This week, EUI historian Professor Benno Gammerl together with Andrea Rottmann and Martin Lücke from the Free University Berlin and 20 collaborators from Europe and North America launched the online presentation of their new research network on Queer Histories in German-speaking Europe. The project has received three years of funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG).
What does this research aim to contribute? It may surprise some, Gammerl notes, but an overview on queer contemporary history does not yet exist. The project will provide one, in an accessible format that researchers, students, teachers and activists can work with. Beyond this is the need to diversify history in general and contemporary history in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in particular. “More and various voices should join the choir that hums the melodies which make up our cultural memories.”
Three guiding concepts / From liberalisation to normalisation
The project looks at spaces, identities and strategies. According to Gammerl, it relies on three concepts: liberalisation, emancipation and normalisation. The increasing freedoms individuals have enjoyed since the 1960s is the essence of liberalisation. Yet the experiences of LGBT people during this period include numerous setbacks and contradictions. Network member Craig Griffiths has pinpointed the ambivalences of gay liberation – how brazen and how restrained people were, at the same time. With reference to the second concept, we look at other groups who have supposedly been on the road to emancipation: women, people of colour, disabled and economically disenfranchised folks. ‘Intersectionality’ is the keyword here. For example, network member Christopher Ewing is looking at the intersection between race and sexual orientation. It is vital to consider these multiple struggles when writing a richer and a better history of contemporary Europe.
The project’s exploration of normalisation is from a slightly different angle than liberalisation or emancipation. “The new normality, where homo- and heterosexual lifestyles are equally acceptable, also comes with a new sense of competitiveness. Is our lesbian marriage going to be happier and more stable than our neighbours’ heterosexual partnership? When my gay non-monogamous life does not grow up to the expectations nurtured by cruise ship ads or online porn, what gym or which therapy should I sign up to so I can optimise my own performance?” It is crucial to address new challenges within the dynamics of normalisation.
The research will draw on a variety of sources, from text and photographs, to material objects (for example, condoms and sex toys), to interviews. Many team members work with oral history interviews, which, Gammerl notes, are especially rewarding and productive. “The relationship between the historian and her sources changes once those sources can talk back.” This method also gives responsibility to researchers for how they deal with the persons whose stories they analyse – something absolutely crucial, not just for queer historians.
The local and the global
When asked about the scope of the research – German-speaking European countries in the period from 1945 to the early 2000s – Gammerl explains that queer history is often told along a timeline defined by what happened in the US. This model simply does not fit all other countries; it is important to make the variety of trajectories known to a broader public. “I am convinced that Stonewall was not the only place and that 1969 was not the only year when same-sex desiring and gender non-conforming people resisted the violence and oppression they faced and began to forge a space for themselves.” What is more, “if our project can facilitate further endeavours that present the queer histories of countries like Russia, Turkey, Egypt or South Africa in a comprehensive and more visible format, that would of course be absolutely fabulous!”
It is notable that within the project’s geographical scope there was and is a wide variety of experiences. “Most research is done on West Germany, while other places hardly receive the attention they deserve.” Austria, for example, is special as it was one of the few countries in the world where female homosexuality was criminalised. And one of the most influential and longest-running homosexual magazines of all time, Der Kreis, was published in Switzerland. In terms of prosecution, same-sex intercourse was decriminalised in Switzerland in 1942, while West Germany stuck to the Nazi version of paragraph 175 until 1969. In the GDR, the criminal law on homosexuality was much more lenient and in 1988 they ended discrimination between homo- and heterosexuals in terms of the criminal code. Certainly, the common language meant that there was a lot of mutual observation going on in these countries. “This combination of differences and entanglements it what makes it so intriguing to trace the queer history of German-speaking Europe.”
Tracing processes of change
Asked whether the network has a normative agenda, given its deep exploration of phenomena such as emancipation from discrimination and social marginalisation, Gammerl counters that the aim was “to identify historically specific conditions that generate particular problems.” We use terms like discrimination or injustice, which all carry some normative baggage, to evaluate these problems against a historical record of oppression and a utopian notion of justice and inclusive diversity. And simultaneously the project can identify individuals and groups who work towards either preventing or enabling change. Thereby they may fail or succeed (according to their own criteria) and they may engender unintended results. “As historians we trace these processes with an open-minded attentiveness. If it wasn’t presumptuous, I would say that our project is utopian and meticulously empirical at the same time.”
Professor Benno Gammerl holds the Chair in the History of Gender and Sexuality, in the Department of History at the EUI. Before joining the EUI in 2021, he helped establish the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London. Explore his recent book, anders fühlen. Project co-coordinators are Andrea Rottmann and Martin Lücke (both Free University Berlin).