Homosexuality_ies: Exploration of Gay Germany

“I was deeply saddened by the result...I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity.” - Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, speaking about the results of the Irish Equality Referendum which gave equal marriage rights to same sex couples in the Republic of Ireland, 2015.

The passage above is just one of many quotes that can be heard in Homosexuality_ies, an exhibition about LGBTQ culture, jointly organized by the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum Berlin. Cardinal Parolin’s quote is not the longest or most bigoted of the selection. But being only a few weeks old, it is the most recent, driving home the necessity for this exposition of gay culture in light of its repression throughout history.

Society has always required the “Other” in order to preserve its own image of power and reputation. Non-conformist genders, sexual identity and sexuality have traditionally been the easiest way to create this Other. For thousands of years, those who did not fit into the binary conception of sexuality, the union of man and woman, were discriminated against, ridiculed and even imprisoned for being different. Homosexuality_ies explores through objects, images and descriptions this repression and criminalisation, while simultaneously showcasing the cultural achievements and grassroots organisations of the LGBTQ community.

The exhibition is split into two parts. One deals with the development and history of gay and trans culture, the other explores gender roles and identities through contemporary artists. The co-operation of the two museums has created a thematic, diverse and inclusive exhibition of LGBTQ history in Germany and worldwide. The thematic format adopted breathes life into misunderstood subject, contrasting gay pride movements, AIDS awareness campaigns and positive representations of homosexuality in the media against political repression, social alienation and criminalisation around the world.

The range of material is vast for the size of the exhibition. Subjective, personal stories sit alongside mementos of symbolic civil rights victories. The smallest object – a baby’s rattle or a salt shaker, mementos from people’s coming out experiences, are contrasted with ceiling high maps which highlight worldwide intolerance and injustice against homosexuals. This wide scope creates a narrative of LGBTQ history and culture that stretches from the individual to the world stage.

In one section of the exhibition, there are booths for visitors to sit where disheartening quotes such as that from Cardinal Perolin are played on repeat. The wall opposite is filled with the portraiture work of Zanele Muholi. The thirty-or-so monochrome portraits depict black, lesbian South African women. These portraits hint at the stories behind their subjects, who originate from a country where corrective rape, mutilation and murder are common punishments inflicted on members of the LGBTQ community. The coupling of Muholi’s work and homophobic quotes establish the link between rhetoric and active discrimination it spurs against this Other. Works by other artists like Monica Bonvicini, Andy Warhol, Nicole Eisenman and other artists are also included.

The final section deals with the relatively new area of Gender Studies, a discipline attempting to explore and understand gender, sexuality and sexual preference. Its gradual development is laid out, from  the “discovery” of Homosexuality in the late 1800s and its diagnosis as a disease in the 1920s, to the realisation and acceptance of its genetic and social makeup in the 1960s. Homosexuality_ies ends with this on a hopeful note, by showing the ongoing process of understanding and acceptance while pointing towards the positive future developments in the field.

A common thread running throughout the exhibition is the presence of related marginalized groups within Germany – ADEFRA for instance, who have been campaigning for black German women’s rights since the 1960s. Domestic violence, racism and anti-Semitism are also featured. The common image of white male homosexuality is challenged here, with many sub-groups of the LGBTQ community represented.
Homosexuality_ies highlights and celebrates a community which has been marginalized in science, criminalized in society and ignored in academia. In light of the recent successes in Ireland and the United States, coupled with the debate over gay marriage in Germany today, this exhibition is both important and enlightening. By contrasting the grass roots rights organisations to traditional institutional attitudes to homosexuality, a complex picture emerges of a still evolving community and culture.

‘Homosexuality_ies’ runs from 26 June to 1 December at the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum. Admission: 8€/4€.

By Paul Tobin

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