1973: Peter Tatchell staged the first gay rights protest in a Communist country
This article is dedicated to the heroic, inspirational East German LGBT activists who helped and supported me in 1973 and who pioneered the LGBT freedom struggle in communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic.
London, UK − 10 February 2019
By Peter Tatchell
The Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students was due to be held in East Berlin, the capital of what was then East Germany, from 27th July to 5th August 1973, its theme: ‘Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship’. 30,000 delegates representing progressive youth and student organisations from 140 nations were expected to attend.
At the time, I was a 21 year old student and an activist in the London Gay Liberation Front. The festival struck me as an ideal opportunity to promote homosexual human rights on an international scale, particularly within the communist bloc where, despite sometimes liberal laws, public discussion of lesbian and gay rights and the formation of independent gay political organisations were strictly forbidden.
Homosexuality was still totally illegal in Albania, Yugoslavia, Rumania and the Soviet Union; it had been decriminalised in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic). However, only Poland had an equal age of consent (15 for everyone). In the other communist countries, the age of consent was usually 18 for gay men and lesbians compared with between 14 and 16 for heterosexuals.
Even in those East European countries with relatively progressive laws, gay bars were few and far between and always under surveillance. There were no counselling or support agencies for lesbians and gay men; invisibility and silence were the norm.
Keen to challenge communist homophobia I applied for membership of the British delegation and was accepted as a representative of the Gay Liberation Front. So in late July, I set off for East Berlin, sailing from Harwich to Hamburg on the overnight ferry. Barely concealed under a few items of clothing in a rucksack and suitcase, I carried 30 gay rights pamphlets in five languages plus 2,000 leaflets, half in German, for distribution in East Berlin. While I anticipated difficulty in successfully smuggling this walking library into East Germany, I had no fears about negotiating the West German customs at Hamburg.
Imagine my surprise, when, on presenting myself at passport control, I was asked to accompany two uniformed immigration officers to a small room off the main customs area. Bare-walled and empty, the room had a distinctly officious, unfriendly feel. It was clearly not the VIP lounge.
After waiting about ten minutes in total silence, we were joined by two unidentified plain-clothes officials. Despite my protests, they subjected me to a strip-search while their uniformed colleagues went through my belongings. On discovering the schedule literature in my luggage, they proceeded to read the German versions in detail, occasionally pausing to take notes and make sneering remarks to the plain-clothes officials who were attempting to interrogate me in German. I tried to explain that I did not speak the language but they refused to believe me and became increasingly aggressive, waving the German language leaflets furiously in front of my face. After an hour, an English language interpreter was summoned. By this time, the room had begun to feel very crowded and intimidating with five of them and only one of me.
Immediately, the interpreter began to fire off questions about my attendance at the festival: Are you a homosexual? What organisation are you representing? How many others are coming from Britain? Where did you get the money to pay for these leaflets? Why are you travelling via Hamburg? Do you intend to make contact with any West German citizens en route to East Berlin? The questions seemed endless. Then, suddenly, after two hours, they stopped. I was told that I was free to go. No explanation. No apology.
Annoyed, but somewhat relieved, that I had suffered no more than a minor humiliation and temporary deprivation of my liberty, I continued my journey, hitchhiking on the autobahn to the East German border.
After my interrogation at Hamburg in the so-called ‘Free World’ I was beginning to feel quite anxious at the prospect of trying to pass 10,000 leaflets through East German customs. When I arrived at the border, my worst fears were confirmed: the car in front of me was being meticulously searched. I was gripped by panic and melodramatic visions of East German gaols, but what could I do? It was too late to change my mind. I froze.
As our car drew up at the frontier post. I tried hard to look calm and relaxed. In the hope that it might elicit some sympathy, I tucked my World Youth Festival credentials inside my passport and handed them to the East German border guard. Half snatching it from my hand, he motioned for me to open my rucksack and suitcase. I took a deep breath and prepared for the worst. Suddenly, his face broke out in a big smile and holding up my festival credential card, burst into a torrent of excited words. Though I could not understand what was being said, he left me with the distinct impression that I was a welcome and honoured guest. Ignoring my luggage, he waved us through the border and we continued to West Berlin.
