Michaela Dudley

Weimar 2.0: Reflections between the Rainbow and the “pink triangle”

Michaela Dudley (*1961) is an author, journalist, lawyer (Juris Dr., US), queer feminist and sharp-tongued cabaret artist. Her essay was published in the catalog for the exhibition TO BE SEEN. queer lives 1900–1950.

“Dehumanization begins with a word, but so does emancipation”1 – I have exhorted people with these words for years now, in interviews, cabaret performances, newspaper columns, lectures, and workshops. The oft-cited slogan from my pen evokes images of a phoenix-like arising. An arising from the ashes, to be sure. Daring, but intentional. For me, this motto is not merely the intoning of a lamentation, but also, as it were, a call for liberation. The quote functions as a maxim for my new volume of essays on racism2, but it is also suitable as an appeal against other forms of exclusion and elimination. These clearly include the systematic, centuries-long persecution of the LGBTIQ+ community.


TO BE SEEN. queer lives 1900–1950 is dedicated to this topic, with a focus on the multifaceted and fateful German involvement. The exhibition at the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism dissolves boundaries with a diverse selection of artworks and exhibits that shed light on a horrifyingly dark history. Visibility is what this is all about. The individuals from that period, mercilessly persecuted for their sexual self-determination, now receive the recognition they deserve. The exhibition accompanies them on their path of suffering, their Passion. They were victims, but also energetic people, and they are portrayed as human beings. In view of this, I am honored and moved to be able to contribute to this catalog with an essay alongside works by other artists and observers.

Although I paint my pictures with words, my message is nevertheless – and precisely because of this – created on a primed background. Painters usually prime their canvas from the center outward, in order to distribute the tension in the fabric as evenly as possible. I would also like to make use of this directional technique. I will start in the middle of the story, spreading out in all directions, to articulate the tension in my own canvas. 

Is this the right occasion to come up with not even thinly veiled “I”-statements? I ask myself this question while looking in the mirror. Isn’t this publication about others? My squinting self-portrait answers: it’s about us. About all of us. And that is true. The people this exhibition honors could hardly speak at length about their often fatal destiny. Accordingly, we have a moral obligation to record their fates by picking up the fragments of their lives and carefully piecing them together. At the same time, it is our duty to build bridges to those predecessors – indeed, pioneers – by thoughtfully scrutinizing our own lives. Do we stand on their shoulders? Or do we stand in the way of the cause, and thus in our own way? How do we use this goddamned “blessing of a postwar birth”? What are we standing up for?

And yes, the one-million-dollar question: do we succeed in recognizing ourselves in them? Hopefully. 

Dr Michaela Dudley, 2019 | © Dr. Michaela Dudley, photo: Carolin Windel

In my opinion, the most suitable means for this is storytelling – that is, the meaningful narration of one’s own life – in order to create and maintain a community that spans generations. This is probably about empathy, and certainly about empowerment. In other words, self-empowerment instead of self-pity. For me, anyway, the issue of discrimination is anything but an abstraction. I experience discrimination in multiple ways, namely intersectionally3 –because I am a Berliner woman with African American roots, a trans+ woman, and a feminist. I literally come “from the other shore,” as they say here to mean “swing the other way.” What’s more, I first saw the light of day in 1961 in the shadow (figuratively and literally) of the Statue of Liberty. In quick succession, I witnessed how the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I experienced Jim Crow segregation at age five in Southern states. But the supposedly more open northern states weren’t without their challenges either. I sometimes played with children whose parents had narrowly survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. Of course, they were white, and for that very reason I couldn’t understand why other whites would viciously insult them, beat them up, and, on top of that, spray-paint the walls of their houses with that weird sun wheel. My father, a German-speaking Air Force combat veteran who had fought in World War II, enlightened me: “Unfortunately, we blacks aren’t the only people who are hated.”

Another illumination lay in store for me. In the summer of 1969, a few weeks before the moon landing and Woodstock, New York’s Christopher Street was buzzing. There, the queer bar Stonewall Inn became the target of a crackdown by corrupt police officers. A Black trans+ woman named Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992) and a colorful array of other patrons were fed up with such inhumane harassment. Marsha called for resistance. When she threw the first stone at the Stonewall uprising4, it sparked the modern LGBTIQ+ movement. The uprising raged in Greenwich Village for six days, sending shockwaves around the globe. Not since theseminal work of the Berlin physician and sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) had there been such a significant push for gay rights. 

