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Report on the GSA 2023

News from Dec 05, 2023

The DFG Research Network Queer Contemporary History of the German-speaking world was out in force at the German Studies Association (GSA) in Montreal, 5-8 October 2023 (this 47th annual conference of the GSA was the first to take place outside of the United States). Members of our network presented work on diverse topics, ranging from the queer history of human rights, the historical development of “gay hate crime”, how to read queer sources in an interdisciplinary fashion, a tribute to the late queer historian Robert Tobin, and the erasure and return of queer desire in Jewish Holocaust history.

 

However, the highlight was a panel curated by our network, featuring three historians who have each authored contributions in the network’s first handbook, on the topic of queer(ing) spaces. The panel was chaired by Andrea Rottmann (FU Berlin), co-lead of the network: the three presenters were Kevin Heiniger (University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland), Noah Julia Munier (University of Stuttgart), and Eike Wittrock (Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna). Heiniger’s paper Sex und Intimität in der Anstalt. Homosexuelle Subkulturen im Schweizer Massnahmenvollzug und in Erziehungsanstalten (1930 bis 1960) discussed the incarceration of young Swiss men and women in reformatories in Bern and in Aarburg in the 1940s and 1950s; in their paper entitled Spatial Practices As Subjectivation of Homo- and Bisexual Men in the Early

Federal Republic of Germany Munier analysed spatial practices—including dancing—of same-sex desiring men in 1950s West Germany; Wittrock’s paper Queere Räume im aktivistischen Theater der DDR examined queer theatre groups in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. I had the pleasure of providing a comment on this fascinating panel. That comment forms the basis of the below report, but I have also sought to include a sense of the rich discussion that followed the presentations in the Q&A.

 

In thinking about different queer spaces, Kevin Heiniger, Noah Munier and Eike Wittrock all raised crucial historiographical questions about the agency of the individuals subject to our historical gaze, even in such a regulated environment as the reformatory. They also flagged up a range of methodological questions, including the issue of the source material to which we do and do not have access to try to reconstruct and analyse the experiences of historical actors. All three panellists were clear about the powerful forces of surveillance and control which are central to their research topics, whether the leadership of reformatories, the officials who policed—and closed down—homophile magazines and meeting spaces in the 1950s, or the SED and the Stasi. Yet all three presenters also drew attention to the diverse ways in which this coercion and control was met with subjectivity and consciousness-building from the bottom-up.

 

Kevin Heiniger looked especially closely at the role of psychiatric officials in reformatories, who more often categorised and pathologized cases of intimacy between boys and young men, as opposed to between girls and young women (due in part to the structural devaluation of female sexuality). These psychiatric case reports are deeply othering and condescending, but Heiniger also discussed the sources which offer a glimmer of the perspectives of those incarcerated. These ego-documents include a confiscated diary and secret messages which were passed between the inmates. We had a rich discussion about the extent to which we can meaningfully talk about agency here. Drawing on Andrea Rottmann’s work, Heiniger pointed out that prison conditions do not rule out gender play, resistance, or some degree of self-stylisation. Yet, there remains a very stark difference between those young women and men in Swiss reformatories, and for example the activists and theatrical performers discussed in Eike Wittrock’s paper: the former were of course not there by choice.

 

To access and represent the perspectives of those incarcerated in reformatories, we discussed the work of Saidiya Hartman, whose book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals focuses on Black girls and women in the United States in the early 20th century. Notwithstanding the geographical and chronological difference to Heiniger’s research, Hartman has also come up against the limits of the archive. For example, Hartman thinks about the experiences of Mattie Nelson, whose voice is entirely missing from her case file, which consists only of sociological and psychiatric reports commissioned by the reformatory in New York to which Nelson was confined. Hartman asks if we can find a way to Mattie Nelson’s ‘language of self-expression’, to some extent bypassing the official regulatory sources in the case file. To do so, Hartman has developed a method of ‘critical fabulation’, or ‘close narration’, in which she has pressed ‘at the limits of the case file and the document’, and ‘speculated about what might have been, imagined the things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility, moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seemed possible.’ We had a productive discussion in the panel about the advantages—as well as the difficulties—of such a creative approach to the queer past.

 

Noah Julia Munier started their paper with a fascinating visual analysis: a lino print from Die Freunde, a short-lived West German homophile magazine from the early 1950s. The scene depicts two figures inside a living room (perhaps a heterosexual couple), looking out the window at two men. My first association was to the common queer experience of being stuck on the outside looking in—except, in this instance, these two men were not looking in, but gazing in the other direction, and with forthright, assertive expressions. The lino print was captioned Wußten Sie schon?, “Did you know already?”, which adds to the queerness and mercurial nature of this image. Do we as historians know what is going on here?

 

Munier pointed to the significance of the cross-shaped lead lining of the window, an unmistakable allusion to the Christian conservative sexual morality of the early Federal Republic. In this inhospitable climate, magazines like Die Freunde were targeted by the 1953 law on ‘youth-endangering materials’, which forced many such publications to be sold via subscription alone, leading to financial ruin. This environment did not mean it was impossible to organize, however. Munier explored the Reutlingen group Kameradschaft Die Runde, showing us the complexity of queer attempts to navigate the banishment of (homo)sexuality from the public sphere. For example, the curtains in the living room of one of the group’s activists were always kept open; group members and visitors were told to avoid arriving together, and to park their cars a distance from the address. Here we have a case of visibility—the resolute demand to keep the curtains open—not as a means of exposure, but quite the opposite, ultimately as a way of keeping things hidden.

