesbian sisters” to refer to the persecuted lesbians. This sisterhood was and remained an imagined one since at this time not a single lesbian prisoner was known by name. Their idea of a lesbian sisterhood expressed their deep wish to form a connection across time and embraces a different, in this case lesbian, idea of kinship that was not bound to blood. The people who were active in the lesbian movement were mainly younger women. There are no contacts documented between them and older women who might have been persecuted by the Nazis.
Their actions in Ravensbrück did cause a reaction by the state authorities. The director of the memorial site informed the Secret State Security Police beforehand which lead to an observation of the visit. Later the wreath and the entry in the visitor’s book were taken away. Two members of group returned a few days later and noticed that. They took a picture of the empty spot were they had laid down their wreath. This photography is very interesting because it documents absence, loss, and invisibility. By doing so it captures a common experience of queer historical experience. The group decided to write a petition to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and informed the general superintendent of the Protestant Church. Both actions had no satisfying outcome for the group.
That is why they decided to participate in the official ceremony that took place at the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp in 1985. That was a memorial of great political significance. But when the group arrived at the train station in Fürstenberg they were extracted from the crowd by the police, confined in a lorry, verbally and physically abused by the policemen, then held in custody, and questioned. They were eventually released when the memorial was over. Afterwards the group protested against this treatment: Again they wrote petitions, this time to the Ministry of the Interior, and they also met up with Emmy Handke, the head of the GDR Ravensbrück Committee, and Anni Sindermann, the head of the international Ravensbrück Committee. Both women had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück and reacted rather defensive concerning a lesbian commemoration at Ravensbrück.
Nevertheless, the protest of the group turned out to be successful in the end: They received a verbal apology from the Ministry of the Interior, and in September 1985 around 80 people from peace, environmental, feminist, and other homosexual activist groups joined Lesben in der Kirche for a commemoration in Sachsenhausen. The Secret State Police continued to observe the groups and the commemorations, but there were no more violent interventions. In 1986 Lesben in der Kirche returned again to Ravensbrück, and this time they had a guided tour by the new director and could see that the meaning of the pink triangle was now explained. Once again the signed the guest book.
The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures
The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures turned out to be rather productive in the case of Lesben in der Kirche when it came to identity politics and networking. The commemorations were less acts of grieving but rather rooted in identity politics. Commemorating was a political practise that marked Ravensbrück a place of lesbian herstory. Their politics of memory helped them to create a shared lesbian memory that stabilised their collective lesbian identity because as Stuart Hall puts it: “Identities are formed at the unstable point where the ‚unspeakable‘ stories of subjectivity meet the narrative of history, of a culture.” Looking backward helped them to get a better understanding of the reasons for their discrimination. Their underlying conception of lesbian herstory focused on lesbians as victims. The activists stressed parallels between past and present forms of discrimination, hence ignoring to a certain extend the differences between those who they were remembering and themselves. This is what I call the ambivalence of feeling backward — to forget the differences while drawing analogies in the desire to form connections across time and space.
Without question lesbians in the GDR faced discrimination, sometimes surveillance, and persecution, but not in the same way as queers did during the Nazi era. Besides. They did not think about the possible existence of lesbian perpetrators during the Nazi era. The historian Claudia Schoppmann asks whether this perceived collective status as victims is supposed to strengthen one’s own identity. She critically questions the illusion that lesbians (and the same can be said for other queers) have always been on the right side of history.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that Lesben in der Kirche were important forerunners in terms of highlighting the persecution of lesbians during the NS — which up until then had been invisible and mostly untold. Until today the questions of whether and how to remember this in Ravensbrück remain contested. The debates in the last years were centred around a memorial sign for the lesbian victims which is still not erected.
Cite this article: Maria Bühner, “The Ambivalence of Feeling Backward: Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 31/03/2021, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1632, (abgerufen am: Datum).
“Wir sollen die Opfer des Faschismus nicht beleidigen.” Aktionen in der KZ-Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück, 1984-1985, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, URL: https://www.meta-katalog.eu/Record/35750ffbiz.
Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft Sammlung GrauZone
Kenawi, Samirah (2003) Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann. Die Lesben in der Kirche Berlin, unpublished manuscript.
RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.
RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.
RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985. RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück.
Sammlungen Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück der Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten
MGR/StGB, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation, 12th of March 1984.
MGR/StGB, 7-86 A 2012/95, guest book November 1985-April 1986.
 See Jensen, The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness, pp. 319-349.  Love, Feeling Backward, p. 2.  See ibid., pp. 7–9  Ibid, p. 37.  See Bühner, „[W]ir haben einen Zustand zu analysieren, der uns zu Außenseitern macht“, pp. 111-131.  See Bühner, How to remember Invisibility. Documentary Projects on Lesbians in the German Democratic Republic as Archives of Feelings, pp. 241-265.  See Bühner, The Rise of a New Consciousness, pp. 151-173.  See Eschebach, Die Frauen von Ravensbrück, pp. 149, 152; Beßmann/Eschebach, Das Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück, pp.11. 239.  See Eschebach, Öffentliches Gedenken, pp. 135-162; Eschebach, Queere Gedächtnisräume, p. 52.  Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft (RHG)/GrauZone (GZ)/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück. The translation is mine.  See „Die Verständigung war einfach schwierig.“ Kontakte zu Frauen im Westen, 1980er Jahre, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, https://www.meta-katalog.eu/Record/35750ffbiz.  See the Bibliography on lesbian and trans women in Nazi Germany by Anna Hájková for the state of the art.  See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.  RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the culture secretary Hans-Joachim Hoffmann, 20th of March 1984, cited by Kristine Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.  See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 168, emphasis in the original.  See Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück/Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation from 12th of March 1984.  See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 218.  See RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.  See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 170.  See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985.  See Kenawi, Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann, p. 87.  See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.  See Hark, Vom prekären Status lesbischer* Identitäten im Feld der Erinnerungspolitiken.  Hall, The Minimal Selves, p. 44.  See Schoppmann, Spärliche Spuren, p. 106.  See Warnecke, Gedenkkugel für KZ Ravensbrück.