By Hannah McCann
There seems to be an incorrect assumption within the LGBTQ+ community that before the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969, queer individuals lived in secrecy. However, we only have to turn to the vibrant night-life of 1920’s Berlin and the pioneering work of the Institute of Sex Research to uncover a thriving gay scene and powerful political activism that challenged the rampant homophobia of the era. There was hope for a better life despite the hardships.
The fight for homosexual rights in Germany during the Weimar Republic was unprecedented at the time. In 1919, the Institute of Sex Research was founded by Magnus Hirschfield. It offered counselling and sex education to the people of Berlin, with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ individuals. Since 1897, Hirschfield had campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights. He was the leader of the first gay rights organisation in history – the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. His Institute of Sex Research took this campaigning further. A large research library of 20,000 books was established to promote LGBTQ+ understanding and tolerance, as well as containing Feminist literature. The Institute carried out the first sex reassignment surgeries. Transgender members of staff worked alongside their transgender clients. They also offered contraception and helped poorer visitors for free.
This liberal outlook was met with harsh opposition, but Berlin’s nightlife shows how the LGBTQ+ community was growing outside of the scientific and political realm. One key establishment of the time was The Eldorado. It was viewed as the ‘Meeting Place for the International World’ and the owner, Ludwig Konjetschni, marketed his club towards the LGBTQ+ community. The Eldorado became a safe haven for queer people and the club experienced great success, especially amongst transgender individuals. Regulars to the club would have witnessed performances by many famous faces, including the bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich starred in the 1930 American film ‘Morocco’ which features a famous scene of Dietrich, dressed as a man, kissing another woman. Yet, this film was not actively pro-gay. The first film to ever hold that title goes to ‘Different from the Others’ – made in 1919 in Germany. It includes explicitly pro-gay lines such as:
“Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite. This orientation can be found in all levels of society, and among respected people. Those that say otherwise come only from ignorance and bigotry.”Different from the Others
To say that this film was ground-breaking is an understatement. The sympathetic representation of LGBTQ+ people on screen had never occurred before in the history of cinema. Despite being banned from public view a year after its release (due to censorship laws and opposition from right-wing groups), the Institute of Sex Research continued to screen the film for its clients as they could play the film for ‘educational’ purposes. Hirschfield was also involved in the film, playing the role of the sexologist.
Another example of revolutionary LGBTQ+ film again comes from Germany. ‘Girls in Uniform’ (1931) was one of the first films to have a sympathetic view of lesbian relationships and also had an all-female cast. It was very successful across Europe and even had a limited release in the United States after Eleanor Roosevelt praised the picture.
Therefore, whilst we may view Stonewall as a turning point in LGBTQ+ history, we cannot overlook the achievements and the many firsts that were carried out in Weimar Germany. Although the Nazis tried to eradicate this progress by destroying the Institute of Sex Research, by turning the Eldorado into a SA headquarters and – most horrifically – by systematically killing around 15,000 LGBTQ+ people, it is our duty as historians to re-discover the trailblazing achievements of Weimar Germany. From the first LGBTQ+ rights group to the first pro-gay film, the events in Germany can stand alongside Stonewall as revolutionary moments in time.