Berlin LGBT Exhibition Explores Same-sex Relationships And Non-Conformist Gender Identities


The Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum is presenting a new LGBT exhibition “Homosexuality_ies” from 26 June to 1 December 2015, jointly funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Cultural Foundation of the German Laender. Covering a total area of 1600 square meters, “Homosexuality_ies” documents 150 years of the history, politics and culture of homosexual women and men in Germany. The exhibition shows how same-sex sexuality and non-conformist gender identities have been criminalised through legislation, pathologized in medicine and excluded from society. 

It traces the legislative development of Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which made “homosexual acts” punishable by law. Paragraph 175 took effect in 1872, underwent massive harshening in the Nazi era and was retained thereafter, being definitively voided in 1994. In addition to social repression, the exhibition also addresses the liberation movements of gay men and lesbian women, movements which took on a new dynamic after the legal liberalization in the 1960s and transformed society‘s understanding of sex and gender identity.

Works by international artists such as Monica Bonvicini, Louise Bourgeois, Heather Cassils, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Nicole Eisenman, Lotte Laserstein, Lee Lozano, Jeanne Mammen, Zanele Muholi, Henrik Olesen and Andy Warhol comment on the exhibition‘s themes in a variety of ways. The section of the exhibition on view at the Deutsches Historisches Museum focuses on historical developments in the fields of society, politics, art, law and science since the “discovery” of homosexuality in the mid-19th century. The section of the exhibition on view at the Schwules Museum* consists of contemporary artworks and addresses the present and future of gender codes and sexualities.

Until now, the history and culture of homosexual people have been conferred to the shadows of public memory. “Homosexuality_ies” presents an impressive spectrum of materials, formats and media that offer a broad public a multi-faceted insights into its subject matter. The exhibition acknowledges the cultural-historical achievement of homosexual emancipation, which has transformed society’s understanding of gender identity, sharpened awareness for the limitations of traditional gender codes and demanded recognition for the diversity of alternative models of living. 

The show traces the history of homosexuality_ies in ten chapters, concluding with the present. It exposes how same-sex sexuality and non-conformist gender identities have been criminalized through legislation, pathologized in medicine and excluded from society. Exhibits include a copy of the first secular criminal provisions effective for the entire German territory, the “Constitutio Criminalis Carolina” from the mid-16th century, a document which punishes sexual acts “against nature” between women and men alike with “death by fire”. Prominent individuals like Oscar Wilde, Philipp Graf zu Eulenburg and Alan Turing serve as cases in point that describe the persecution of homosexuals by society church and state. Legislative developments with respect to the infamous Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which made “homosexual acts” punishable by law from 1872 to 1994, and the subsequent gradual progress towards equal rights are visualized for visitors. Paragraph 175 initially took effect in Imperial Germany, underwent massive harshening in the Nazi era and was definitively voided after reunification, in 1994. 

Additionally, a handwritten letter by the author Karl Maria Kertbeny from 1868 will be on view. In that letter, the terms homosexual and heterosexual were used for the first time. Since science began concerning itself with sexuality, homosexuality marked a divergence from the “normal”. In light of that, the exhibition illustrates efforts to diagnose and “cure” sexual and gender “deviations” in medicine and psychology. As a counterpoint, the show also presents the models researchers like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld and Judith Butler developed in attempts to establish understanding for sexual and gender diversity. 

A core section of the exhibition containing a vast wealth of materials focuses on the lesbian, gay and transgender liberation movements, particularly after the legal liberalization that began in the 1960s. Exhibits include flyers, press materials, posters, photographs, videos and objects – such as a preserved original educational brochure from 1901 by the very first homosexual civil rights association, the “Scientific-Humanitarian Committee”. The script from “Coming Out” (1989), the first and last official film on homosexuality in East Germany, and footage of the “Muff Mobile” at Christopher Street Day 1998 in Berlin are also on display. 

“Homosexuality_ies” undercuts the usual perception that equates homosexuals with gay men. It puts much more emphasis on the vital roles played by lesbian activists and other gender identities. “While the public discussion is more or less directed at male and female homosexuality, the world many people live in is much more complex than that: The internationally used abbreviation LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer) stands for a diversity of ways of living and breaks with a gender code founded on the categories man and woman,” says Dr. Birgit Bosold, project director for the exhibition and member of the board at the Schwules Museum. 

In closing, “Homosexuality_ies” picks up threads of contemporary debate and raises questions as to the future of gender codes and sexualities. It shows how new coalitions of trans, inter and queer-feminist protagonists are propelling the recognition of sexual and gender diversity in society right now. Aside from historical developments, the exhibition displays a wide range of subjective experiences: One chapter is dedicated to very personal “Coming Out” stories. 

Another highlights the cross-over from the personal to the political, where codes in clothes, style and manner are exhibited, which transformed over time from signs used to identify oneself to like-minded fellows into offensive tactical manifestations in public. 

The section of the exhibition on view at the Schwules Museum addresses the current situation and the future of diverse gender identities. A selection of works by contemporary international artists comment on the relationships between sexuality, gender, body, between the conventions of society and transgressions of those conventions. Works are by artists such as Monica Bonvicini, Mary Coble, Elmgreen & Dragset, Goodyn Green, Katarzyna Kozyra, Henrik Olesen, Julian Rosenfeldt, Sturtevant, Sam Taylor-Johnson and Andy Warhol. Additionally, the interview project “What’s Next?” presents activists from the queer scene speaking on topics including political commitment, solidarity and conflicts, work and life beyond the heterosexual norm. 

The majority of the exhibits originate from private movement archives that were founded at the initiative of activists, such as the lesbian archive Spinnboden, the feminist archives FFBIZ and Grauzone and the Archive at the Schwules Museum. 

In that respect, this show funded substantially by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes and the Kulturstiftung der Länder raises a fundamental question regarding how the topic of “Homosexuality_ies” can be represented and presented properly in museums and archives. 


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