‘A Golden Age for Queer Sexual Politics?’ – Report

November 20, 2017

In issue 55 of the Bulletin-Info of the Zentrum fur transdiszplinare Geschlechterstudien, Humboldt-University Berlin, Heiner Schulze wrote a report on the CRUSEV conference ‘A Golden Age for Queer Sexual Politics?’. The report is reproduced here in full.


A Golden Age for Queer Sexual Politics? Lesbian and Gay Literature and Film in 1970s Germany

20-22 July 2017, HU Berlin

A common narrative states that the 1970s was both the start and high point of much of gay and lesbian life. The decade is hailed as the mythical pre-AIDS era: the time when queer movements emerged as political forces and queer havens in which they could live, love, and fuck were developed.

A recent conference at Humboldt University examined this narrative. A Golden Age for Queer Sexual Politics? Lesbian and Gay Literature and Film in 1970s Germany was organized by Janin Afken, Andreas Kraß, and Benedikt Wolf from the Research Center for the Cultural History of Sexuality. The conversation sought to trace the alleged revolutionary potential as well as the political and aesthetic strategies in the creation of such a “legendary decade” and questioned what is remembered and what is marginalized. Additionally, it showcased the importance of taking a closer look at the spatial and temporal context when talking about the construction of a “golden age of queer sexuality”.

The conference, which ran from July 20 to July 22, began with welcoming speeches by Ulrike Vedder, Andreas Kraß, and Glyn Davis, followed up by a screening of Ulrike Ottinger’s movie Madame X – Eine absolute Herrscherin with a short introduction by Michaela Wünsch. The movie made clear that the conference was not exclusively about (gay) men, who still dominate the discussions on this era.

After an introduction by Benedikt Wolf, the conference began with a keynote by Susanne Hochreiter. With the help of David Bowie’s song The Bewlay Brothers, which framed the keynote, Hochreiter shed light on aspects of 1) melancholy, 2) time and narration, and 3) queer memory and transformation. Hochreiter illustrated the often cited connection between melancholy and queerness, and discussed the complex layers of memory and narration. Here memory is not simply a reflection of “facts” from the past but ripe with influencing contexts which can be written, re-written, and erased.

The first panel under the title “The Canonized Queer 1970s” featured three Berlin-based speakers: Janin Afken, Patsy l’Amour laLove, and Benedikt Wolf. Janin Afken focused on Verena Stefan’s 1975 Shedding; which according to Afken is a story of transformation, in which the protagonist goes through a long process of developing an increasing awareness to the realities of (her) sexuality, eventually leading to a shift to become an emancipated “I”. Afken focused on aspects of 1) sisterhood and solidarity and 2) motherliness and menstruation in Shedding. Patsy l’Amour laLove discussed Rosa von Praunheim’s seminal movie Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt. Contextualizing the movie production and drawing on interviews, l’Amour laLove illustrated the huge importance the movie had on queer activism. According to l’Amour laLove, von Praunheim presented the movie as a foil of what society should not be. L’Amour laLove suggests viewing the movie as the cinematic version of a manifesto, which affected gays (as well as lesbians), even if they had not seen the movie itself. Afterwards Benedikt Wolf invited the audience to examine the “language of desire” in the work of Hubert Fichte. Wolf argued that Fichte’s “vivid language” should be understood as standing besides the language of sexual oppression of the time on the one hand and the alienated language of sexology on the other hand.

In a second keynote presentation, Marc Siegel discussed how many markers of the 1970s as “legendary” leave out a variety of narratives and used film to show how one could analyze the (re)construction of the 1970s. He emphasized the strong connection between the political and artistic worlds in this decade and the importance of New Queer Cinema. Siegel stressed how important it is to look beyond the well-known narratives, for instance by taking a closer look at representations of and the role of public rest room (sex). He explained how queer politics back then could be characterized as “being out”, not just meaning coming out, but also going beyond. He also emphasized the role of New Queer Cinema, a genre not only concerned with the LGBT community, but also with critical potential and one that should be applauded for its questioning and rejection of norms, generalizations, and representation.

