GDR history

Queerness in the GDR

This blog post addresses different forms of discrimination against queer people in the GDR, as well as the limited room for manoeuvre that was available to them. by Alexandra de León (15 Jun 2023)

Legal framework

The infamous Paragraph 175, which dated back to the imperial era and was tightened during the Nazi regime, criminalised »unnatural fornication« between men. However, this paragraph was not only used against homosexuals. Following the popular uprising on 17 June 1953, the SED used it as a pretext to discredit disagreeable persons and to secure its own power. It was not until four years later that a court of appeal in East Berlin declared that gay life was not a danger to the socialist order and effectively repealed the paragraph. Nevertheless, it remained in place until 1968, when it was replaced by Paragraph 151. This meant that homosexuality between adult men was no longer illegal, but a higher age of consent was now established for homosexual acts than for heterosexual contacts, which for the first time also included homosexual acts between women.

Various books on the subject of law in the GDR

Fig.: Colourful metal cups

Social oppression and discrimination

In the GDR, similar to many places at the time, homosexuality was considered »abnormal« and contrary to the socialist norm of the heterosexual family. Despite the new legal framework, the state pursued a policy of oppression and discrimination against queer people, accompanied by punishment, stigmatisation and social exclusion. Homosexual acts could lead to arrest and other various forms of social oppression and exclusion, such as loss of employment.

Book »The Gender Question: A Book for Young People«

Fig.: »Die Geschlechterfrage: Ein Buch für junge Menschen« (eng.: »The Gender Question: A Book for Young People«), 5th edition, Published by VEB Greifenverlag

Suppression and decomposition

Queer groups and individuals faced social exclusion and targeted state repression both before and after the abolition of Paragraph 175. The Ministry for State Security (MfS) often had active actors in its sights. With the help of operational procedures (OV) called »Orion«, »Dreieck«, »Lesbos«, queer persons were monitored and sometimes became victims of so-called »decomposition«. In this context, persons or groups were systematically discredited, professional and social failures were brought about, and mistrust and rivalries within the community were stirred up. This was done mainly by infiltrating unofficial collaborators (IMs). The attached photo shows a reconstructed interrogation room from the permanent exhibition of our museum.

Reconstructed interrogation room of the DDR Museum with a chair, a desk and a lamp

Abb.: Reconstructed interrogation room of the DDR Museum 

Subcultural emancipation and resistance

In spite of this repression, a subcultural scene developed in the GDR in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people networked with each other and found solidarity. This scene offered a space of emancipation in which alternative forms of living together, expressing one's own sexuality and identity formation were possible. Homosexual people founded informal meeting places, clubs and organisations that served as shelters and enabled the exchange of experiences and ideas.

One example is the »Homosexuelle Interessengemeinschaft Berlin« (HIB), which addressed numerous petitions to the police, the People’s Chamber and other institutions. The group met in the basement of the well-known Gründerzeit Museum of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf until it was banned from meeting in 1978.

Six colourful shot glasses

Fig.: Colourful metal cups

The church as a form of support

In the 1980s, an agreement was reached between the church and the state that allowed queer groups to meet in Protestant churches. This agreement opened up the possibility for members of the lesbian and gay movement to organise and mobilise more effectively. Under the leadership of Eduard Stapel, the first homosexuality working group was established in 1982 in the Protestant Student Community in Leipzig. Other groups within the Protestant Church followed throughout the GDR in 1983. The main aim of these groups was to make the problems of homosexuals visible, to provide information for those interested and to reduce a variety of areas of discrimination.

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