Twenty years after reunification, there is close cooperation between gay activists in eastern and western Germany. But important differences in gay life still remain.
Gay legal rights vary little from East to West
As Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of reunification, the former East-West divide in the country's gay and lesbian rights movement has all but disappeared.
There is currently close cooperation between gay and lesbian activists in the eastern and western states, according to Eduard Stapel, founder of several gay rights groups in former East Germany. Unlike the United States, where gay rights vary widely from state to state, the legal rights of gays and lesbians are virtually the same in the East and West.
"That's apart from the fact that we've made slightly more progress in eastern Germany, with discrimination bans in the Berlin, Brandenburg and Thuringia state constitutions," Stapel told Deutsche Welle. "But that has little effect on everyday life."
Gays in Berlin enjoy one of the most accepting environments
Social acceptance of homosexuality is also roughly the same in eastern and western states, according to a 2001 study by the opinion research group TNS Emnid. The study found that nearly the same percentage of people in the East as in the West say homosexuality is no longer objectionable. The highest percentage of acceptance was in Berlin, while the lowest was in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Gay life in former East Germany
While there is very little documentation of gay life in former East Germany, a unique exception is the 1989 film "Coming Out." It follows a young teacher in East Berlin struggling to accept his gay identity, and was the first and only gay-themed film produced in East Germany. It also won the second-place Silver Bear prize in the 1990 Berlin Film Festival.
The film's premiere was coincidentally held on November 9, 1989, the same night East German authorities opened the border to the West and people from across Germany began to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Matthias Freihof, who played the protagonist Phillip, said when he was first offered the leading role in the film, he knew it would be a major boost to his career. The director, Heiner Carow, was one of the most well-known and respected directors in all of East Germany. What Freihof did not anticipate was the long-lasting effect "Coming Out" would have on gay cinema.
"Coming Out" won the Silver Bear award at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival
"I'm on the way to different festivals almost every year," he told Deutsche Welle. "This is very astonishing for me, that this film still has the power to entertain people, to pull them into the story."
"Coming Out" was made at a time of huge political upheaval in all of eastern Europe, just as the East German gay and lesbian community was becoming more visible. The first gay-themed theater production, a growing number of books and resources on homosexuality all marked the beginnings of an organized gay rights movement.
"There was a kind of liberation coming up in the early 80s, so the step to do a film about this subject was clear," Freihof said. "But the officials didn't like the idea, of course, because they knew about the subject, but they didn't want to make a big thing out of it."
Reunification depoliticizes the East
Stapel founded many East German gay organizations
Under a repressive government, political activism actually flourished in East Germany, Stapel said. Gays rights activists, alongside feminists, human rights activists and environmentalists, formed a strong and unified civil rights movement that opposed the East German authoritarian state.
Political activism there filled the void left by the absence of a real social scene, like bars, restaurants and movie theaters, Stapel said. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of capitalism in East Germany, the gay community became less political and less organized.
"People in Communist East Germany would go wherever things were happening, and that was the case with political groups," Stapel said. "But when all of a sudden there is a social scene, then there's no more reason to go to political groups."
Film shows far-right extremism
An important exception to the depoliticization in eastern Germany is the rise of right-wing extremism. Neo-Nazi groups have grown in the East since reunification, which Freihof said was easily foreseen.
Neo-Nazism has been a growing problem in the East
"Our film was the first film that showed the neo-Nazis in East Berlin, because that was something nobody was talking about from official side," he said. "So after the wall came down, this problem became bigger and bigger, and for us it was not surprising."
In one scene of "Coming Out," Freihof's character Phillip witnesses a group of neo-Nazis attacking a young man they believe is gay in a subway station. Such attacks were not uncommon, Freihof said, as far-right groups became more active and increasingly targeted the gay community.
"It happened sometimes that neo-Nazi groups went to gay places to fight with the people," Freihof said.
But the rise of right-wing extremism in the East since reunification and its influence on violence against gays should not be overstated, according to Stapel. One of the more pressing concerns there is discrimination in the workplace.
"Many people in the East are much more afraid now than during Communism of losing their jobs because of their sexuality," he said. "I don't think that's likely, but people are afraid."
Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar