by Oliver Niels Völkel (Free University of Berlin)
At the Free University of Berlin, German courses at the level B2 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) are usually taught with a content-oriented component generally connected to the city of Berlin. This gives students the opportunity to choose their language course based on thematic criteria. In fall 2017, I started to focus one of my classes on Berlin as a queer city from 1900 to the present. A central part of this course is dedicated to a project in which students research queer persons from the city’s history and subsequently introduce them to the class. For the purpose of the class, I follow bell hook’s definition of queerness: “queer not as being about who you’re having sex with – that can be a dimension of it – but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” This definition speaks to varied lived experiences of people minoritized because of their sexual, romantic, and gender identities. I am drawn to this definition, because it creates a bridge between the people we study and queer students in the class. This definition can also serve to build solidarity among queer people and members of other minoritized groups constantly at odds with a society defining itself as white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied, and monolingual.
For this assignment, I provide the students with a selection of LGBTIQA+ people associated with Berlin’s history from which they may choose one for their project. Students are also encouraged to focus their work on an additional figure from Berlin’s queer history if they like. As queer people, these historical figures not only help to deconstruct the image of a cis-heterosexual Germany as it is presented in their other textbooks, but, as I will show, also do other political work. Including this (or a similar) assignment contributes to the diversification and decolonization of the German language course. In recent years there has been a change in the discourse of German as a Foreign Language (GFL) about the role of cultural studies within the German language classroom. This shift in discourse is at least partially in line with the goals of diversifying and decolonizing German Studies. It addresses how GFL materials and the classroom essentialize images of clearly defined (national) cultures within intercultural language studies. Such reductionist approaches to culture have given way to the so-called “Diskursive Landeskunde” (Altmayer 2017), which aims instead to offer students opportunities to partake in German and multilingual discourses and thereby position themselves in relation to language learning—as opposed to being positioned by forceful and simplified narratives about “culture.”
Acknowledging the plurality of discourses circulating in the classroom and those shaping cultural history aligns with Adrienne Merritt’s reflections on diversity and decolonization in the German language classroom. Merritt notes, “Instructors face the gargantuan task of generating and sustaining a classroom culture that enables, empowers, and includes as many students as they can reach. Culture, it seems, does truly lie in the heart of the issues we encounter within the classroom” (2020, 184). Whereas she focuses on students of Color, I would like to extend her insights to speak about the experiences of queer students. When instructors create a learning environment, which empowers queer students to reflect on issues of LGBTIAQ+ in both the context of their own communities as well as those in the “target” culture, they will be well positioned to question and dismantle the homogenized representation of culture(s). Furthermore, through their learning they will be able to make visible the diverse social interrelationships of groups within our societies.
Whereas my entire course was dedicated to queer life, this assignment might also be implemented in language courses that have limited space for content-related work. Before considering to implement this assignment in your own course, consider if you have sufficient space to do these historical figures justice. It is important to actually provide a range of positions and perspectives in such an assignment. If the number of historical figures is too small, the effect could otherwise be that they only serve as a tokenistic cypher on the basis of which only the status quo is reinforced (see Merritt 2020, 193. Merritt outlines this with regard to representations on Afro-Germans who, when only introduced as an add-on, preserve the imagination of a white Germany; see also Gunther Schmidt 2004, who shows this effect on the representation of queer figures in the media to reinforce cis-heteronormativity).
Before turning to specifics about the assignment, I would like to address a couple of aspects that make the work on queer historical figures valuable for a language course. In what follows, I will discuss how learners enhance their understanding of language pragmatics by studying queer life. I will consider the benefits for students who become acquainted with select theoretical concepts that are connected with the queer personalities they study. Finally, I will consider how learners’ exposure to activist and identity issues related to the lives of the people they study offers learners important insight about how marginalized peoples navigate life in Berlin.
Working with presentations on queer personalities places a great emphasis on sociolinguistic and sociocultural competencies and enables the students to learn and develop their own linguistic precision and sensitivity. Students not only learn terminology for various sub-groups constituting the broad spectrum of LGBTIAQ+ life, but they also see that there may be different individual self-referencing and description cultures within each community, all of which are valid means to use language to self-fashion and describe. By working with various historical figures, students are made aware of the specifics of (queer) language and learn that the development of their designations is a common element in many emancipation movements and that these processes are often lengthy and contested. For instance, in one lesson, students work in groups on a term (schwul, lesbisch, trans/ transsexuell/ transgender/ transident, and queer in the German context) and its history in the German-speaking LGBTIAQ+ communities in order to present it to their fellow students using a wall newspaper. We reserve one wall in the classroom for this assignment. Each working group is given one section of the “newspaper space” to curate with information about the term they worked on. For the exercise, I provide them with different materials such as excerpts of journals, blogs, and videoclips. Especially the latter two are important because they are often made by members of the respective subgroups and therefore give a real insight into what is (un)disputed within the subgroup.
