Germany's Weimar Republic brought new gender and sexual freedoms, and stories from the era still have relevance today.
People often want to draw lessons from the collapse of Germany’s first democracy. The short-lived but widely celebrated Weimar Republic lasted from the fall of the monarchy and revolution of 1918-19 to the seizure of power by Hitler’s National Socialists in 1933.
As journalists and commentators try to make sense of the rise of right-wing populism and polarisation of debates in our present, we frequently hear attempts to link these trends back to Weimar.
The Weimar Republic was a remarkable period. Its blossoming democratic spirit ushered in voting rights for all adults, regardless of gender, the eight-hour-day, and exciting innovations in technology and media.
It also brought new gender and sexual freedoms, still celebrated today in TV series like Babylon Berlin or Transparent, which look nostalgically to Weimar as a haven for gender-crossing identifications and queer nightlife.
What can we learn from looking back across this century of incredible shifts in sex-gender politics, encompassing debates about same-sex marriage, trans bathroom rights and Gender Recognition Acts, queer refugees, the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 and the birth of the Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978?
Weimar is often viewed only through a backward-looking lens, seen as inextricably and inevitably tied up with the subsequent horrors of the Nazi years.
We must be careful in seeking such comparisons, and have a responsibility to view this past in its own right. But doing so can reveal strong and sometimes surprising connections with today’s queer and trans politics.
Let’s take, for example, the story of Gerd Katter, born in Berlin in 1910. At the tender age of 18, Katter boldly approached the Berlin police president for official permission to regularly go out in public in men’s clothing, having been assigned female at birth by the relevant medical authorities.
He sought an ID document that would align with his gender identity and protect him from arrest, known as a “transvestite certificate” or Transvestitenschein.
The term “transvestite” was only as old as Katter himself. It had been coined by the famous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1919 founded the Berlin Institute for Sexual Science. Some were critical of the way Hirschfeld’s term drew attention to clothes (deriving from the Latin vestis), but by the mid-1920s it was starting to mean much the same things that “trans” or “transgender” do today.
Hirschfeld, a well-known public advocate for gay and trans rights, led petitions to the Reichstag to repeal Germany’s harsh laws criminalising male homosexuality. This made him something of a celebrity in the queer scene, but also a target for right-wing extremists, who in late 1920 bashed and left him for dead on the streets of Munich.
He also faced other forms of violence: he was regularly caricatured in early Nazi magazines such as Der Stürmer, in the most revoltingly anti-Semitic terms, as a lecherous Jewish doctor threatening Germany’s youth.
Gerd Katter, too, put his body on the line. He first visited Hirschfeld’s Institute aged 16, asking to have his breasts removed, but was refused on the basis of his age. A few days later, Katter returned in need of urgent medical attention, having attempted the procedure at home with a razor.
“These stories are desperately needed in an era of trans exclusionary radical feminism and Trumpian curtailments of trans rights.”
We can see here poignant links to both the struggles and bravery of transpeople in the decades since, who continue to face disproportionate threats of violence, have too often not been properly heard by medical and psychiatric gatekeepers of hormonal and surgical treatments, or have been forced to go to extraordinary lengths and expense to circumvent legal barriers to life-saving procedures.
Katter was, relatively speaking, lucky. The institute doctors performed a full mastectomy, he was issued with a Transvestitenschein, and was able to continue forging a life as a carpenter in 1920s Berlin.
Another notable figure shedding light on this era’s queer history is Lotte Hahm, who sometimes went by Lothar. Hahm ran one of Germany’s first major lesbian social organisations, the Ladies Club Violetta, as well as one of the first dedicated organisations for transvestites. They embodied a decidedly gender-ambiguous identity, and we can’t be sure what pronouns they preferred.
We do know that Hahm regularly appeared in the new LGBTQ magazines of Weimar-era Berlin – magazines with titles like The Third Sex or Girlfriend – sharply decked out in a suit, tie, and slicked-back hair, protesting loudly and persistently against media censorship and social discrimination.
Hahm actively celebrated queer and trans life by hosting dances, lecture evenings, costume balls, and steamboat rides, always including transpeople and events in the new queer clubs of the metropolis.
The Weimar queer ball scene also promoted a specifically queer and trans aesthetic, with prizes for the “most beautiful female and male transvestites – awards that foreshadow the vogueing, drag queen and house ball scenes of 1980s and 1990s NYC, featured in the recent Netflix series Pose, and which help to provide a longer history to the recent rise in trans media visibility around figures such as Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox, or Cate McGregor.
Remembering Weimar through the lens of sexual politics reminds us of the violence and life-and-death stakes that, both then and now, are too often linked to living one’s gender and sexuality outside the mainstream. But it can also give us strength, as we remember the bravery of trans pioneers like Katter, or the inclusive alliances forged by people like Hahm.
These stories are desperately needed in an era of trans exclusionary radical feminism and Trumpian curtailments of trans rights. They can serve as a resource for imagining different forms of queer and trans solidarity in the present, even as we celebrate the richness and nuance of the gender crossings and activism this historical moment inspired.
Top image: The Eldorado gay night club in Berlin, 1932. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0121-500 (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
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