‘Homosexuality_ies’ is the most recent exhibition to open at both the Gay Museum in Berlin and the German Historical Museum, a stone’s throw away from the Brandenburg Gate. This exhibit, hosted jointly by both museums, is a remarkable, unprecedented achievement.
Here, in Germany’s most prominent historical museum – an otherwise conservative institution accustomed to documenting wars, revolutions, and the achievements of (mostly) white heterosexual men – we have enormous images of a classically-posed, muscular, lipstick-smeared model. Is the model male? Female? Who knows? This ambiguous model is proclaiming the triumph of Queer Berlin. This is just the beginning of the mischief and ambiguity.
‘Homosexuality_ies’ is both ambitious and provocative. As curator Dr Birgit Bosold pointed out on the exhibition’s opening night, “Out of the 7,000 objects on display in the permanent exhibition of the German Historical Museum, only five make any reference to queer people.
Four of these are about the persecution of gay men under National Socialism, and one is about Rosa von Praunheim, director of the ground breaking 1971 gay film It Is Not The Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But The Society In Which He Lives. Nothing about lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, intersex or other queer people is shown. And this is supposed to be the official documentation of German history.”
Visibility is political. This exhibition works towards rectifying the cultural imbalance whereby queer people – particularly lesbian and transgender people – have been completely written out of history. This exhibition is important in terms of the cultural and historical documentation of queer lives and cultures over the last 150 years and beyond in Germany. It is the first exhibition of its kind. It is also a lot of fun.
Entering the first section of the exhibition in the German Historical Museum, the contemporary coming out stories, paintings by and of prominent homosexual figures, and a collection of black and white photographs of Berlin’s gay and cross-dressing scene dating from the turn of the 20th century are encountered.
Following this, the ‘Savage Knowledge’ section documents a queer vocabulary from A – Z. The women’s movement, and the history of protest and activism by gay and lesbian groups in Germany before, during, and after its division into East and West, are central to this section. The criminalisation and pathologization of homosexuality – particularly under Paragraph 175, which criminalized sexual acts between men from 1872 to 1968 in East Germany, and 1994 in reunited Germany – is documented in its full scope.
On display in the ‘Pink Triangle’ section are the tragic testaments of homosexuals persecuted and sent to concentration camps under the Nazis. However, despite the acknowledgement of such atrocities, this exhibit offers more than just the history of an oppressed minority.
‘Homosexuality_ies’ is a celebration and a provocation. It celebrates the achievements of homosexual emancipation and the women’s movement, largely instigated by lesbian activists.
It calls into question the dominant gender order, prodding us to consider the cultural and biological realities of a third gender. From glitzy images of drag king parties to the official ‘gender blank’ civil status of intersex children, turbulent spaces that tear apart conventional notions of gender open up inside this exhibition.
Essentially, ‘Homosexuality_ies’ is about freedom: the freedom to live and love in ways that depart from dominant gender norms. Struggles continue amid progressive achievements.
A century ago, the world’s first homosexual civil rights movement began in Germany. Nevertheless, in 2014, nearly 200,000 Germans signed a petition opposing the introduction of ‘sexual diversity’ as a part of the education curriculum in Baden-Württemberg schools. This exhibition confronts prejudice and injustice with an engaging constellation of art and knowledge gleaned from the past and present-day experiences of queer people.
Judging by the opening night – where over 1,300 people squeezed into an area with seating for only 500 – the success of this exhibition will spread far outside of Berlin. The exhibition is officially supported by the Federal Cultural Foundation and the Cultural Foundation of German States. It runs until December 2015.