I was too young then, however, to understand the consequences of Stonewall. But I already didn’t quite agree with my socialization as a boy. So I dared to take my first gay steps as a prepubescent princess. While most boys were outside digging in the sandbox, I indulged in my mother’s make-up table, and I put on my girl cousins’ clothes. My paternal grandma knew the score. Fortunately, the lady, born in the 1890s as the daughter of former slaves, was tolerant. I shouldn’t be ashamed of being different, she affirmed, as she ran her hand through my curls. But I had to protect myself. Absolutely protect myself. So it was a pleasure, but with reservations. In everyday life I could write off my rouge and mascara. “Freedom scares a lot of people, and that fear scars many more.” These words proved to be a prophecy.

Activist and dragartist Marsha P. Johnson protests Bellevue Hospital's treatment of street people and LGBTQ+. | Photo: Diana Davies, 1968-1975 | © New York Public Library / Digital Collection

In my youth I was threatened and insulted, cursed, and even raped, no matter how much I tried to hide my queerness.  It wasn’t until a decade after Stonewall that I really felt able to walk the tightrope of a double life. Service uniform and drag. I was in San Francisco, you see, for naval officer training, following my inner compass. But even there, in the queer capital, the rainbow darkened, and not just because of the typical coastal fog. Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk, a tireless gay rights activist, were gunned down. Their murderer, former councilman Dan White, received a scandalously lenient sentence, which ignited the angry White Night riots. The police retaliated against the uprising. Officers raided numerous establishments frequented by gays and lesbians, pouring more fuel on the fire. The Castro neighborhood lay in ruins. 

But that was not enough: immediately afterwards, the AIDS crisis hit San Francisco and the whole world. Mainstream society reacted to the deadly virus with handwringing, while moralists reacted with inflammatory slogans. Hate preachers raged against HIV positive people from their pulpits. The skin carcinoma Kaposi’s sarcoma was “gay cancer” or “the vengeance of God”;5 we should be banished, simply locked up. Absurd demands, but ones again with historical precedents. 

In law school in the mid-1980s, I became aware of the structural extent of anti-gay discrimination. There, in the “land of the free,” consensual homosexual acts between adults were still punishable by criminal law in many states. They could lead to involuntary admission to psychiatric hospitals and forced conversion therapies. 

Burning police cars at the White Night Riots following the assassination of Harvey Milk, San Francisco, May 21, 1979 | © Alamy Stock

It wasn’t until a few decades later that President Obama, after initial hesitation, stood up for LGBTIQ+ rights, including same-sex marriage and protections for trans+ soldiers. However, when Donald Trump moved into the White House, he set back hard-won sexual self-determination rights by half a century – de facto as well as de jure – with a few tweets and collected signatures.6 Even today, after Trump’s succession by Democrat Joe Biden, US Republicans continue to wage their culture wars. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants to ban teaching about gender identity from kindergarten through third grade with legislation known as “Don’t Say Gay.”  Georgia, Texas, and other states are vying in record time to bar trans+ youth from sports. 

The Lesbian and Gay Association in Germany (LSVD) condemns “religious and political leaders [for] fomenting a climate of hatred in many cases.”8 Around the world, homosexuality continues to be criminalized in a staggering sixty-nine countries, and in eleven it is even punishable by death.9 In Europe, problem children include the governments in Poland, for declaring so-called “LGBTQ-free zones,”10 and Hungary, given its “propaganda ban”11 against promoting homosexuality and transsexuality. As for the treatment of queer people in the Balkans, countries like Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina are also under critical scrutiny, at least unofficially.12  

Yes, I do keep a record. For life has long since made me an activist. So, like it or not, dealing with hate has become my profession as well as my vocation. At times I feel like a kind of Cassandra to others, and even to myself – a quality that I’ve tried to come to terms with in my chanson “Jubel, Trubel, Heiserkeit” (Jubilation, Turmoil, Hoarseness).14 In the colorful Republic of Germany, of all places, my adopted country, I presume to warn urgently against “Weimar 2.0.”15 A queer poet versus the Querdenker*innen?  Something like that. Because we are stuck once again in the Golden Twenties, between awakening and apocalypse, so to speak. COVID-19 takes on the role of the Spanish flu, and politics has long since been infected by the pandemic. 

