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Title:The state of belonging: Gay and lesbian activism in the German Democratic Republic and beyond, 1949-1989
Author(s):Harrison, Scott R.
Director of Research:Burton, Antoinette; Fritzsche, Peter
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Burton, Antoinette; Fritzsche, Peter
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Reagan, Leslie J.; Todorova, Maria
Department / Program:History
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):LGBT, Cold War, East Germany, Sexual Revolution
Abstract:By the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, thousands of gay and lesbian East Germans had formed a vibrant, publicly visible gay rights movement in their socialist homeland. I argue—quite in contrast to the existing historiography on the topic—that the movement was geographically diffuse and highly fragmented. Its adherents did not fight to make space in East German society for a Western style, identity-based politics of gay liberation, but rather for their fellow citizens to acknowledge that one could be both a socialist and gay, and that the two were not mutually exclusive. While gay men and lesbians who appropriated socialist notions of wholesomeness and respectability were the movement’s most visible figures, other actors, namely lesbian separatist feminists, jostled for position in a host of activist groups and publications which reached many thousands of ordinary East Germans by the mid-to-late 1980s. In so doing, this motley group of queer actors—whom historians have wrongly categorized as being either wholly thwarted by the state or as anti-statists—publicly expanded the boundaries of socialist citizenship to include those whose life trajectories did not lead down the path of heterosexual reproductive futurity. This study, thus, foregrounds the emotional experience of the post-World War II welfare state and contends that, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, albeit in different ways, public discussions about sexuality formed a crucial arena of civic belonging in which actors chronicled the “free unfolding of their personalities.” In the fall of 1989, as hundreds of thousands of East Germans took to the streets to proclaim that socialism no longer belonged to them—that it was no longer their emotional property—other thousands of queer East Germans had just begun to feel ‘at home’ and orientated in the GDR, as if they finally belonged there. In this dissertation, I am centrally concerned with tracking the ways in which modern states—of which East Germany was one—undertook social engineering programs in an attempt to ‘make citizens straight’ whilst simultaneously deploying homophobia as a political tool to mark insiders and outsiders in postwar communities of national belonging. I also narrate the stories of gay and lesbian East Germans who resisted the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED’s) attempts to marshal all popular sexual impulses through the “single groove of heterosexuality.” We know a great deal about how the heterosexual masses lived, loved, and rebelled on both sides of the Iron Curtain after 1945. However, we still know far too little about the lives of those who lived outside the bounds of heterosexuality and to whom the postwar welfare state denied a sense of emotional belonging, particularly in the GDR. My goal in writing a history of gay rights activism in the GDR is not simply “to add previously silenced voices to the general chorus” of East German history. Rather, I destabilize seemingly natural, ‘set-in-stone’ histories from the vantage point of the queer margins in order to rethink what it meant to be both an East German and a “sexual citizen” in the GDR—an actor who claimed that sexual self-determination was a central aspect of the social contract which linked state and society. This project sits within a burgeoning camp of scholarship that takes seriously that there was such a thing as a “mainstream culture” in the GDR that was shaped by citizens—including gay men and lesbians—across cross-cutting levels of society in complex and often contradictory ways. Therefore, this dissertation allows us to see the West as a place where gay liberation was possible during the 1970s and 1980s, but not the only place. It is time to move beyond asking the now trite question of ‘which postwar Germany had the more liberal sexual culture?’ to posing the more pressing question of ‘why is it that the modern state is so homophobic?’
Issue Date:2019-04-17
Rights Information:Copyright 2019 Scott Harrison
Date Available in IDEALS:2019-08-23
Date Deposited:2019-05

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