A Gay Turning Point that Failed to Turn? The Beethoven hall Podium Discussion of 1980

Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. His research, which focuses on gender and sexuality in Nazi and Cold War Germany, has appeared in scholarly publications including Journal of Contemporary History and New German Critique. His first book, tentatively titled States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany, is under contract with University of Toronto Press. He is a frequent contributor to Boston ReviewLos Angeles Review of Books, and The Point magazine.  

On July 12, 1980, thousands of gay West Germans descended on Bonn. A federal election was imminent and West Germany’s gay activists had organized a so-called podium discussion at the Beethovenhalle, the large performance hall that had twice hosted the Bundesversammlung, which elects the Federal Republic’s President. Inviting representatives of the major parties to speak to a queer audience, the instigators hoped the event would pressure politicians—in particular those of the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Free Democratic Party (FDP)—to concede to their policy demands. These included reparations for gay victims of the Holocaust and repeal of §175 of the penal code, which after the law’s 1969 reform set a higher age of consent for sex acts between men. 

The activists had managed to put together rather a grand affair. Not only had they secured one of the most prominent halls in the republic, but television host Reinhard Münchenhagen agreed to moderate the discussion. The Free Democrats were represented by their General Secretary, Günter Verheugen. The SPD sent the Bremen Senator for Health, while the Green Party was represented by gay activists from Hamburg. Even the Christian Democrats, who remained skeptical of the process, sent a representative. The queer activist groups from around West Germany that organized the events at Bonn, which also included a large public demonstration, hoped they would represent a political breakthrough for the movement, a “grand coup,” as members of the Allgemeine Homosexuelle Aktion (AHA) in West Berlin put it.[1]

But what they got instead was chaos. Only fifteen minutes into the discussion, pedophile activists from around the country interrupted, screaming that the organizers had excluded them and their views from the event. In the pandemonium, one voice yelled, “how terribly sad it is, that gays discriminate against each other.”[2] Soon after the mayhem started, the organizers gave up and cancelled the event. 

Unsurprisingly, then, the Beethoven Hall podium discussion is today remembered as an unmitigated disaster for the movement. In 2013, Stefan Mielchen wrote, “the West German gay movement lacked influence and voice after the 1980 scandal in the Bonn Beethoven Hall.”[3] The movement’s alleged “stagnation” in the 1980s is often attributed to this failure.[4]

The event itself was the product of a feud within the West German gay movement. Activists, who largely began organizing after the 1971 debut of Rosa von Praunheim’s Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt, had been split almost from the get-go between those who favored a radical break with political and social norms and those who preferred an incremental, policy-drive approach. The Beethoven Hall event represented an apparent vindication of the second strategy. With its collapse, however, those same activists worried that the event would “surely set us back ten years.”[5]

Yet, opinion at the time was far more divided. Other activists wrote in the immediate aftermath that it was too soon to draw conclusions. Newspapers that covered the event tended to comment on its historical nature and less on its alleged failure. One serialized article, for instance, noted “for the first time party representatives at such a forum would have taken a position on this delicate subject.”[6] The Frankfurter Rundschau bemoaned that the mainstream press might use the interruption as an excuse not to grapple with the “substantial problems, that should have been discussed in Bonn.”[7]

Although it is received wisdom today that the Beethoven Hall was a monumental failure, which doomed the gay movement (even the LSVD website refers to it as a “disaster”), we can extrapolate from contemporaneous reactions that this certainly was not the case. In fact, the SPD and FDP did well in the 1980 election, giving activists hope that the social-liberal government might finally abolish §175. A week after the election, the AHA took out a full-page advertisement in major West German newspapers, in which it declared, “The electoral results of October 5 came about with the votes of homosexual men.”[8] But Helmut Kohl’s ascendance to the chancellorship in 1982 dashed those hopes. Indeed, the new conservatism and the advent of AIDS likely had far more to do with the reorientation of gay activism in the Federal Republic than any individual event, however catastrophic it might seem in retrospect. 

The Beethoven Hall certainly did not live up to the expectations of its organizers: it was not the “coup” for which they had hoped. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable show of strength on the part of a movement less than a decade old and a sign that politicians had begun to take queer people seriously. It was, perhaps, a turning point that failed to turn. And just like the revolution of 1848, for which British historian AJP Taylor originally coined that phrase, the “disaster” at the Beethoven Hall actually revealed the growing confidence and strength of the political gay movement.[9] In highlighting the divisions within the movement, though, the event masked its success at pushing policy change in local government and within the parties. It is well past time to free this episode of the baggage, with which generations of activists and historians have saddled it, and to remember it instead as a moment of possibility for West Germany’s gay movement. 

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Samuel Clowes Huneke, „A Gay Turning Point that Failed to Turn? The Beethoven hall Podium Discussion of 1980“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 30/12/2020, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1565, (abgerufen am: Datum).

[1] “AG Öffentlichkeit,” n.d., Archiv des schwulen Museums, Berlin, Allgemeine Homosexuelle Aktion (AHA), Box 1. All translations are my own. 
[2] “Wortprotokoll der Veranstaltung am 12.07.80 in der Bonner Beethovenhalle,“ in …alle Schwestern werden Brüder…, edited by Dieter Bachnick and Rainer Schädlich (Trifolium, 1986), 233. 
[3] Stefan Mielchen, “Wider die Norm: Die Lebensformenpolitik des Bundesverbandes Homosexualität 1986-1997,” in Zwischen Autonomie und Integration: Schwule Politik und Schwulenbewegung in den 1980er und 1990er Jahren, ed. Andreas Pretzel and Volker Weiß (Hamburg: Männerschwarm Verlag GmbH, 2013), 119. 
[4] Hajo Witte. „Lesben und Schwule in den Kirchen.“ in Schwule Regungen – schwule Bewegungen, edited by Willi Frieling (Rosa Winkel, 1985), 137.
[5] Hans Hack, “Die Politiker bekamen einen Tritt in den Hintern: Wie in Bonn alles ablief,” Don, September 1980, 11. 
[6] “Diskussion der Homosexuellen-Gruppen in Bonn: Veranstaltung wurde abgebrochen,“ Dithmarscher Landeszeitung, July 14, 1980. 
[7] Jörg Kuhlmann, „Homosexuellen-Diskussion,“ Frankfurter Rundschau, July 26, 1980. 
[8] “Die Streichung des §175 StGB muß Bestandteil der Koalitionsvereinbarung der neuen Bundesregierung werden!,” Frankfurter Rundschau, October 13, 1980. 
[9] Alan John Percivale Taylor, The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History since 1815 (Hamish Hamilton, 1945), 68.

Cite this blog post
hsl (2020, December 30). A Gay Turning Point that Failed to Turn? The Beethoven hall Podium Discussion of 1980. History | Sexuality | Law. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ppwg

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