Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1997

Antony Grey reports on Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Years of Gay Liberation – the biggest gay exhibition ever – which takes its title from Christopher Isherwood’s book.

All Our Yesterdays

by Antony Grey

Even our out-gay Culture Minister, Chris Smith, would blench, I think, at commanding Camelot to splash out with three-quarters of a million quid on a three-month exhibition of international gay history and culture at the National Gallery. Yet that is what Berlin’s city lottery has done to fund Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Years of Gay Liberation, staged from May until August at the city’s prestigious Academy of Arts.

The ill health of Gay Times’ Consultant Editor Peter Burton (I wish him well) was my good fortune, as I was asked to take his place as the speaker on British Gay Rights at one of the evening lectures. So I had the triple pleasure of seeing Berlin (which had not previously been on my likely itinerary), meeting some very interesting and friendly people, and seeing this absolutely stunning exhibition.

“What hundred years of gay rights?” I wondered, with typically English insularity. “Surely it didn’t really get going anywhere until after Hitler’s war.” Not a bit of it. This is the centenary year of the foundation by Berlin sexologist Dr Magnus Hirschfeld and two or three friends of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (WhK), set up to campaign for the repeal of Article 175 of the German penal code, which outlawed homosexual activities. The committee set about doing so by energetically enlisting the support of medical and legal scientific opinion, and of politicians (mostly Social-Democrat), and persistently lobbied the Reichstag. Hirschfeld himself kept going for 35 years, almost succeeding in his aim more than once – especially under the 1920s Weimar Republic, which also officially sponsored his Institute for Sexual Science (frequented by Christopher Isherwood in the early 1930s, and brutally destroyed by the Nazis in 1934).

The exhibition, then, is a celebration of Hirschfeld’s life and work, but it is much more than that. Here, in room after room of beautifully arranged exhibits which would take several hours to inspect thoroughly are the artefacts of gay history worldwide. From the mid-nineteenth century until the inter-war period these are mainly concerned with central Europe, with incidental references to notable British events such as the Oscar Wilde trials. Then, in the later 1920s and ’30s came the first attempts to internationalise the gay rights movement, notably through the largely forgotten Swiss movement “The Circle” – an endeavour continued mainly in the Netherlands after Hitler’s war. There are horrific mementos of Nazi persecution, and graphic accounts of the hunted, underground life led by German and other European gays during Hitler’s regime.

In the 1950s and ’60s the spotlight swings across the Atlantic to the early days of the Gay Rights movement in the USA. England at the time of the Wolfenden Report and the 1960s campaign for law reform is represented, but only briefly: my one criticism of the exhibition’s otherwise superbly comprehensive worldwide sweep – it took two years to mount, and it will be another year before all the exhibits are returned to their owners – is that Britain features merely as an offshore island. This, I was assured, is not because there were insufficient British exhibits on offer, but there was simply not enough space to mount them all. A pity.

The post-second-war period, with which I am personally more familiar, is well covered. Much of the emphasis is naturally upon the German experience, both before and after the Berlin Wall fell. I learned a great deal about this, both from the exhibition and from talking to its organisers and others whom I met there. While liberal tolerance is now the “politically correct” stance – hence the official support for the exhibition – homophobia is by no means dead. There is still much for us all to do in getting rid of that hydra-headed monster. (Keith Haring’s lighthearted 1984 cartoon, one of the motifs of the exhibition publicity, was deemed unsuitable as a poster by the Berlin city railways.)

Even though some churches and religious people are comparatively civilised towards gay people nowadays, there is no getting away from the fact that the origins of both anti-Semitic and anti-Gay persecution are rooted in medieval Christian attitudes. As I have pointed out in an article for New Humanist, what gays and Humanists have in common from a Christian standpoint is heresy. Even though we can look forward to the 21st century hoping that our visible numbers and our social acceptance will grow, we shall always be comparative outsiders. But who’d want to be a pillar of convention?

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Created : Sunday, 1998-05-10 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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