Sticker with the anti-queer slogan "LGBT-free zone", published in the Polish magazine Gazeta Polska | © Wikimedia Commons / Silar / Matinee71 / CC BY-SA 4.0

This time the demagogues are digitalized. So we’re organizing some flash mobs now against the flamethrowers, and we’re constantly tinkering with new hashtags to put a stop
to the homophobic and transphobic hate slogans. Great, we are “woke,” but so what? Woken up does not mean thought out. In our history-forgetting pleasure society we are building safe spaces on still uncleared minefields. 

This life on the edge unfolds in all its dazzling colors at the CSD, of all things: the “Corporate Sponsor Défilé.” The spectacle is still officially called Christopher Street Day, but the former Gay Pride parade is turning into an event, both in Germany and worldwide, where brand names manage to push people like Magnus Hirschfeld and Marsha P. Johnson into the shadows. Partying and consumption, instead of real partnership and forging consensus. The easiest way is to avoid the shark tank of controversial issues altogether. If you can’t do that, then better go with the flow somehow. This swarm mentality is labeled the “Zeitgeist.” An understandable term. The current spirit of the time – which prevails, by the way, both within and beyond the queer community – lacks a sense of time, though. It flows, mostly indifferently, around the past. 

Does anybody still know what the phrase “born on the 17th of May” means? It was precisely this imperial-era term for “homosexual” that functioned as a casual allusion to Paragraph 175 (17 = 17th, 5 = May) of the Imperial criminal code, which came into force in 1872 and prohibited sexual acts between persons of the male sex. The law furnished the Nazis with a welcome opportunity when they took power in 1933. In 1935 they raised the maximum penalty from six months to five years.15 By means of the Paragraph 175a amendment against “serious fornication,” including male prostitution, the prison sentence was increased to ten years.  During the arbitrary reign of terror that lasted until 1945, approximately 53,000 men were sentenced by German courts under Paragraph 175. Thousands of them ended up in concentration camps, where they had to wear the notorious “pink triangle” as a mark of Cain. In contrast to the criminal police, the Gestapo were entitled to take male homosexuals into protective custody at any time, even if they were acquitted.16

Furthermore, some women who were considered lesbians were persecuted, imprisoned, condemned to forced labor, and murdered by the Nazis. Some ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, for example, or became victims of Nazi “euthanasia” as psychiatric inmates in the so-called sanatoriums in Bernburg, in accordance with Action 14f13, also known as the “special treatment.”17  

German Criminal Code from 1871 in the exhibition TO BE SEEN. queer lives 1900-950 | © NS-Dokumentationszentrum München

This exhibition deals with the historical situation until the beginning of the 1950s. But even after that, the demon had not disappeared. In 1951, Richard Gatzweiler, a district court judge in Bonn, and the Roman Catholic Volkswartbund association demanded that lesbian sexual acts be criminalized. “What is to be done with a tree denied fertility?” they asked, echoing biblical metaphors.18 Misogyny and patriarchal ideas have intertwined as integral components of homophobia since time immemorial. 

It took four more decades for the World Health Organization (WHO) to delete homosexuality from its diagnosis codes for diseases. The irony is that it happened on May 17, 1990, of all days. Shamefully, Paragraph 175 was not abolished in Germany until 1994. May 17 was declared an international day of action against homophobia by the UN in 2006, namely at the behest of the then LSVD spokesperson Sabine Gillessen and the Frenchman Louis-Georges Tin. In turn, it took the WHO until 2018 to stop characterizing transsexuality as a mental disorder. 