Once there, I met with members of the city’s main lesbian and gay liberation organisation Homosexual Action West Berlin and with one memorable activist, Rosa von Praunheim. West Berliners visited gay bars in the East and were in contact with a number of gay members of the East German communist youth movement, the Free German Youth, who has recently come together to establish an informal, underground circle, the Homosexual Interest Group Berlin (HIB). The West German activists were keen to support my efforts at the festival and promised to send over a lesbian and gay contingent if I could arrange an open debate or some other event. They also gave me contacts with the members of HIB, who had very courageously offered to assist my efforts.
After making arrangements to keep in regular contact with Homosexual Action West Berlin, I went to Checkpoint Charlie, the main border crossing point, in the early evening of 26th July. Only a few other people were crossing to the East and, in response to threats by western Trotskyists to disrupt the festival, delegates in the line ahead of me were having their bags thoroughly searched. Once again, I could not turn back having already passed through the West German exit control.
Almost before I realised, a voice called ‘Next’ and it was my turn. I made up an excuse that I had to wait for another British delegate and the East German border officials obligingly directed me to an adjacent anteroom. I lingered there, hoping that a sudden flood of newly-arriving delegates would compel the guards to be less fastidious in their searches.
Just before 8pm, the flood arrived. The border checkpoint was bustling with bodies and baggage and, in the midst of this crowded chaos I cleared passport control and calculatedly offered my luggage to an already harassed East German official. He took one exhausted look and nodded me through the border.
Within an hour I was relaxing in the headquarters of the British delegation, a Butlin’s-style barracks located a few miles from the centre of East Berlin. The other delegates were a mixture of trade unionists, Young Liberals, peace campaigners, Labour Students, communists and representatives from Third World Liberation movements. We all got on well together – or so it seemed.
Next day, we travelled to the centre of East Berlin for the opening parade through the city by the 140 national delegations. In the brilliant summer sunshine, a million cheering East Germans turned out to line the route. The Vietnamese and Chilean delegates received tumultuous ovations. Vietnam was still waging a national liberation war against the American invaders and Chile had just elected a left-wing government headed by Salvador Allende.
During the opening events, I broke away from my British colleagues to leaflet East German onlookers and to mingle with the other delegations. I wanted to find out whether or not there were any other lesbian or gay representatives among them. I met two members of the Australian delegation who were active in the gay liberation movement and who were also prominent members of the Australian Communist Party – probably the first Communist Party in the world to endorse officially the newly-emergent lesbian and gay liberation movement. Otherwise, the response to my enquiries was uniformly hostile. Fairly typical was the response of the French delegates: roughly translated, they told me: ‘Piss off, you bumfucker. We like women!’. The US delegation was also dominated by the macho left. It had specifically refused to accept delegates from gay organisations, partly out of plain heterosexist prejudice and partly in Stalinist revenge: the American lesbian and gay rights movement had dared to criticise Cuba for its persecution of homosexuals who were, at the time, being sent to labour camps for ‘re-education’. Clearly, the Americans needed some re-education themselves.
This prompted me to leaflet the rooms of members of the US delegation late that afternoon. I had barely finished slipping the last leaflet under their doors when all hell broke loose. They sent a virulently homophobic official protest note to the British delegation and to the East German authorities. It condemned the ‘inflammatory presence’ and ‘disruptive activities’ of ‘petty bourgeois gay liberationists’ at the festival. I later heard reports from other delegates that at a subsequent mass rally in East Berlin the US Black Power activist and communist, Angela Davis, who was a member of the American delegation, denounced the lesbian and gay liberation movement as divisive and diversionary from the main struggle against capitalism and imperialism (although I have never been able to confirm this, so Davis should be given the benefit of the doubt).
That same night, after I had leafleted the US delegation, I was hauled before the steering committee of the British delegation and reprimanded for failing to get prior authorisation for my actions. The same deep anti-gay prejudice among some leading members of the British delegation was to resurface repeatedly over the next ten days.
One homophobic obstacle that had to be overcome was the concerted attempt to prevent me from speaking at the festival on the subject of lesbian and gay rights. Although I applied to address five of the scheduled conferences, as every delegate was entitled to, my application either went ‘missing’ or the line-up of speakers was declared to be full.
This issue finally came to a head in the controversy surrounding a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. I had requested, and obtained, approval by the British delegation to lay a pink triangle wreath in memory of the tens of thousands of homosexuals exterminated by the Nazis.
