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

Heterosexual Germans on both sides of the Berlin Wall were the emotional and material beneficiaries of the post-World War II welfare state, and this was especially the case in the socialist East German German Democratic Republic (GDR).  While we may take the act of sex for granted as a somewhat mundane aspect of everyday life, both post-World War II German governments sought to harness the sexual energies of their populations in order to bolster their popularity and political legitimacy.  As Dagmar Herzog has made clear, West Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) used sex as a site to work through the Nazi past.  West German ‘68ers—participants in the political and social upheavals of 1968—accused their parents of perpetuating patriarchy and homophobia, norms which student protestors argued had structured everyday life during the Third Reich.[1]  As a result, the West German government in Bonn begrudgingly made room for women’s and gay rights activism in the public sphere beginning in the early-to-mid-1970s.  East Germans also experienced aspects of the post-1968 sexual revolution, albeit unevenly.  For instance, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) made space for heterosexuals to experience a modicum of sexual freedom.  The regime did not criticize mothers who had children out of wedlock and eventually gave up on policing nude bathing so long as its practitioners did not attempt to form nudist groups that operated outside of the state’s purview.[2]  Moreover, there were emotional and material benefits to being heterosexual in East Germany—such as access to better housing for newlyweds, state guaranteed childcare, and inclusion in East German social networks.  However, the SED sought to keep nearly all traces of same-sex love out of the public sphere, and LGBT East Germans were excluded from what I refer to as ‘the East German socialist community of belonging.’

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.’[3]  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.[4] 

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!”[5]  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.”[6]  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.[7]  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.[8]  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.[9] 

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?[10] 
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.  
[1] Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton University Press, 2005).
[2] For a description of the East German variant of the sexual revolution, see Josie McLellan, Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR (Cambridge University Press, 2011).  See especially McLellan’s chapter on public nudity in the GDR, pp. 144-173.
[3] Leila J. Rupp & Susan K. Freeman, eds., Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 7.
[4] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 2009).
[5] RHG, Grauzone Archiv, Nachlässe Marina Krug A1/12594: Güldner Tagebuch, pg. 5.
[6] On Güldner’s father’s reaction see RHG, Grauzone Archiv, Nachlässe Marina Krug A1/12594: Güldner Tagebuch, pg. 3.
[7] Ibid., 9.  Although the SED quietly decriminalized homosexuality in 1968, they enacted Paragraph 151 out of a fear that gay men routinely sought sex with children.  While the heterosexual age of consent was sixteen in the GDR, the age of consent for gays and lesbians was eighteen.
[8] Ibid., 8.
[9] Ibid., 9.
[10] On the attempts of communist and socialist regimes to ‘marshal all expressions of sexuality into the single groove of heterosexuality’, see Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).