“Homosexuality is not a neurosis and not a perversion, but a variation of the sexual behavior”

Contradictory discourses on homosexuality in the GDR and Günter Dörner’s work [1]

Author: Sarah Kiani is historian, research associate at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin. She wrote her PhD on the influence of the feminist movement on the equality legislations in Switzerland and is currently writing her second book on the State surveillance of homosexualities in the GDR’s 1970s and 1980s.

Looking at the significance of the echo of Professor Günter Dörner’s work inside and outside the GDR in the 1980s and beyond, it seems that the process of demedicalizing homosexuality that roughly occurred between the 1960s to 1970s and saw the suppression of homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM II) in 1973, did not take place in the GDR. If indeed this description of a demedicalization is mostly based on a North-American and Western Europe reading, we can observe similar developments in the mid-1970’s in the GDR resulting from top-down and bottom-up influences. However, these developments did go with important contradictory forces as I wish to show here with the case of Günter Dörner and its critics. These contradictory forces went hand in hand with more general contradictory impulses between the revival of a preventive and ‘neo eugenics’ medicine in the 1960s and liberalization currents regarding sexuality.

Dörner’s research: homosexuality, a ‘disability’ that could be prevented in utero

Günter Dörner (born in 1929) succeeded to his Professor Walter Holweg, himself student of Eugen Steinach[2] at the head of the ‘Institut für Experimentelle Endokrinologie’ of the Charité in East-Berlin in 1961. Dörner performed experiments in the direct influence of Steinach and Holweg’s research tradition, on the effects of hormones and especially of sex hormones on female and male organisms. Mainly testing his hypothesis on rats, Dörner argued that the level of hormones, and especially its deficiency in-utero was responsible for homosexuality: in males, by androgen deficiency during a critical period of brain ‘differentiation’[3]. Thus, he concluded that homosexuality could be ‘prevented’ by giving hormones to the pregnant mother. Dörner discussed homosexuality as ‘a prenatal neuroendocrine maldifferentiation’[4] clearly presenting it as an ’abnormal’ sexuality, and the aims of his research as ‘the prevention of hormone- and/or neurotransmitter-dependant differentiation disturbances of the brain which are associated with permanent somatic, mental, and/or psychic disabilities’[5]. To summarize, for Günter Dörner, homosexuality had to be understood as a disability, but according to him, it could be prevented. This conception of homosexuality, towards which the GDR State did not appear to oppose any strong criticism, differed from the one the State itself defended in the 1980s, along with the implementation of an anti-discrimination campaign against gay and lesbians[6]. In the mid-1970s, the Zentrale Medizinische Dienst’ (ZMD) of the GDR already tended to approve the idea that homosexuality was a ‘variant of sexuality’[7] and not a sickness, and at the beginning of the 1980s, several actors of the health sphere shared the same conception. Not a sickness, but still, for some health actors, deriving from a biological origin, as stated very clearly the head of the ‘Ehe-und Sexualberatungsstelle’ of Berlin-Mitte in 1982: “Homosexualität ist keine Krankheit. Keine Perversion, sondern lediglich eine biologische Normabweichung”’[8].

This dominant approach anchored in a conception of a biological cause of homosexuality, which was not a sickness, but however ‘preventable’, was rooted in the political, social and sanitary climate of the GDR from the 1960s.

On the one hand, as the historian Florian Mildenberger explains in one of his articles on Dörner, the second half of the 1960s was characterized by the reactivation of a 1920s ‘neo-eugenics’ medicine with preventive components[9]. On the other hand, from the 1960s, and even stronger from the accession of Erich Honecker to the head of the State, a liberalization of sexuality, and also of homosexuality – partially depenalized in 1968 while the first homosexual movement (Homosexuelle Interessengemeinschaft Berlin -HIB) emerged in 1973 – challenged the view of homosexuality as a pathology.

Criticisms from the German Society for Sex Research

Those contradictory forces allowed Dörner’s work to be relatively unchallenged in the GDR, while at the same time, it also represented a caution for some advocates of a homosexual liberation. Even the SED argued for example in 1985 that if ‘the natural biological causes of homosexuality are recognized, the stronger [is] the moral obligation to recognize each other as completely equal’[10]. In 1982, the work of Dörner was strongly criticized by the German Society for Sex Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sexualforschung e. V.). A guest editorial was written by the president Volkmar Sigusch, the vice-president Eberhard Schorsch, the secretary and sociologist Martin Dannecker and the sex researcher Gunter Schmidt. The open letter criticized the methodology used by Dörner, especially his extrapolation of the behavior of rats on human beings, the limited scope of the sample used, and certain research bias. The authors concluded that Dörner’s research was biased by social prejudices and ‘the restriction and control of homosexuality’. Moreover, for the authors, Dörner understood homosexuals as being sick, and ‘toy[ed] with the idea of endocrinal euthanasia of homosexuality’[11].

