Professor Robert Beachy Presents on “Gay Berlin” at WFU
Former history professor, Robert Beachy, and writer of the book “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity” presented on the history of sexual identity in Germany at Wake Forest University on Tuesday, Sept. 27.
The presentation was entitled, “Gay Berlin and its Contemporary Aftermath.” For the presentation, Wake Forest law professor Shannon Gilreath and author of “The End of Straight Supremacy: Realizing Gay Liberation” discussed queer German history with Beachy.
Over the hour of discussion, Beachy and Gilreath conversed about the history of sexology and ideology. They chatted about gay historical figures like Magnus Hirschfeld, who was known as the ‘Einstein of Sex.’
Hirschfeld lived as a German Jew during the Nazi genocide and was an advocate for sexual minorities. In German’s history, there was a fascination with queer identity that caused a great deal of study and questions. The presentation brought a lot of questions as to what was in the past and what is in the present day.
“There is an extent to which we are still asking some of the same questions aren’t we?” said Gilreath. “In terms of what’s the cause of it, the search and explanation of why we are who we are.
“I think in some senses Hirschfeld was also looking for that cause in terms of an apology for it: Don’t punish them if they really can’t control it. Maybe we have evolved or maybe we haven’t changed very much in terms of the questions we are asking about sexuality.”
“That’s possible. You’re absolutely right that was a very much defensive posture, and necessarily so in the 1900s. I think its clear conditions are very different now. I think all of these questions have evolved as well, although you’re right. I agree with you that there is still a kind of obsession with ideology.”
There was some merriment in the intellectual discussion.
“It’s funny,” Gilreath said. “As I was reading about Hirshfeld in your book, I heard Lady Gaga’s ‘Born that Way’ in my head.”
Another notable historical figure discussed was Ernst Röhm, one of the founding members of the Nazi party who was homosexual.
“Homosexuality and relatively open gay culture was not really a unique target for the Nazis,” said Beachy. “Part of the reason is because the leader of the largest Nazi militia origination, the SA, was a homosexual and this man who was as great an anti-Semite as anyone was actually outted, he was outted in left wing press in 1931.”
Röhm remained in his position until summer of 1934 when he was executed in the Night of the Long Knives.
“He wasn’t actually targeted because of his homosexuality,” said Beachy. “He was taken out to tame the SA, the militia organization…. It was done to win the support of the German military for the most part, and German conservatives. So during this initial period when this SA leader was still on the scene, there is no great Nazi campaign against homosexuals.”
The death of Röhm was the beginning of Nazis targeting homosexuals.
“It’s really only after his assassination that the Nazis then decide that it makes sense. I would argue that it’s very, very instrumental. In some ways the Nazi persecution of homosexuals is very tame. It’s not a central piece of their ideology the same as anti-Semitism.”
Beachy and Gilreath’s presentation ended with a Q&A for the public.
One out of many questions compared how homosexual women were studied by German sexologists in comparison to men.
“Most, like Hirshfeld assimilated female homosexuality with male homosexuality,” said Beachy. “In that way they are very dismissive. In another way, they are attempting to be inclusive I guess. It’s a double edged sword. The Nazis never really in any significant way persecuted lesbians.”
Lesbianism in Germany’s history and WWII is still being studied. Beachy said there is much debate and discussion, but a clarity that there were not women imprisoned or sent to concentration camps for identifying as lesbian.
“Lesbian couples might lose their children, it’s not as though they were well treated or respected,” said Beachy. “But there was never the same targeted persecution. I can also add that there was a lesbian organization in Berlin that survived beyond 1933 and they actually organized and held a ball…I found the file.
“There are reports from secret agents and policewomen who attended these events and would write them up. What they were most concerned about is whether there were Jewish women in attendance and whether there are men who cross dress.”