Exhibit with important events in LGBTIQ* history after 1950 in the exhibition TO BE SEEN. queer lives 1900-1950 | © NS-Dokumentationszentrum München

In Germany, we now hope for the abolition of the inhumane Transsexuality Act and its replacement by the Self-Determination Act. In this country, approval for the rainbow community as a whole is in fact growing, with acceptance even estimated at 86 percent.19 At the same time, however, the inhibition threshold for agitation and violence is sinking among those who are not well-disposed towards us. Those of us who are affected have to defend ourselves on various fronts. Not only against the assaults and the demagogic rantings of the usual evil suspects from the brown swamp. No, unfortunately we also have to deal with the somewhat more respectable fundamentalists, who do not shy away from utilizing pseudoscience and populism. For example, for the alleged protection of feminism. J. K. Rowling and Alice Schwarzer send their regards, from the bunker of binarity and the corner store of the last century respectively.

Freedom of expression? Yes, but what about responsibility of opinion, a historically anchored responsibility of opinion? Even polemics “in accordance with the law” against marginalized people can have serious consequences for them. A certain gentleman named Rudolf Brazda experienced this in a brutal manner, although his story and his robust will to survive are inspiring precisely because of this. Rudolf Brazda, who was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, is considered the last prisoner who had to wear the “pink triangle“.20 He died in 2011 at almost one hundred years old. The rainbow comes after the storm, but we should not misjudge the deceptive calm before the next


1 Michaela Dudley, Race Relations: Essays über Rassismus, Bad Lippspringe 2022, S. iii. See also p. 166

2 Ibid. See also Michaela Dudley, Marathonlauf der Mehrfachdiskriminierung, in: das goethe, Kulturmagazin des Goethe-Instituts (supplement in: Die Zeit), 2022/1, p.22

3 Siehe Kimberlé Crenshaw, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings, New York 2017

4 Michaela Dudley, Und sie warf den ersten Stein von Stonewall, in: Glitter – die Gala der Literaturzeitschriften, 2020/4, S.27–34.On this, see the musical homage Michaela Dudley, “Owed to Marsha,” GEMA work number 24392279, transmitted by Kulturzeit, 3sat-Fernsehen, Mainz (first performed on August 25, 2021).

5 Arndt Peltner, Manche starben im Gottesdienst: AIDS und Religion in San Francisco, in: Deutschlandfunk Kultur [accessed April 24, 2022]

6 Michaela Dudley, Wie wollen wir leben?, in: TAZ [accessed April 28, 2022]

7 Sonja Thomaser, „Don’t Say Gay Gesetz“-Gesetz: Disney-Erb:in outet sich als trans, in: Frankfurter Rundschau [accessed April 22, 2022]

8 LGBT-Rechte weltweit: Wo droht Todesstrafe oder Gefängnis für Homosexualität, in: LSVD [accessed April 22, 2022]

9 Ibid. See also Lucas Ramón Mendas u.a., ILGAWorld, State-Sponsored Homophobia: Global Legislation Overview Update, Genf 2020

10 Tagesschau, Diskriminierung: EU geht gegen Ungarn und Polen vor, in: Tagesschau, 15.7.2021 [accessed July 21, 2021]. Parallel with TV report by Astrid Corral, NDR Brussels.

11 Ibid.

12 Deutsche Welle, Queer Balkan – Im Kampf um gleiche Rechte, in: DW [accessed April 11, 2022]

13 Michaela Dudley, Jubel, Trubel, Heiserkeit, GEMA-Werknummer 20909652

14 Michaela Dudley, Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan: Berlin in den Goldenen Zwanzigern, in: taz [accessed May 20, 2022]

15 Michaela Dudley, Der Regenbogen und die Wolken, in: Veganverlag [accessed May 20, 2022]

16 Ibid. See also Laurie Marhoefer, Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: A Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939–1943, in: The American Historical Review, 2016/121, S. 1167–1195 [accessed March 4, 2022]

17 Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück,  Gedenkzeichen für die lesbischen Häftlinge im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück [accessed May 12, 2022]

18 Andreas Pretzel, NS-Opfer unter Vorbehalt: Homosexuelle Männer in Berlin nach 1945,  Berlin u.a. 2002, S.306f. Siehe auch Gottfried Lorenz, Homosexuellenverfolgung in Hamburg, Ausstellung Staatsbibliothek Hamburg, 27.2.2007

19 Jacob Poushter und Nicholas Kent, The Global Divide on Homosexuality persists, in: Pew Research Center [accessed May 28, 2022]

20 See note 6.