Journal of the History of Sexuality

Book review: Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, by Clayton J. Whisnant

Whisnant’s Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History 1880–1945 presents a strong, timely survey of the birth of LGBTIQ politics in that country, covering more than six decades, from the founding in the 1890s of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first dedicated homosexual rights organization, through the fin-de-siècle scandals in the kaiser’s inner circle, the growth of urban gay “scenes” in the Weimar Republic, and a brief history of Nazi persecution. This wide-ranging examination of individual actors, media representations, medical discourses, and political reforms is well suited to a more general readership and readily accessible to undergraduates; clear summaries and short profiles of individual activists and intellectuals introduce each chapter, and key questions are expressed in point form. For historians, it offers a highly current navigational tool across English- and German- language scholarship and primary sources on gay and lesbian history. Of particular note is the level of attention Whisnant pays to the work of “a relatively small cadre of devoted historians” that emerged from the 1970s West German gay rights movement (6)—scholars whose pioneering and at times severely underfunded research has frequently not been given its due, particularly in English-language scholarship. Whisnant also does much to flesh out the gaps in existing “big picture” studies, from James Steakley’s The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany to Beachy’s Gay Berlin, charting the changing historiographical landscape on topics such as Hirschfeld and the Weimar queer publishing landscape. He pays careful attention to lesser-known figures such as feminist sexologist Johanna Elberskirchen and conservative masculinists Gustav Jäger and John Henry Mackay, whose efforts to contest stereo- types of effeminacy were, he argues, ironically “emboldened” by the ef- forts of left-wing scholars of sexual intermediacy such as Hirschfeld (34). Queer Identities is also attentive to the role of smaller cities as spaces of LGBTIQ existence and, like Marhoefer’s book, pays much more than lip service to the history of female homosexuality. Furthermore, Whisnant’s survey perspective, which he complements with concise new readings of selected primary sources such as Klaus Mann’s Pious Dance, is valuable for its identification of ongoing areas of scholarly neglect, such as the rise in homosexual convictions in the mid-1920s, which, as Edward Ross Dickinson has observed, runs counter to the progressive reputation of the Weimar Republic (105).

In addition to the works cited above, Whisnant discusses German-language research on female homosexuality by scholars including Hanna Hacker, Adele Meyer, Kirsten Plötz, Heike Schader, and Claudia Schoppmann; on male homosexuality by Manfred Baumgardt, Jens Dobler, Ralf Dose, Günter Grau, Manfred Herzer, Rainer Hoffschildt, Joachim Hohmann, Jörg Hutter, Burkhard Jellonek, Rüdiger Lautmann, Stefan Micheler, Florian Mildenberger, Joachim Müller, Suzanne zur Nieden, Andreas Pretzel, Christian Schulz, Volkmar Sigusch, Frank Sparing, Andreas Sternweiler, and Hans-Georg Stümke; several coauthored histories of queer experience in Cologne, Hamburg, and Munich; and influential scholarly exhibition catalogs such as Michael Bollé, ed., Eldorado: Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin, 1850–1950:Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur (Berlin: Frölich and Kaufmann, 1984); and Schwules Museum, ed., Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung (Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 1997). Tobin, too, acknowledges an explicit debt to German “activist scholars” (Peripheral Desires, xvii–xviii).

Like the books outlined above, Whisnant’s tale of origins seeks to draw out the relevance of German “firsts” for a post-Stonewall era: “The first ho- mosexual activists were German; the first writer to coin the term homosexual was a German-speaking Hungarian . . . , [t]he first periodicals addressed to gay men, lesbians, and transgender people were all German. A German scientist [Hirschfeld] coined the term transvestism, paving the way for the distinction that we make between homosexual and transgender. . . . The first sex reassignment operation was done by a German doctor in 1920” (4). Yet while this list of “firsts” suggests a concerted focus on trans, as well as lesbian and gay, history, this topic remains rather on the margins of Whisnant’s account of “queer” identities. Thus the doctor who performed the aforementioned sex reassignment operation remains unnamed, and famous cases such as that of Lili Elbe, in the recent film The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper, 2015), go unmentioned, as does existing scholarship on German trans history by Rainer Herrn, Sabine Meyer, and others. On intersex history, too, Whisnant’s survey is much less thorough than on homosexuality, although this topic receives some attention in a discussion of Hirschfeld’s theory of “sexual intermediaries” (27–30).

Unlike Leck’s study, though, Queer Identities is not a traditional work of recovering gay pasts or “ancestral genealogy,” to use Laura Doan’s phrase. It is clearly informed by queer theoretical debates and carefully engages with the problems of writing LGBTIQ histories and imposing presentist identifications onto past subjects. Queer frameworks also infuse the book’s thematic structure, despite a roughly chronological ordering of chapters, allowing connections to be drawn between seemingly disparate political and scientific currents. Chapter 2 is exemplary here, with Whisnant deploying Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s account of an early twentieth-century dynamics of “homosexual panic” to frame a wide-reaching analysis of the changing shape of heterosexual and same-sex relationships; the political implications of prominent homosexual scandals in the business community and kaiser’s court; and their role as a catalyst for new alliances between feminists, sexologists, left- and right-wing gay activists, psychoanalysts, and youth organizations.

Reviewed by Katie Sutton