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New book looks at German LGBT life during 1880-1945
by Charlsie Dewey
2016-08-09

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Clayton J. Whisnant's newest book, Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880-1945, is an examination of LGBT life during a time of great scientific discovery as well as changing social and political climates.

According to the book, it explores "the emergence of various queer identities," specifically what it meant to be LGBT in Germany from 1880 to 1945, and the "political strategies pursued by early gay and lesbian activists," drawing on emerging research related to the era.

It also looks at how scientific discovery in the area of sexuality impacted tolerance—or, sometimes, intolerance—in the scientific and medical community as well as society at large during the time period.

Spanning the period between the formation of the homosexual movement and the defeat of the Nazi state the book also addresses the question of how scientific studies of homosexuality may have "opened the door to Nazi persecution" of the LGBT community and particularly gay men.

The book is a follow up to Whisnant's first book, Male Homosexuality in West Germany, 1945-1969: Between Persecution and Freedom, which is based on his dissertation.

Whisnant—a professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina—told Windy City Times he wrote the follow-up at the request of his publisher.

"A lot of new work on the 1920s and 1930s is coming out now, but mostly for a scholarly audience," Whisnant said.

He said he wanted to write a book that was more accessible to a general audience, and specifically in a way that his students would find engaging.

To accomplish that, Whisnant said the book focuses on "human stories" and some of the "more fun stories," of the time period, while also balancing emerging scholarly research.

"I tried to begin each chapter with an individual who I thought exemplified something I was going to be covering in the chapter," he said.

Whisnant said he thinks readers will be particularly interested in how queer identities emerged during the turn of the century. "The notion of identities is something researchers have been very interested in," he said.

He added there was a perception that only a couple of identities existed; however, in reality, there were several types of identities that have emerged.

"There are a lot of identities out there," he said. "Identities are flexible and are influenced by a lot of different things. So that became a major theme. I wanted to show the many identities that existed in the subculture, and it worked well with picking people to focus on."

Whisnant said the book also tackles the sometimes-romanticized vision of Germany during the early part of the 20th century as a haven for queer people.

"This idea of Germany in the '20s and '30s being a golden age," he said. "I don't want to dispel that, but it was not the rosy scene we tend to remember."

Whisnant points to the many LGBT-focused publications that were started in Germany's largest cities as an example, saying while there were a plethora of them they often didn't last long, due to censorship laws that were passed with the specific goal of shuttering them.

There were also nearly 150 gay and lesbian establishments operating by the mid-1920s in Germany, which would seemingly indicating a positive climate for queer people, but in reality doesn't tell the whole story.

Whisnant said police harassment of the patrons of these establishments was a regular occurrence during that time period as well.

Whisnant said there are parallels that can be drawn between the past and present day as well that he thinks readers will be interested in.

"It's a story of a lot of brave people working hard for this movement, but it took a lot of fortitude and gumption to stick with it," he said. "Maybe it gives a slightly different picture of the past, but it shows us there is a lot of work to be done, there will be setbacks, intolerance, but to stick with it and believe things will get better.

"On a different level, it provides a history of organizing that could be interesting for someone doing that work, to see how it began and to reflect on our own organizational work."

Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880-1945 is published courtesy of Harrington Park Press and distributed by Columbia University Press.


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