In Honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, We Celebrate Queer Berlin, the Birthplace of Modern, Western, Queer Identity
In remembering the Holocaust, it’s of course vital to honor the estimated 10,000 members of the LGBTQ community who were murdered and the 100,000 who were arrested and persecuted--and of course, the millions more who were Jewish, Romani, political prisoners, and/or persons with disabilities who also lost their lives in the Holocaust.
But what’s been left out of the conversation is the death of "Queer Berlin." It is our legacy, our inheritance, and knowing about its existence reminds us that so much of who we are today once existed a century ago in Berlin. Not only that, but Queer Berliners were effective in turning their city into the most open, progressive, and accepting place on Earth for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Queer Berlin is how little most people know or understand its significance, especially the youngest most “queer-centric” generations. Queer Berlin is the birthplace of modern, Western, queer identity. Everything we are has so many of its origins in Berlin from the 1920s.
To say Berlin was queer in the 1920s is like saying Disneyworld is a kind of fun place. It could not be underscored how incredibly free, wild, and QUEER, Berlin actually was.
It was common to see TGNCNB folx out in the open, expressing their true selves without repercussions. You could find men kissing in public with dedicated places in public parks for sexual hookups, free of police harassment. Many in the Lesbian community had created intellectual salons, discussing and advancing progressive notions of female power and identity. These are but a few cultural examples that illustrate how expressive we were allowed to be in Berlin.
Berlin had an estimated 100 nightclubs, bars, cabarets, and venues dedicated to the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ expression. These spaces were further subdivided based on class lines and other varied interests. There really was something for everyone.
One very famous example was The El Dorado Club, one of the most popular venues for nightlife in Berlin. It was run by a member of the TGNCNB Community and full of cutting-edge music, cabaret, dancing, sex, and drugs. It was a cultural epicenter for artists and creatives, where everyone seemed to feed off each other’s energy.
Imagine a bustling, exciting city dripping with avant-garde, creative ideas everywhere you turned. The city sold nearly 30 different types of LGBTQ-based periodicals that were displayed in open kiosks visible to anyone who wanted to peruse or buy them. Many of these magazines were not for the bashful either, with sensational headlines and expressive photos--it was clear that in Berlin, there was no need to hide your sexuality or gender identity. Here you could find your story in others, quite easily and openly.
The LGBTQ+ Community also played an important role in the cultural development of Berlin, especially in the arts. Breaking from the conventional and showcasing art through an LGBTQ+, non-conformist lens was revolutionizing everything from dance to photography, to cinema to literature, fashion, and music. The fingerprint of the LGBTQ+ community on the arts could be felt in everything. Nothing epitomizes this era more than Marlene Dietrich whose sultry, gender-bending performances encapsulated so much of what made Berlin so queer. She would go on to become the enduring icon of everything that was queer (and wonderful!) about Berlin in the 1920s.
Gay writer Christopher Isherwood and his close friend W. H. Auden became famous for their stories about Berlin, some of the first English written material that showcased Berlin in its full, unbridled Queerness. This was also the era when the motion picture industry was centered in Berlin and many films had LGBTQ+ actors, directors, writers, and producers.
The very first LGBTQ+ Community Center also opened in Berlin in 1919. It was founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and it was called Institut für Sexualwissenshcaft (The Institute for Sexual Science) and it was revolutionary for the time.
According to Robert Beachy’s book, Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity, “The institute offered medical and psychological counseling on a range of sexual issues to thousands of individuals, including heterosexual men and women, homosexuals, cross-dressers, and intersex individuals.”
The Institute became a powerhouse for advocacy and education. It was hugely successful in working with the police department in Berlin to stop arresting and harassing LGBTQ+ members. Dr. Hirschfeld was also a huge medical advocate for the LGBTQ community, leading the charge that being gay or Trans was a biological condition, not something one chose. This was a powerful argument and he, with many other advocates, was collectively persuasive, allowing for the “normalization” of LGBTQ+ identity in Berlin. In the 1920’s it went to a new level.
This was the decade where it reached its peak, but what’s also important to note is that it didn’t happen overnight.
While some may argue that Greece, is the actual birthplace of Western, queer identity, it wasn’t until the late 1860’s that Western society (i.e. Europe) began to formulate language around what it was to not be heteronormative. Germany is credited with using the actual word, “homosexual” to describe gays and lesbians.
“The word “homosexuality” was itself a German invention, and appeared as Homosexualität for the first time in 1869 in a German-language pamphlet that polemicized against the Prussian anti-sodomy statute,” claims Beachy.
Berlin, it can be argued, was also the modern, Western, birthplace of Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming, and Non Binary identities. According to Clayton Whisnat’s book, Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945,“A German scientist coined the term transvestism, paving the way for the distinction that we make between homosexual and transgender. The first step toward something like rights for cross-dressers came when the Berlin police agreed to issue “transvestite passes.” The first sex assignment operation was done by a German doctor in 1920.”
Sadly, the party came to an end in 1933, when the Nazis assumed power over Germany. They wasted no time “cleaning up” Berlin. In a matter of weeks and months, everything from the Institute for Sexual Science to all the LGBTQ+ venues were destroyed or shut down. Books and periodicals were burned. Many files from the Institute were either destroyed or used by the SS to hunt down LGBTQ community members where they were arrested, tortured, sent to concentration camps, or murdered (or all of the above).
What’s even grimmer, is that many of these survivors of the camps were re-arrested after they were “liberated” because homosexuality was still, legally speaking, a crime. Post-war Berlin, itself was also left a hollowed-out, deformed version of itself.
The glitter and the parties were long gone replaced by rubble and ruin. It lost its capital status in Germany and was carved up into “zones” that were occupied by Allied Forces. The city was eventually splintered into two versions of itself, West Berlin, a pro-Western style democratic city, and East Berlin, a pro-Soviet era communist city, separated by an infamous wall where anyone attempting to cross from East to West was shot on site. Neither of these cities would have the spirit and ethos of Queer Berlin of the 1920s.
Today, in modern Berlin, some of that glitter has returned to the city, now reunified and given back its capital status. There is a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene that is part of the tapestry. However, some might rightfully argue that we are still climbing to reach that era again back in the 1920s when being Queer wasn’t just normal, it was like Berlin itself, it was considered fabulous.
The LOFT remembers Queer Berlin in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27th.
Learning More (References Used):
- Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Book is available at The LOFT LGBTQ+ Library for check out)
- Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945 (Book is available at The LOFT LGBTQ+ Library for check out)
- Why It Took Decades for LGBTQ Stories to Be Included in Holocaust History
- LGBTQ+ History Month: gay victims and survivors of the Holocaust are often forgotten – we need to tell their stories
- Berlin before the Nazis: Century-old photos show German capital as a liberal hub with open drug-dealing, thriving gay clubs and raucous parties during the roaring twenties
- A Peek Inside Berlin's Queer Club Scene Before Hitler Destroyed It
- 1920S BERLIN WAS QUEERER THAN NYC IS TODAY
- The Berlin Stories
- Berlin Story: How the Germans invented gay rights—more than a century ago.
- Homosexuality and the Holocaust