Although some aspects about this work are global in nature, students learn about queer terminology in a German-speaking context, which they can compare with their other languages. They learn that select terms or naming conventions have numerous similarities as well as clear differences across languages. In comparison with their other languages, they can also reflect on the fact that the respective languages have different requirements for how to linguistically serve certain groups. Furthermore, the students learn that German has been influenced by English, especially in recent years, but that it also shows deviating developments of terminology. The latter is particularly pronounced in the negotiation process about the naming of hostilities directed against queer people. For instance, recent years have seen a clear shift away from the internationally used terms homophobia, transphobia, etc., to terms integrating the German word feindlich, as in homofeindlich, transfeindlich, queerfeindlich or schwulenfeindlich. It seems that this change has been promoted in particular by the trans community, which has close ties to both the disabled community, which criticizes the ending -phobic as ableist, and the women’s movement, in which the term frauenfeindlich was used alongside misogyn.
An example in which the students themselves have to deal with the intricacies of language is the choice of personal pronouns in their presentation, which often requires careful consideration. Students will be challenged with the fact that there are no or many equivalents for the English they in singular use. None, because in German the uniformity of singular sie and plural sie do not make available a pronoun of the “classical grammar” for non-binary use. Many, because a number of new pronouns have been developed due to this deficiency, from which it remains to be seen whether and if one will prevail as a general non-binary pronoun. This point also leads to another important issue: in order to maintain the integrity of the featured historical figure it is not only important to think about the pronouns but also to consider how we talk about their queerness. Some persons can be described as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans because there are relevant testimonials. But there are also a number of people in history for whom this is not possible, especially in the case of gender non-conforming people. Furthermore, it is also important to look at the sources closely and critically. Some sources, particularly those related to victims of National Socialism and men convicted under Paragraph 175, contain homomisic or transmisic descriptions. Therefore, it is important not to adopt these descriptions and any attendant misgendering in the presentation. Here, the help of the instructor is often required to identify such negative framing.
The queer historical figures assignment provides an excellent starting point to introduce key concepts in gender and sexuality studies. For example, by studying the life and work of Audrey Lorde, students are positioned to learn about theories of intersectional feminism of central importance for the Afro-German (Women’s) Movement, which she helped form. Although the presentation focuses on individual figures, their surroundings become visible as well. In Lorde’s case students speak about Black German thinkers and writers like May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye. Here, I take time to help students understand that all historical figures require careful consideration of various aspects informing their lived experience and that their presentation should reflect this care. At times, this care reaches beyond the confines of the language course itself, for it leads students to additional self-directed learning.
Karl M. Baer, an intersex person who was assigned as girl by birth and who only learned as a young adult during a general medical examination that he was intersex, offers an example of the above-mentioned need for a scholarship of care. In 1907 he published his autobiographical book Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren under the pseudonym N.O. Body. Baer is one of the very few historical intersex people who are relatively well known. Even more so, it is important that he does not serve as a pure token for the inclusion of intersex, but that he is introduced to learn more about intersex people, a lesson upon which I expand throughout the unit (see below). I ask students to consider the great diversity among intersex people. In particular, I ask students to reflect on the struggle for physical integrity in childhood, which is still the most important point for intersex activists, especially in the so-called western world, where operational alignments to the binary sex model increased significantly since the 1950s. Here, students learn that it is a relatively recent phenomenon that strict binarity has been enforced on human bodies. Historically, there are examples of the opposite. For instance, the Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußischen Staaten (General State Laws for the Prussian States) from 1792 dictated that people who could not be assigned to the man-woman paradigm were allowed to choose one of the binary sexes at the age of 18.
My course provided students the opportunity to go into depth and work more extensively on the subject of intersex. In order to present students with various accounts by intersex people, I showed short clips and videos from the television programs Quarks (2018) and Planet Schule (2018), in which intersex people reported on their diverse experiences. In principle, it also seems possible to make these materials available as extra material if there is no time in the classroom for this issue. This could ensure that intersex people are not only talked about, but that they can speak for themselves and, furthermore, that the students learn that there is a wide range of experiences defining life for members of one subgroup of the LGBTIAQ+.
