HM - May 2017 - Harrison
The History File
Queering, Writing, and Teaching Cold War East German History:
Familiar Narrative of Gender and Sexual Transgression
by Scott Harrison
Doctoral Candidate in History
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
While the above paragraph provides interesting historical context, some secondary-education teachers may be left wondering how to incorporate LGBTQ histories into their curricula. It is helpful to point out to students that LGBTQ history is not a ‘sidebar’ or ‘detour’ from ‘real history.’ Gay rights activists—in both Germany and the U.S.—have proven to be committed civic activists who have reshaped the political landscapes of their respective countries. Thinking about LGBTQ activists and their victories in the post-WWII era pushes students to think about how exactly social norms and political cultures change over time. Additionally, one could also simply make clear to students that, particularly during the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, there was a wide-ranging, transnational gay rights movement happening. It might be especially fruitful for classroom teachers to compare and contrast LGBTQ movements in Germany with, say, the U.S., particularly because American soldiers who were discharged from the military for engaging in same-sex relations were not allowed to reap the benefits of the GI Bill.
How, then, do historians access the voices of LGBT East Germans who lived under state socialism? I argue that one way we can produce a queer history (or histories) of the GDR is by looking for queer voices in an unexpected place: the heterosexual East German family home. Take, for instance, the case of sixteen-year old Carola Güldner. Carola had begun to attend a boarding school just outside of Dresden in the Fall of 1982, and her mother noticed that when Carola returned home on alternating weekends that she regularly confined herself to her bedroom and spent hours writing in her diary. Carola never spoke of boys and brushed aside her mother’s questions about flirting, dating, and the state of her virginity. Upon searching Carola’s room (without permission) and reading Carola’s diary, Frau Güldner’s worst fears were confirmed—her daughter was a lesbian and had been carrying on a relationship for some months with an eighteen-year old student named Karin. Commenting on Carola’s entries about Karin, Frau Güldner wrote: “Madame writes poems for her whore! This is pure poison…I won’t allow my daughter to be used as an older woman’s plaything!” Carola’s father was despondent. Rather than acknowledge his daughter’s sexuality as something fixed, he blamed his own “lax parenting” for his daughter’s behavior and expressed disbelief that his daughter “spent nearly every day with some lesbian piece of trash.” Being a lesbian, it seemed, was one of the worst fates that could befall a citizen of the GDR.
Yet, in the eyes of Carola’s parents, actions could be taken to both separate Carola and Karin from one another and to ‘restore’ Carola’s sexual propriety. As Carola’s mother described in a legal deposition, “It did not take us long to make the decision that the most appropriate thing to do was to expose” Carola’s lover as a ‘criminal’. Carola’s mother contacted her residential district’s prosecutor, and, in accordance with Paragraph 151 of the GDR legal code, the prosecutor charged Karin with pedophilia and disgracing the honor of a minor. Both Carola and Karin refused to testify in court regarding the specifics of any sexual acts that occurred between them, and Carola insisted that it was she, the younger of the two, who had initiated the relationship. The judge ruled that there was insufficient physical evidence to prove that the two students had had intercourse but nonetheless sentenced Karin to two years and eight months of probation. The judge’s ruling made clear that even attempting to initiate a female-female relationship in the GDR during the early-1980s could come with serious legal and social ramifications. Additionally, Carola’s parents sent her to a mental institution in Leipzig that specialized in treating ‘female homosexuals’. Carola’s mother was in near constant contact with her daughter’s doctor who assured her that Carola was “in no way homosexual,” but that she simply had not yet developed an attraction to men.
The case of Carola Güldner case should give us pause to ask a number of important historical questions. Why was same-sex love (and lesbian love in particular) considered such an affront to socialist morality from both above and below—from the highest levels of the socialist hierarchy in East Berlin to the most remote corners of GDR towns and villages? How did East Germans react to both popular and state imperatives to marshal all expressions of sexuality “into the single groove of heterosexuality”? Moreover, what implications do their reactions have for our understanding of power relations in East German history more generally?
We know from the Güldner case that East German family home served as both a site of debate about the changing nature of gender roles and a space in which queer sexualities were policed. Parents who feared that their lesbian daughters had lost their sense of moral probity were reassured by so-called ‘sex experts’ and party members that such women would ‘come to their senses’ once they met the ‘right man.’ That Carola Güldner’s parents turned to the state to legally extract their daughter from a same-sex relationship highlights the fact that East Germans expected (and willingly invited) the state to intervene in instances where citizens transgressed the heterosexual social order. Additionally, a lack of public discussions about female-female love, pressure from one’s family members, and a fear of social isolation channeled many women who loved women into heterosexual marriages. Such marriages served as a performative space for East German citizens to signal to their compatriots that they both acknowledged and embraced received traditional gender and sexual norms. Historians should methodologically continue to mine narratives of East German familial heterosexuality to determine what we can learn about the policing of gender and sexual transgression throughout the history of the GDR.