German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle (right) and
his partner Michael Mronz in Bayreuth (July 2008)
ONE OF THE GREAT pleasures of living abroad is sitting back and observing how different other countries are from the US. Just imagine a story like this one hitting the press in the land of Pat Robertson and the home of the "wide stance":
Last week, the world's first openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, travelled to Japan and China. In the runup to the journey, a noticeably agitated Japanese protocol officer confronted the minister's staff and informed them that it just wouldn't do for Germany's chief diplomat to bring his life partner along on his first official state visit to the Land of the Rising Sun. "Homosexuality in artistic circles is accepted in Japan," he announced. "But in business and politics, it is a taboo." Was this the start of an international incident? No, at all - Westerwelle, head of the Free Democratic party, merely laughed the comment off and headed for the airport with his boyfriend, Michael Mronz. Upon their arrival in Tokyo, the couple shared several official activities together, including a purification ritual at a Shinto shrine and a raft of official photos depicting the happy couple standing side by side. While Westerwelle was negotiating such touchy topics as the global financial crisis and Japanese support for the Afghan mission, Mronz took part in a routine "lady's program," complete with sightseeing and museum visits in the company of the Japanese prime minister's wife. (Mronz financed his trip privately.)
None of this surprised anyone back home. For years, it had been an open secret in Bonn and Berlin that Westerwelle, 49, was gay. As early as 2001, he gave his express permission for his name to be included in a published list of gay public figures. But it was only in the summer of 2004, at a birthday party for Christian Democratic leader (and now chancellor) Angela Merkel, that he made his first public appearance at the side of Mronz, 42, a prominent sports manager with whom he was already sharing a home. They were seen in the same general vicinity many times after that, including at such formal events as the Bayreuth Wagner Festival (where they did not sit next to each other). In the summer of 2007, Mronz accompanied Westerwelle on a visit to China - officially as a member of a trade delegation. Nasty rumors spread about the two, including a story from within Westerwelle's own party about an alleged blackmail attempt by Mossad.
No doubt about it - Westerwelle's lifestyle was becoming a political liability even among the Free Democrats, a generally tolerant lot roughly comparable to the business wing of the US Republicans with a sprinkling of libertarian spirit. So in the spring of 2008, Westerwelle - who hoped to lead his party into a coalition government with the Christian Democrats in the 2009 Bundestag elections with himself in the coveted post of foreign minister - decided to head the press off at the pass: He invited the scandal sheets to a press conference in an art gallery belonging to his partner's mother in Cologne on an afternoon in June. There, seated alongside Mronz, his mother, and a number of top Free Democratic politicians, Westerwelle spent an hour talking about his private life. The press published smiling photos of everyone and the "controversy" has since evaporated.
Westerwelle and Mronz arriving in Beijing
on January 15
Things were not always this free and easy. In fact, Germany has evolved light years since the passage of the Criminal Code's infamous "Section 175" in 1872, which criminalized homosexual acts between men. A mere denunciation could ruin anyone's career. The Harden-Eulenburg Affair of 1907-09, which revolved around alleged cross-dressing and extravagant homoerotic behavior among Kaiser Wilhelm's most intimate associates, shook the imperial cabinet and may conceivably have helped push Germany towards global war and anti-Semitism. (The journalist Maximilian Harden, who uncovered these goings-on and lived to regret it, was Jewish). It sure didn't help gay people any.
A devastating caricature (originally printed in the German
satire magazine Ulk in 1907) depicting Kaiser Wilhelm
and Empress Auguste Viktoria at the height of the scandal:
The wife: "I wish you could be a man!"
The husband: "Yes, I wish you could be one too!"
Following their murder of the rebellious and openly gay Storm Trooper leader Ernst Röhm in the "Night of Long Knives" in 1934, the Nazis practically declared war on gays as "enemies of the people," eventually convicting 50,000 men and sending up to 15,000 of them to concentration camps (the Nazis paid virtually no attention to lesbians). False charges of homosexuality brought down Hitler's army commander-in-chief Werner von Fritsch in 1938.
After the war, the situation for gays improved considerably in both Germanys, although the stigma remained. In 1983, four-star Bundeswehr general Günter Kiessling, the Deputy Supreme Commander of NATO, was accused of homosexual acts, which supposedly exposed him to potential blackmail by the KGB. The defense minister secretly forced Kiessling to retire (he was reinstated when the affair hit the press a short time later). The German Bundestag finally abolished Section 175 in 1994.
Together since 1993:
Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit (r) and his life partner,
neurosurgeon Jörg Kubicki
The gay rights movement may have driven the beast into the open, but one man is credited with single-handedly killing off homophobia in German public life: Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit (56). At a Social Democratic Party conference in 2001, shortly before the election, Wowereit responded to persistent rumors about his orientation by stating publicly: "I am gay, and that's a good thing." This single sentence essentially wiped away a century and a quarter of public discrimination. The press decided that the mayor and his partner were "cute" instead of "queer" and has loved them for it ever since. So by the time Germany's premiere political talk show host Anne Will (43) informed her audience in 2007 that she was a lesbian and had been living with another woman for several years, the public's response was a collective yawn. "Who Anne Will's shares her life with is entirely her own private business," the program director of the NDR network remarked. "We are only interested in how she does her job."
Top talkshow host Anne Will (r) and her
life partner, Prof. Monika Meckel
The collective reaction to Westerwelle's private life so far has been: So what's the big deal, anyway? In fact, there is no big deal. Gay politicians "out" themselves, "God" takes little apparent notice, and the world keeps turning on its axis just as it always has before. Society has more intractable issues on its plate, after all.
This doesn't mean that German gays have an easier time than those living in other countries. In some areas, particularly in Catholic regions and in small towns with high concentrations of neonazis, their situation is probably far worse than in America. Nor is full-fledged same-sex marriage likely to be approved here any time soon. But on the public level, gayness is increasingly a non-issue and a cleric like Pat Robertson would be laughed off the airwaves. Does this greater openness about all - no, make that most - things sexual make Europe a better place than the USA? No, not at all. But it does make it a more honest one.