Although Germany now has a lesbian-only cemetery, the country was not always so progressive. During Hitler’s reign, Nazis rounded up LGBT people. Queer women went into hiding, lost their families and were forced to flee the country.
But what happened right before that?
The new book Queer Identities pulls back the curtain on pre-Hitler Germany. The Berlin of the early 1900s had more in common with NYC’s very gay West Village than it did with anywhere else in Germany. It was so gay that tourists called it both Sodom and Gomorrah.
One writer in 1928 said about Berlin’s finger-licking lesbian scene,
Here each one can find their own happiness, for they make a point of satisfying every taste.”
By the mid-1920s, Berlin had over fifty lesbian bars. That’s more than there are in NYC right now (and soon that will be more than there are in the entire U.S.).
While some bars were refined, many were far from tame. Many times, female performers got so scandalous and bawdy that they were arrested.
Male gay bars were often segregated based on class, ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars where patrons paid 10 pennies for a cheap beer (the equivalent of about $1.30 today), to swanky affairs where the cheapest drinks started at 1 reichsmark (about $13).
In lesbian bars, this wasn’t so. People of every classes mingled, from artists to sex workers to professional women to working-class women. This was unprecedented at the time.
When women weren’t making love behind curtains at lesbian bars (which was an actual thing), they were attending grand gay and lesbian balls. From October to Easter, clubs all over Berlin hosted magnificent balls several times a week. On any given night, you could attend several. Drag was common, and guests dressed up as “monks, sailors, clowns, Boers, Japanese geishas, bakers and farmhands.”
Queer history has often been unkind, as Nazi-era Germany proved a few short years later. But through it all, lesbian and bisexual women have somehow found ways to prosper and continue being themselves. They were heroes, and the best way to honor the ones who came before us is to continue to be our amazing, creative, queer selves.
Pick up Queer Identities here.