Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, by Robert Beachy
The veritable ‘golden age’ of gay, self-identity…
Synopsis: An unprecedented examination of the ways in which the uninhibited urban sexuality, sexual experimentation, and medical advances of pre-Weimar Berlin created and molded our modern understanding of sexual orientation and gay identity.
Known already in the 1850s for the friendly company of its “warm brothers” (German slang for men who love other men), Berlin, before the turn of the twentieth century, became a place where scholars, activists, and medical professionals could explore and begin to educate both themselves and Europe about new and emerging sexual identities. From Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German activist described by some as the first openly gay man, to the world of Berlin’s vast homosexual subcultures, to a major sex scandal that enraptured the daily newspapers and shook the court of Emperor William II—and on through some of the very first sex reassignment surgeries—Robert Beachy uncovers the long-forgotten events and characters that continue to shape and influence the way we think of sexuality today.
Chapter by chapter Beachy’s scholarship illuminates forgotten firsts, including the life and work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, first to claim (in 1896) that same-sex desire is an immutable, biologically determined characteristic, and founder of the Institute for Sexual Science. Though raided and closed down by the Nazis in 1933, the institute served as, among other things, “a veritable incubator for the science of tran-sexuality,” scene of one of the world’s first sex reassignment surgeries. Fascinating, surprising, and informative—Gay Berlin is certain to be counted as a foundational cultural examination of human sexuality.
About the author: Robert Beachy (born January 5, 1965, Aibonito, Puerto Rico) is associate professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1998. Beachy specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of Germany and Europe, and is known for his work on the history of sexuality in the Weimar Republic, under the Nazis, and in Germany after the Second World War. ~ Wikipedia.
Review by Gerry Burnie
While many think that ‘gay openness’ had its naissance with Oscar Wilde, or perhaps “Stonewall” or the “Bathhouse Raids” in Toronto, Canada, but Robert Beachy makes the very convincing case in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity [Knopf; 1st edition, November 18, 2014] that it actually started in Prussia as early as the 1860s.
Along the way he reveals a fascinating history of pre-Weimar Germany, refuge for notables like Christopher Isherwood, etc. Indeed, the first spokesman for gay rights was almost unquestionably a lawyer by the name of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In a speech before Sixth Congress of German Jurists, he urged the repeal of laws forbidding sex between men.
Outrage followed, but not to the degree that one might have expected, and so the wedge of liberation had been introduced.
What followed was quite extraordinary (for the time), and has been admirably synopsized by Alex Ross of the The New Yorker magazine, January 26, 2015:
In 1869, an Austrian littérateur named Karl Maria Kertbeny, who was also opposed to sodomy laws, coined the term “homosexuality.” In the eighteen-eighties, a Berlin police commissioner gave up prosecuting gay bars and instead instituted a policy of bemused tolerance, going so far as to lead tours of a growing demimonde. In 1896, Der Eigene (“The Self-Owning”), the first gay magazine, began publication. The next year, the physician Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first gay-rights organization. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a canon of gay literature had emerged (one early advocate used the phrase “Staying silent is death,” nearly a century before AIDS activists coined the slogan “Silence = Death”); activists were bemoaning negative depictions of homosexuality (Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” was one target); there were debates over the ethics of outing; and a schism opened between an inclusive, mainstream faction and a more riotous, anarchistic wing. In the nineteen-twenties, with gay films and pop songs in circulation, a mass movement seemed at hand. In 1929, the Reichstag moved toward the decriminalization of homosexuality, although the chaos caused by that fall’s stock-market crash prevented a final vote.
High praise is reserved by Beachy for the aforementioned Magnus Hirschfeld. A year before his founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, Hirschfield able disappear. “Through Science to Justice” was his group’s motto.
During the arguably ‘golden years’ preceding 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, gays and lesbians achieved an almost unprecedented level of visibility not seen since Grecian era. in popular culture. They could see themselves onscreen in films like “Different from the Others”—a tale of a gay violinist driven to suicide, with Hirschfeld featured in the supporting role of a wise sexologist.
Pejorative representations of gay life were not only lamented but also protested; Beachy points out that when a 1927 Komische Oper revue called “Strictly Forbidden” mocked gay men as effeminate, a demonstration at the theatre prompted the Komische Oper to remove the offending skit.
Altogether, it is a most fascinating and informative read. Five bees.
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