Book Review - Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity

Book Review - Gay Berlin: Birthplace Of A Modern Identity

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Men Who Loved Men in Berlin
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In 21st-century America, everyone knows what “coming out” means. Unless you run with debutantes or frequent cotillions, the phrase signifies the disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity. But that now-ubiquitous meaning was foreign to the vernacular of 19th-century Eastern Europe.

Historian Robert Beachy’s
Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity opens on a Lutheran lawyer’s defining moment of disclosure. One day in August 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs celebrated his 42nd birthday. The next morning, he revealed his homosexuality.

In doing so Ulrichs became the first human to publicly come out as gay. And he did so at a nationalist Association of Jurists convention in Munich. In Beachy’s capable hands, this pioneering LGBTQ activist’s life story and contributions to the gay rights movement prove vast and significant. Ulrichs’ is one of many voices illuminated in Gay Berlin.

In the fall of 1867, Ulrichs’ colleagues responded to his coming out with vitriol and derision. The gathered collective erupted into cacophony—hooting, catcalling and yelling “Crucify!” Their hysterical reaction prevented Ulrichs from finishing his statement that day, but he would not be silenced. His prepared speech went beyond merely arguing against sodomy laws, instead vehemently protesting the state’s very criminalization of same-sex attraction.

His coming out didn’t come out of nowhere. Prior to that morning in Munich, Ulrichs’ had already published five pamphlets under the pseudonym Numa. He had also begun a mutually inspirational, longtime correspondence with leading 19th-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Ulrichs’ influence was profound. Krafft-Ebing interviewees later cited Numa’s work as essential literature, especially for closeted or questioning individuals. His self-published pamphlets provided a jumping-off point in a search for identity that transcends the heteronormative. Ulrichs’ typewriter was a weapon against alienation.

Comprised of eight robust chapters,
Gay Berlin packs a scholarly wallop. It’s chock-full of deep, nuanced research and compelling, informed analysis of pre-Weimar Berlin’s culture of progressive sexuality and groundbreaking medical advances. The work centers on the German “invention” (read: acknowledgment and study) of homosexuality and the politics and policing therein; the dawn of the gay rights movement and subsequent struggle for legislative reform; and the emergence of the science of sexuality. Copious in-text citations are further bolstered by 45 pages of footnotes, sources and bibliography. To put it bluntly, this is not beach reading.

Ulrichs’ independent scholarship in the 19th century presages Beachy’s voluminous research and thoughtful 21st-century prose.
Gay Berlin illuminates the pre-Stonewall history of the gay rights movement and the body of cultural and scientific knowledge that informed it. If you’re an LGBTQ scholar or activist, this is a must-read. And don’t be intimidated if accommodating Gay Berlin‘s academic width and breadth takes a little getting used to; just take a nice, deep breath, relax your mind and try again.
Men Who Loved Men in Berlin

Robert Beachy

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