 

As Munier showed, practices of subjectivation are closely linked to spatial practices. Here, like Heiniger, Munier thinks about agency, and demonstrates how dancing, as a particularly interesting example of how bodies move through space, might be seen as constitutive of consciousness, of subjectivity, of identity. Munier discussed touch – the touch involved in dance. And here they cited Toni Simon, a trans woman who fought a running battle with the Reutlingen police to keep her bar open. According to Simon, ‘without touching there is no feeling’ (ohne Berührung kommt kein Gefühl auf). In part, there was a commercial imperative here. If dancing were to be banned in her bar, her queer patrons would go elsewhere. But ‘without touching there is no feeling’ is a wonderfully resonant phrase. It reminded me of Carolyn Dinshaw’s concept of the queer “touch across time”. 

 

Putting these images of dancing and touching further together: if we can touch across time, or feel the touch of queer people from the past, do we also dance with our sources? Perhaps at times we strike up a good rhythm and stay in tune; occasionally we might lose focus and fall out of sync, feeling an inability to become intimate with the sources at our disposal. In the Q&A after the three papers, we developed this idea by thinking about choreography, and the choreographic role played by the historian - especially significant in Eike Wittrock’s work on theatre studies. Wittrock also brought into the discussion the scholarship of Heather Love, whose book Feeling Backward asks us to reflect on what we do (or feel) when sources resist us, seeming to turn away from us, or away from the frameworks within which we work.

 

Munier ended their paper with an analysis of an inspection report of the Salon der Hundert, compiled by local authorities in Tübingen. The report was not necessarily composed by someone sympathetic to this queer meeting space, but through the evocative language I found myself immediately transported to the club’s carpeted staircase and the foil-covered hallway, not to mention the seat cushions and dainty flower arrangements. This textual source has a powerful visual quality which allows us a sense, however incomplete, of the photographic evidence that is largely missing from the archive. After all, photos taken of queer bars or clubs could have been used against the locales, or their patrons, in court: Munier drew attention to this absence in the visual archive by inserting an empty text box on one of their presentation slides. The inspection report, read against the grain, perhaps allows us a glimpse of the intimacies, the subjectivities of those who strode down these carpets or reclined on these cushions.

 

In his paper, Eike Wittrock did not mention carpets or cushions, but he presented us with a richly textured account of theatrical spaces in East Germany. One thinks of being “on stage”, but that stage could be in any number of varieties, large and small, and theatrical performance (in the sense of theatricality or camp), of course took place off stage too (a keyword in Wittrock’s presentation was Alltag, the everyday). Thinking of theatre allows us to reflect on the relationship between public and private, or between different yet overlapping publics.

 

Indeed, drawing on the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, Wittrock used the evocative phrase Gegenwelten (counter-worlds). This formulation is particularly apt for his analysis of Besuch vom Alpha C (“Visit from Alpha C”), the second intended production of Hibaré (the cabaret troupe of the HIB, the Homosexual Interest Group Berlin). In this example, the visitors represented in the play were not from this world, but from outer space. As Wittrock pointed out, the fantasy spaces or the worlds opened up and facilitated by sci-fi have a powerful queer potential.

 

Wittrock focused in depth on another case study, Aus dem Leben gegriffen (“Taken from Life”), written and performed in 1984 by the GDR’s first independent lesbian group. Rather than anything other-wordly, the theatrical sketch turns on a man making repeated unwanted approaches to a woman in a bar; other women initially show solidarity, but only until the subject of the man’s advances outs herself as lesbian. As Wittrock pointed out, while theatre is often involved in the production of space, here it also draws attention to a space that is missing, namely a space for lesbian visibility, an autonomous space for lesbian and bisexual women.

 

In the discussion that followed, we explored the potential reactions of the audience, bringing additional perspectives on the sketch. Wittrock showed how the sketch made a common lesbian experience sagbar, made it discursively available – opened up a space in which it could be discussed, indeed created the space of solidarity which was missing in the scene itself. In the Q&A we reflected upon this space of solidarity, including its limitations, and the extent to which the available sources allow us to reconstruct its contours.

 

In his presentation Wittrock argued that with Aus dem Leben gegriffen an experience was captured, written down, shared: not only with those who saw this scene in 1984, but with whomever has read the sketch since – now including of course the members of the audience at the GSA. Here we discussed the specificities about a theatrical production that is actually performed as against one that is not (such as Besuch vom Alpha C). In the former we can speak of a bodily experience, a physical, shared occupation of space. That is missing in the latter, unless we count the physicality of our seminar room at the GSA.

 

Since this panel explored the history of queer spaces, it feels only right to conclude by commending Andrea Rottmann, Benno Gammerl, and Martin Lücke (co-leads of the DFG network), for the wonderful space they have created in the form of the network. This is at once both a lively, warm, and dynamic intellectual space, as well as a physical space, bearing in mind this panel at the GSA, as well as the two previous annual workshops which have taken place at the Free University in Berlin (the third and final workshop will take place in July 2024). Special thanks here are also due to the network’s student organisers, including Jonah Reimann and Greta Marlene Hülsmann.

 - Dr. Craig Griffiths, Manchester Metropolitan University

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