Chris Auld opened the next panel, “Contesting the Canon”, with the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the role of camp and melodrama in it, using The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as an example. According to Auld, melodrama and camp can be used for political analysis as both help to illustrate ideological contradictions and tensions. The next talk discussed the radical-feminist journal Die Schwarze Botin. Vojin Saša Vukadinovi? presented the origins of the controversial journal and described its rise and demise. According to him, the journal represented a persistent radical stance in times of decreasing radicalism and increased “navel-gazing”. He situates the journal as having been influenced by Critical Theory and as an attempt to highlight the effects of “wrong thinking” as well as ideological dead ends through (harsh) critique. Peter Rehberg followed, examining the contemporary Butt Magazine, the aesthetic roots of which he sees in the gay historiography of the 1970s. Rehberg went on to showcase the aesthetic of the 1970s and the mobile and transnational character of queer erotic imaginary. Influenced by new technologies and AIDS, new aesthetics developed, which Rehberg called Clone I and Clone II. Butt Magazine can now be seen as a Post-Clone with links to the 1970s Pre-Clone. Butt Magazine, said Rehberg, seeks to present a continuity of Gay culture after the erasures of AIDS as well as a renewal of queer imagery.

The final panel of the day, “Retrospections”, featured Maria Bühner and Sebastian Zille. Bühner presented research on two books from the 1990s which dealt with the experience of lesbians in the former German Democratic Republic. She showed how both books emphasize “authenticity”, offer a historical record, create meaning, and allow us to see feelings beyond factual history. She also pointed out the limitations by stressing how those books represented only a slice of the lesbian population and left out a wide range of other experiences. Additionally, Bühner explained the importance of contextualization and emphasized how in the context of the GDR the 1980s, and not the 1970s, should actually be seen as a potential Golden Age. By doing this, she radically questioned the dominant narrative of the “legendary 1970s”, opening up the perspective beyond this specific time and place. The last panelist of the day, Sebastian Zille, gave a presentation on two HIV/AIDS-related German books and how they discuss the 1970s in retrospect. In his talk, which looked at different constructions of temporality and spatiality, he said that literary knowledge operates as an alternative form of knowledge; for him the 1970s were not simply a Golden Age, but it depends, the answer is not “either-or”.

The next day widened the perspective beyond Germany to “European Perspectives”. Alejandro Melero talked about the proliferation of German-Spanish film production at the end of the Franco regime, especially common in sexploitation movies. Melero pointed out the futility of the censorship attempts of the regime, censoring the Spanish version of the movies, just to see them get re-imported in the more permissive German version. Those movies pioneered the representation of sexual minorities, in particular of lesbians. Melero talked about the relationship between normality and the Other in those movies, with the latter, often racialized or homosexual, as a threat to heterosexual, patriarchal capitalism. Afterwards Krzysztof Zablocki gave a somewhat meandering talk about Wolfgang Jöhling, whom he called an important bridge between East German and Polish gay men. Jöhling, having grown up in East Germany, came to Poland in the 1970s, became a part of a network of gay men in arts and culture, and worked as a writer, poet, publisher, and cultural organizer. Juan A. Suárez brought the panel to a close with a presentation on three examples of the 1970s Queer Cinema: Werner Schröter, Adolpho Arrieta, and Teo Hernández. These three experimental film makers represented an important take on what queer(ness) can be in cinema. According to Suárez, their work dealt consistently with gender representations; it was ripe with “pregnant moments” full of artistic tableaus “bleeding meaning”, which were political, but were in particular about instability, remoteness, and ambiguity.

The concluding event of the conference discussed if there is a shared history of lesbians and gay men in the 1970s, featuring Tomasz Basiuk, Michael Bochow, Antke Engel, Laura Guy, Agnieszka Koscianska, and Alberto Berzosa. The general tone was that it would be too easy to assume shared history and allege the 1970s were a Golden Age. It was generally agreed upon that much more work is still needed, that researchers should attempt to unearth more different voices as well as do the work of proper contextualization.

In general the conference was successful in shedding a light on a rich cultural archive. At the same time it became clear that our knowledge and our narration of the 1970s as a potential Golden Age of Queer Sexuality is limited, a simplistic view on this decade would not do its complexity justice. The conference pointed out how cultural artifacts can function as archives, how important proper contextualization is, but also how there is still the need to (re)discover new voices from the past. Especially the contributions from/on East Germany and Poland made clear that in different contexts, other eras, not the 1970s, could be considered their Golden Age.