Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel, two characters in Frühlings Erwachen, an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind translated in English as Spring Awakening (or variations, such as The Awakening of Spring), are a same-sex teenage couple who – in a reversal of later conventions – have the most optimistic storyline in the production. Röbel is a mediocre student on the verge of failing his classes; Rilow, the more apt and sexually forward pupil who seduces him. (Rilow may also be read as bisexual given a scene in which he masturbates to an image of a woman.) The final scene in which they appear takes place in a vineyard and concludes with a declaration of love; remarkable, given that two of the other children end up dead and one on the run after breaking out of a reformatory.
For its frank discussion of sexuality Frühlings Erwachenhas been repeatedly censored, including an incident in New York where an injunction had to be sought in order to put on a single matinee performance. (Ironically, Frühlings Erwachen was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2006.)
German athlete Balian Buschbaum competed in the women’s pole vault for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (placing 6th) and several world championships. His personal record of 4.70 meters ranks him as Germany’s second best as of the time of this posting. Since starting testosterone he has been barred from competitions and consequently forced to retire, but he was able to channel his track and field expertise into a position as a coach, and penned an autobiography. His transition has received international attention due to his career and his appearance: National Geographic included him in a documentary and blogscount him among the world’s most attractive trans men.
Buschbaum’s personal website is available here; his Facebook page is here; and a longer program about him in German can be found here.
As much a public interest piece as a movie, Anders als die Andern (“Different from the Others”), a film co-written by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and famed director Richard Oswald, was the first to offer a positive portrayal of homosexual characters. Paul Körner, a skilled violinist terrified of Germany’s anti-homosexual law, falls in love with a male student of his. As the two grow closer, a blackmailer who had caught them walking together in the park (and who had previously attempted to extort money from Körner during his school days) becomes increasingly aggressive, driving himself and Körner into a mutually destructive court battle. Despite the judge’s sympathy, Körner is sentenced to a week in prison; resigned to the fact that his privacy and career have been destroyed, Körner then commits suicide.
Although the film has not survived in its entirety due to the destruction of most copies, a viewing with live music has been recorded and is available on YouTube here.
German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was lucky enough to begin his work shortly before the Weimar Republic years, but unlucky enough to see much of it destroyed in a Nazi conflagration. His motto, “Per Scientiam ad Justitiam” (“through science to justice”), drove him to approach queer activism from a researcher’s perspective, with the hope that education – including a film he co-wrote and acted in – would help end homophobia. He postulated that there were numerous varieties of sexual intermediacy, categorized by what would now be called sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity; for a time, he classified homosexuals as a “third sex”. Hirschfeld himself was a private person, but later biographies suggest he was gay or bisexual, and certainly had at least two male lovers.
Although the details of her time as a guard at the Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps are a matter of some contention due to a paucity of living witnesses and the tightly focused nature of her trial, it is known that Grese was 22 years old when she was sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes. Witnesses claimed that she was a sadist who took pleasure in violently tormenting prisoners; details of the allegations can be found in this open letter published during her trial. What is certain is that she was an officer in the SS who was given a high-ranking position of authority in the camps, and she admitted to beating prisoners in her own testimony.
Some of the allegations against Grese involve the sexual abuse of prisoners; as a result, she is sometimes referred to as a lesbian or bisexual. Regardless of what her sexual orientation may have been, the possibility of a powerful bisexual Nazi guard poses a challenge for scholars of queer history: Not only is her story tempting to sensationalize (for example, the film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which was inspired in part by Grese), but it complicates the narrative of how homosexuality was treated in Nazi Germany; additionally, there is the eternal temptation to avoid unflattering portrayals of members of a subaltern group lest they be employed as proof of the group’s poor moral character.
Baron von Steuben, the drillmaster for the Continental Army in the American War of Independence who did not speak English, was among one of history’s quirks of circumstance. Thanks to a falsified lineage he had been able to enjoy the patronage of one of Prussia’s poorer princes before being driven out due to rumors of his homosexuality. He bounced around France until Benjamin Franklin finally hired him on as a volunteer without pay.
Von Steuben’s tactics, which he required translators to convey to the troops until he got around to writing down and distributing the army’s first training manual, were brutal and advanced – and included hygiene provisions -, which turned the soldiers into a respectable fighting force and von Steuben into a Major General.
The United States German-American community now celebrates Von Steuben Day (which appears in the comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) in September. Although von Steuben’s homosexuality was never conclusively proven, he is included here due to the threat of discharge and to the two attractive young men who accompanied him throughout his campaign.
Christa Muth, a German corporate consultant and systems scientist, is a co-founder of Human Systems Engineering, a post-graduate discipline that looks at how organizations function at different levels. Armed with an academic background in economic history, sociology, and educational theory, she began taking jobs reworking corporate cultures, including the Swiss university system.
Muth decided to transition (link is in French) after developing psychosomatic back problems due to the stress of living as a man, and agreed to star in a documentary about her transition. A trailer for the film, titled “Between Two-Spirit” in English, can be viewed here. (The original French title, Entre Il et Ailes, is a pun that translates to, “Between Him and Wings,” where “ailes” (wings) is pronounces like “elle” (her).)