Somehow, the East German authorities had heard about this plan and declared that it was ‘not permissible’. At an emergency meeting of our steering committee, convened at 2am, it was clear that, after a long and acrimonious discussion, the majority did not want to offend our East German hosts. I was outnumbered and suggested a compromise: the British delegation should attach a statement to its official wreath naming all the dissident groups and minorities, including homosexuals, who were victims of the Holocaust. With even this compromise looking like being defeated, I proposed reluctantly to drop the whole thing in return for an invitation to speak at a forthcoming conference on Youth Rights. It was now 3.30am, tiredness had perhaps got the better of the steering committee and they agreed.
So, on 3rd August, I addressed the assembled international delegates at the Humboldt University Auditorium. In the audience were supporters from the British delegation and a contingent from Homosexual Action West Berlin who came over especially for the event, as well as a very brave group of gay sympathisers from the East German HIB and Free German Youth.
I was to speak late in the day and most of the delegates were half asleep after hearing many hackneyed, repetitious speeches on traditional youth issues of education and jobs. As soon as I mentioned lesbian and gay rights, however, the hall sprang to life. Murmurs of shock gave way to a buzz of excitement; delegates had never heard such queer heresies before. Most were accustomed to hearing only the official party line on mundane matters, so lesbian and gay issues were something new and interesting.
Suddenly, my microphone went dead. All simultaneous multi-language translations stopped. The organisers announced that a ‘technical fault’ had developed and ‘regrettably’ I could not continue my speech. Ignoring official requests for me to leave the podium, I insisted that the fault be repaired so that I could finish my address. Clinging to the rostrum, even four hefty stewards could not get me off the podium.
Meanwhile, on the floor of the auditorium, my supporters were busy distributing the multi-lingual lesbian and gay rights leaflets and pamphlets. These were being snapped up by the delegates, particularly the Soviets and Poles. Despite loud abuse from a minority of communist hard-liners, I carried on without a microphone.
The audience looked on in amazement; such challenges to orthodoxy and authority did not normally happen in the Eastern Bloc.
After 30 minutes of mayhem, the East German authorities realised that I was determined to finish my speech and a majority of the delegates were equally determined to hear me. To my surprise, it was announced that the microphone and translation channels were fixed – all except the German channel. As this was clearly a ploy to prevent the numerous East German in the audience being contaminated with lesbian and gay politics, I refused to continue until that channel was working also. Many of the delegates backed me up and started a spontaneous slow handclap. Faced with open revolt, officialdom relented.
So, after nearly an hour’s delay, I resumed my speech with all language channels operating; however, I was later to learn that, with the exception of the Russian channel, all the translations were of poor quality, omitting or distorting much of the content – the German translation, for example, deleted all references to the British Young Communist League having adopted a policy supporting the struggle for lesbian and gay rights which had made it one of a handful of left-wing organisations in the world to do so at this time.
No sooner had I finished speaking than a leading French communist took the rostrum to make an unscheduled speech denouncing me as a ‘bourgeois degenerate and troublemaker’ who was ‘peddling fascist perversions’ attempting to ‘split the working class and create diversions from the class struggle’. Prompted by the heads of delegations, some of the audience took this seriously and dutifully discarded the ‘capitalist propaganda’ we had distributed. Many, however, did not. As I left the auditorium dozens of delegates clamoured for more leaflets. Even in Eastern Europe closed societies had not always succeeded in creating closed minds.
Naively unaware that my actions had marked me down for surveillance, I travelled the following day with colleagues from the British delegation to a lakeside open-air concert ten miles outside the city. It had been laid on primarily for members of German youth groups – an ideal opportunity for leaflet distribution. I had been leafleting for only a few minutes when an enraged senior official of the Free German Youth thrust a copy in my face and set it alight. Clearly oblivious to the parallels with Nazi book-burning, he instructed everyone around him to do the same. Soon people were grabbing leaflets and, without even glancing at them, throwing them on the bonfire. This zealous ‘Guardian of the People’s Thoughts’ then gathered together a group of communist cadres; half were ordered to spread out amongst the crowd and seize all copies of the leaflets; the other half were ordered to arrest me which they did readily. Several British delegates rushed to my rescue as I was being hustled away; surrounding the East Germans, they tried to pull me away and for a few moments I was the object of a violent tug-of-war. Then, out of nowhere, half a dozen plain-clothes officials appeared and, after confiscating my remaining leaflets, ordered my release. Who were these anonymous gentlemen? Clearly they were of considerable importance since the Free German Youth officials instantly recognised and obeyed their authority. With a sigh of relief I rejoined the British delegates and we headed back to our quarters amidst dark mutterings from a minority that I was ‘bringing the British into disrepute’.