Dörner answered the criticism in the next volume of Archives of Sexual Behavior, in 1983. I will not duplicate here his detailed answer to the accusation of scientific biases, but most interestingly, he described his research as aiming to homosexual liberation, and to be effective at it. For Dörner, his work contributed to the partial de-criminalization in 1968 in the GDR, but also the 1969 partial de-criminalization in the FRG[12]. According to him, the ‘etiogenetic elucidation of homosexuality is not harmful, and can even be helpful to homosexuals’[13].

If the GDR press articles that I was able to access[14] related to Dörner’s work proved to be uncritical to his work, activists have been very critical[15]. I am therefore not implying here that Dörner escaped criticism in the GDR, but rather that it was limited, and Dörner was able to perform his researches, have an international career and keep a relatively constant view on the hormonal cause of homosexuality until his recent death in 2018. He is still considered an important pioneer researcher in the field of hormone research[16]. It is however important, and this is what I wanted to suggest here, to replace his work in a moment of intense contradictory currents between the reactivation of a ‘neo-eugenistic’ medicine and liberalization forces from the 1960s in the GDR.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Sarah Kiani, “’Homosexuality is not a neurosis and not a perversion, but a variation of the sexual behavior’”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 12/09/2019, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/948, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1] Quotation in the title: Siegfried Schnabl and Kurt Starke cited in „Zärtlichkeit in früher stabiler Partnerschaft“, Neue Zeit, 2nd of February 1985, p. 28.
[2] The famous endocrinologist Eugen Steinach was the director of the ‘Physiologischen Abteilung an der Biologischen Versuchsanstalt (BVA) der Akademie der Wissenschaften‘ in Vienna from 1913 to 1938. He is considered a pioneer in sex-hormone research.
[3] Günter Dörner, Hormones and sexual differentiation of the brain’, Ciba Foundation Symposium, March 14-16, 1978, p. 81.
[4] Official Statement by the German Society for Sex Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sexualforschung e. V.) on the Research of Prof. Dr. Günter Dörner on the Subject of Homosexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11/5, 1982, p. 445.
[5] Günter Dörner, Letter to the editor, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12/6, 1983, p. 580. My emphasis.
[6] See for example : Raelynn J. Hillhouse, “Out of the Closet behind the Wall : Sexual Politics and Social Change in the GDR,” Slavic Review 49/4 (1990)., p. 585.
[7] BStU, MfS-HAVII Nr. 2743, 000035, letter at the Hauptabteilung VII, 21.2.1975
[8] ‘‘Hinlenkung auf feste Partnershaft”, 1.2.1982, Neue Zeit, 38/27, p. 7.
[9] Florian Mildenberger, Günter Dörner, Metamorphosen eines Wissenschaftlers, in: Wolfram Setz, Homosexualität in der DDR, Männerschwarm 2006, p. 247.
[10] Cited in Josie McLellan, Love in the Time of Communism. Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 131.
[11] Official Statement by the German Society for Sex Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sexualforschung e. V.) on the Research of Prof. Dr. Günter Dörner on the Subject of Homosexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11/5, 1982, p. 448.
[12] Günter Dörner, Letter to the editor, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12/6, 1983, p. 579. More research is needed to clearly evaluate what role played the work of Dörner, if any, in the partial de-penalization process in the GDR.
[13] Günter Dörner, Letter to the editor, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12/6, 1983, p. 579.
[14] The website dedicated to the ‘DDR-Presse’, the Neues Deutschland, the Berliner Zeitung, and the Neue Zeit. It offers the opportunity to read the articles online : http://zefys.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/ddr-presse/.
[15] See for example: Josie McLellan, Love in the Time of Communism. Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 131.
[16] Andreas Plegemann, Günter Dörner: Pionier der Entwicklungs-Neuroendokrinologie, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt, 106/34-35, https://www.aerzteblatt.de/archiv/65734/Guenter-Doerner-Pionier-der-Entwicklungs-Neuroendokrinologie (accessed: 05.09.2019).


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