Queer historical figures related to Berlin and Germany are highly diverse in other respects. They belong to different social classes and educational contexts. In addition to white Germans (e.g., Anita Berber, Rosa von Praunheim), there are Jewish Germans (e.g., Eric Charell, Karl M. Baer, Gertrude Sandmann), migrants who lived in Berlin temporarily (e.g., Christopher Isherwood, Audre Lorde) or permanently (e.g., Romy Haag, Fereidoun Ettehad) and of course Black Germans (e.g. Peggy Piesche, Katharina Oguntoye) and Persons of Color (e.g., İpek İpekçioğlu, Nasser EL-Ahmad). Many of these are integrated into the assignment.
It is instructive for students that they learn to grasp history through the perspective of a marginalized group. For example, the course does not foreground the Nazi Era in order to then consider how queer people experienced and survived this period; rather, the positioning, possibilities, and conditions defining queer life in this period become clear on the basis of individual biographies. To a certain extent, this consideration follows Klaus Bergemann’s didactic principles of personalization and multiperspectivity, which propose to conceive of the acquisition of historical knowledge as a bottom-up process that enables many perspectives on an issue. To this end, the research assignment and the subsequent presentations do not include only queer heroines*heroes but also persons whose actions need to be viewed critically. Such a series not only reveals intersectional queer experiences (e.g., Jewish-German queers), but also confronts the learners with having to endure ambivalences and shows that lives rarely follow straightforward paths.
For instance, Gustaf Gründgens served the Nazi regime. After the so-called Röhm Putsch, which led to a wider persecution of gay men, he fled to Switzerland. Eventually he returned to Nazi Germany after Goebbels personally granted him security – quite contrary to the wishes of other members of the Nazi party. Gründgens even entered into a fictitious marriage, even though his homosexuality was an open secret at the time. He willingly chose his career and enjoyed marginal fame during the Nazi Era. On an individual level, he did help some Jewish or queer artists to survive, for example by helping them leave the country. Such gestures made it easier for him to get the so-called Persilschein, which certified denazification after the end of the war. Ultimately, however, he went along with and supported the NS system.
Another example of an ambivalent life path is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who was a teenager during the Nazi era and worked for a junk dealer in household clearances. After the war, she saved the abandoned Gutshaus Mahlsdorf from vandalism and set up a Wilhelminian style museum with objects she had collected. The provenance of these objects is not entirely clear; it can be assumed that at least some came from households of Jewish Berliners who either had to flee Germany leaving behind most of their possessions or who were murdered in the Shoah. When the museum was being built, von Mahlsdorf began to wear almost exclusively women's clothing and called herself Lotte, a name derived from her male birth name. For a long time, the Gutshaus Mahlsdorf was one of the very few meeting places for queer people in East Berlin and the GDR. Nonetheless, von Mahlsdorf’s role has to be questioned, too: she may have secured herself the opportunity to run queer festivals and the museum in Mahlsdorf by collaborating with the Stasi (Staatssicherheit, the GDR Secret Service) and naming participants of her queer parties, which might have given the Stasi leverage to blackmail them. Even though homosexuality was no longer punishable in the GDR (earlier than in West Germany), it was strongly taboo in society. By researching the life and work of von Mahlsdorf students work almost exclusively with self-testimonials and autobiographical texts. By doing so, they are positioned to learn how to deal with, evaluate, classify, and contextualize sources.
I believe that this type of work in class can stimulate empathy for the lived experiences of marginalized peoples. The language classroom becomes an important venue in which students learn that non-cis-heteronormative structures of desire and gender models exist(ed) across history. The historical figures often show how important community building is for marginalized people: many of the figures introduced in the class influenced each other and helped each other live life in Berlin. For me it was important to show such community-building in my class with the hope queer students feel more included when studying German. Queer students expressed in surveys how much they were empowered by this class and our assignment in particular. One of the questions of this survey is why they chose this course with LGBTIAQ+ topics. Most note that being queer themselves is often the reason for the enrollment. For example, one student noted, “I am a member of the LGBTI community and I am interested in history. At my home university, I have no opportunities to learn about LGBTI topics.” Another student noted, “I am gay, but I never had the opportunity to deal with the topic, especially on the academic side. Thank you so much for offering the course.” Yet another student noted, “It was important to me that I could feel safe in a new room and I thought in a queer course the people are for sure nice.” Some students were more driven by learning new things. To this end, one student noted, “It used to be brand new for me and I don't have access to LGBTIQ knowledge. In my home country there are still many prejudices about it. That is why I want to acquire more information to remove these bad prejudices, at least among my family members.” Another student noted, “I knew that Berlin is a gay capital and I wanted to know more about it.” As this small sample of responses shows, including queer topics can have an positive impact on student experiences in language classrooms. It has had a very affirmative impact on me as a queer teacher as well.
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