In the evening of the following day, the final day of the festival, all the national delegations were due to participate in a huge closing rally in Marx-Engels Platz. As delegates were encouraged to make their own banners, I jumped at the opportunity, inscribing my placard with ‘Homosexual Liberation! Revolutionary Homosexuals Support Socialism!’ in German. On the reverse, in English, it read ‘Gay Liberation Front – London. Civil Rights For Homosexuals’.
On the way to the rally, I stopped for a meal in a restaurant near Alexander Platz. As I finished, three East German officials in trilbys and trench coats came up and asked very politely if I intended to carry a gay rights banner during the closing ceremony. After a moment’s wonder that they knew, I confirmed that I would be.
Their courtesy immediately evaporated and with considerable anger they declared ‘It will confuse the minds of our youth. They will not understand it. We find it offensive.’ I replied that offence was not intended and that surely my placard could not be deemed offensive when the East German government itself had decriminalised homosexuality in 1968 (a year before West Germany) and had an official policy of tolerance towards lesbians and gay men. Besides, I protested, every other member of the British delegation would be carrying some banner, why should I be denied that right?
At this, they became increasingly aggressive. Sensing trouble, and feeling vulnerable inside the restaurant, I made to leave but found my path blocked by the East Germans who ordered the doors locked. A squad of sturdy Free German Youth trooped out of the kitchen, closed the doors and stood shoulder to shoulder in front of them. They were joined by several East German police who appeared from behind a screen near the manager’s office, and attempted to drag me into the kitchen, eagerly assisted by a few thuggish communists from the British delegation.
I tried to resist, helped by a number of British delegates who surrounded us and insisted that I be released. The scuffle had begun to attract attention from passers-by who crowded outside, peering through the plate glass windows of the restaurant. Suddenly, I was released. Perhaps the gathering crowd or the intervention of the British delegates made them fear unfavourable publicity. The doors were unlocked and I was let go but with a warning that ‘under no circumstances’ would I be allowed to carry a lesbian and gay rights banner in the rally.
Bruised, and shocked, I went to join the main British delegation. Outside, there was a large crowd including reporters, photographers and a sizeable detachment of East German police. Many other delegates, assembling for the march to Marx-Engels Platz, had banners and placards including the Young Liberals and Iraqi Students. I pulled my placard out from under my coat and held it up. Within moments I was besieged by an angry mob of British delegates accusing me of disloyalty and trouble making because the Free German Youth contingent were refusing to march with us unless my placard was removed. I replied that the East Germans had no right to dictate what placards the British delegation did or did not carry since we had all been invited to East Berlin without political preconditions, moreover our steering committee had already agreed that delegates were entitled to express their political viewpoints. Amidst cries that I was ‘destroying the atmosphere of the festival, disgracing the good name of the British delegation and deliberately trying to offend and embarrass East Germany’ I resisted the mischievous temptation to plead guilty to all these charges. Instead I reiterated that, since the East Germans had reasonably progressive laws regarding homosexuality (an age of consent for gay men of 18) they had nothing to fear from my harmless placard. The outraged homophobes, who included leading members of the National Union of Students and the Communist Party, lunged at me, fists flying and attempted to rip up the placard Supporters in the British delegation formed a human shield around me allowing the placard to remain intact for a while longer.
When they realised that force would not prevail in removing the placard, the anti-gay faction called for a vote to determine whether or not I should be allowed to march with it. At the end of a rowdy and intimidating 30 minute debate during which my opponents shouted me down and circulated among the delegates claiming (falsely) that the English translation of my placard read ‘East Germany Persecutes Homosexuals’, the vote went against me by a slim majority on a recount. I responded by denouncing this ‘democratic vote’ for the charade it was and refusing to accept a decision denying me a right granted to every other member of the delegation, hoisted my placard defiantly into the air. This provoked an enraged charge by the leftist homophobes; myself, and thirty sympathisers who gathered around me for protection, were punched, kicked, spat on and battered over the heads with banner poles. A few assailants, supposed socialists, threatened to kill me. Struggling to fend off the attackers with one hand while keeping the placard up with the other became impossible. A dozen hands reached out and ripped the placard in half – blows rained down on my head leaving me bloodied. At this point, my supporters decided we should leave. From the far end of the square, out of harm’s way, we watched as the rest of the British delegation marched off victorious to Marx Engels Platz complete with their cherished Free German Youth escort. As they disappeared, I held aloft a tattered piece of placard, a small piece of cardboard with the words ‘Homosexual Liberation’.
That was enough to provoke a spontaneous lesbian and gay rights demonstration in the heart of East Berlin. Disregarding the police, and to the astonishment of several hundred onlookers, we chanted homosexual rights slogans in German and distributed the remaining leaflets I had brought from Britain.
Ignoring demands that we disband, more than 30 of us decided to march to Marx-Engels Platz and join the rally. We had gone barely forty yards along the road when we were set upon violently by some of the anti-gay members of the British delegation who had apparently decide to stay behind and keep an eye on us. Fighting them off, we regrouped and marched onwards through Alexander Platz with the fragment of placard held high.
Our attackers had gone to get reinforcements. They returned with sticks and a large mob of angry Free German Youth and proceeded to go berserk. We had no choice but to run. Shepherded by HIB members and British delegation sympathisers, I ran non-stop through the dense crowds all the way to the flat of one of the members of the HIB / Free German Youth who had been supporting me during the festival. As I was bundled indoors HIB members warned that I might be arrested by the East German police and suggested that I should cross back into West Berlin later that night. After arranging for my luggage to be brought to the flat, they ushered me hastily up a fire escape and on to the roof: ‘Just a precaution in case you have been followed by the police’, they assured me.
Sitting on top of a high-rise block eight floors above Alexander Platz on a balmy summer evening, I was filled with a mixture of fear and exhilaration: fear at the thought of detention by the East German authorities and exhilaration that we had just staged the first lesbian and gay rights demonstration in East German history. Indeed, it was, as far as I know, the first such demonstration in any communist country. I was also concerned for the fate of the gay East Germans who had aided me. I could go back to Britain. They were stuck in East Germany.
Within an hour, my belongings had arrived and the HIB members recommended that I should wait until 2am then cross into the West by way of one of the smaller, more obscure border checkpoints where I would be least expected if the East German police were on the lookout for me.
The street leading to the checkpoint was long, narrow, dark and eerily silent. I was sweating all over and found myself nervously estimating the number of yards to the Wall. I arrived at the East German checkpoint, said good-bye to my friends and handed my papers to the guard. Checking through them he paused, looked intently at me and my HIB / Free German Youth friends lingering in the background, then with a sweet smile patted me cheerfully on the shoulder and directed me through no-man’s land to West Berlin.
The sense of relief I felt at stepping into the West Berlin border post on the other side was intense. But to the western officials, I was just another World Youth Festival delegate, a ‘communist dupe’, a ‘fellow traveller’. They treated me with rudeness and disdain, making me open my baggage and empty out all my belongings for inspection; opening every item which was sniffed, fingered and turned inside out with a running commentary of contemptuous remarks. I was back in the Free World.
The World Youth Festival ended officially on 5th August 1973. The reverberations from my actions continued for many weeks, even years, afterwards. From the many letters of solidarity I later received, it was clear that the leaflets distributed in East Berlin had found their way to people from almost every corner of the globe, from Irish Republican prisoners in Long Kesh internment camp to members of the African National Congress in South Africa. The events in East Berlin also became a catalyst for the subsequent formation of underground gay discussion circles in the Soviet Union and Poland; and in East Germany itself, they contributed to the consolidation and formalisation of the already nascent underground lesbian and gay rights organisation, the HIB.
Back in Britain, the incidents marked a turning point in the left’s commitment to the human rights of lesbians and gay men. The Socialist Workers’ Party announced its support for ‘socialist gay liberation’ although its motives were primarily opportunistic: it was concerned to try and exploit the events in East Berlin to bash the ‘Stalinist bureaucrats’ of the Soviet Bloc and the British Communist Party. Accordingly, at the autumn conference of the National Union of Students in 1973, the SWP led unprecedented moves to sack prominent Communist student leaders over their anti-gay stance at the festival. The SWP motion, which also won the backing of Liberal and Labour students, was only narrowly defeated on a card vote. The Communist Party was clearly both shocked at the closeness of the vote, and embarrassed by the revelations about its members’ homophobic antics in East Berlin. Within months, the party officially committed itself to homosexual equality. Since then, hardly a voice on the Left has dared to oppose lesbian and gay rights. The World Youth Festival of 1973 was, indeed, a small milestone in the long and unfinished battle for LGBT emancipation.