Do Wash Your Dirty Linen in Public! On the Potential of Conflict in Queer German History

Berlin Pride in 1997. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Queer Art of HistoryFrom time to time, the New Fascism Syllabus will be hosting roundtable discussions centered around emerging historiographical contributions, questions, or issues. Featuring some of the leading voices on these various debates, these contributions in this series are intended to serve as an Open Access window onto new directions in historical analysis on topics ranging from Fascism, right-wing populism, and authoritarianism in the 20th century. In this roundtable discussion, scholars of German Queer Studies explore the significant methodological contributions made by Jennifer Evans’ The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship after Fascism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 2023). This roundtable discussion was co-curated by Anna Hájková, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.

French women used to gather at the communal laundry to wash clothes. While doing so, they exchanged precious information, shared the latest news, and created spaces for discussion, gossip, laughers, and dispute. This sentiment seemingly elicited disapproval among individuals of greater influence. The writer Honoré de Balzac famously advocated for the idea that laundry ought to be cleansed within the confines of the domestic sphere. “Laver son linge sale en famille” (washing dirty linen among one’s own family) has become a famous expression. Yet open conflicts outside and inside collectives such as family – from birth or chosen – have the potential to break taboos or uncover voices usually pushed to the margin. In political collectives and in small communal spaces, glossy respectable narratives have often emerged from discussions beyond closed doors. In her new book, Jennifer V. Evans not only accentuates the inherent possibilities within conflicts but also pleas for the embracement of intricacy and disorder. Her writings constitute a compelling summons for queer German history to transcend historical respectability and its historiographical inclinations toward pandering to the predominant socio-cultural facets of German society (Dominanzgesellschaft). Her appeal to wash queer dirty linen in public implies a move away from a queer German history defining itself through the heterosexist gaze or from fixed identity categories ingrained in the violence of persecutions and the medical gaze (Evans 2023: 6). According to Evans, the history of queer experiences is characterized not only by its complexity but also by its inherent contradictions, instances of violence, eroticism, occasional sorrow, and over and again, intense passion.

The Queer Art of History is more than an intervention, it is both an act of love and a vehement reminder of the traps of respectability. Evans’ body of work has already uncovered the dangers of erasing conflict, underlined in her previous publications on German queer memory culture (Evans 2014), but also in her contributions in the German Feuilleton as she prominently criticized some cis-gay-centered historians pretending that conflicts in the queer present differed from an illusionary unified gay and lesbian peaceful past (Evans 2021). Evans not only shows that queer activists in Germany have often disagreed, but also emphasizes that it is exactly these conflicts, which uncovered diverse voices from the archives and allowed queer politics to evolve. A classic example would be the storming of the Beethovenhalle in Bonn in July 1980 (Evans 2023: 149), when various factions of German gay liberation clashed against each other during a roundtable with politicians. The presence of the political establishment had irked many activists at the time. Relating these events of German gay history, Evans highlights the potential of this “failure”, this fraught encounter between activists, convincingly demonstrating how a queer history focusing on kinship should also focus on the opportunities inherent to conflict. Indeed, the clashes at the Beethovenhalle were also a political turning point for German queer politics. Echoing Jack Halberstam’s considerations of queer failures (Halberstam 2011), Evans’ invites us to embrace these particular moments in the past as many historical snapshots from which we can learn as historians and as activists.

Evans’ queering of German history is not about adding more voices to a teleological queer past, that is, a linear narrative leading from the persecution and closet to institutionalization and progress. Already in 2016 she indicated a new cap for German queer history, suggesting new methodologies away from identity and minoritarian impulses to belong (Evans 2016). In her new book, Evans reminds us: “minoritarian impulses are everywhere we look today, and while they help anchor experiences still very much under threat, they can also invoke new universalisms that gloss over the different modalities of situatedness and power that also make up social groups” (Evans 2023: 3). The siren calls of identity have long been the figurehead of a German gay and lesbian history after fascism. Anchored in “wounded attachments” to belong (Brown 1993) activists also navigated their own inherited trauma of persecution in a country where the act of coming to term with the national socialist past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) became a conditio sine qua non for political representability (Tremblay 2022) eventually leading to intense memory conflicts at the turn of the 21st century (Brusius 2022).

Pointing to the work of precursors such as Fatima El-Tayeb (2012) and Jin Haritaworn (2011 & 2016), Evans mentions how liberal urges to get a seat at the table often meant demonizing racialized queer experiences, denying them queerness, and shaping a queer identity tailored to the state, to the mainstream and to a white imaginary. As Laurie Marhoefer (2019), Christopher Ewing (2018) and others have demonstrated, readings of the queer past through a liberal identarian lens based on medical debates and the recuperation of a violent past has often ignored intersectionality and anchored gay and lesbian narratives in a story fictionally unmarked by race, essentially pairing German queerness with whiteness. Evans’ intersectional approach to kinship looks at the margin and exposes the power and contradictions of queerness not as an identity category, but: “as a set of relations produced by and through shifting and unequal dynamics of power” (Evans 2023: 3). She is not adding racialized and other discarded voices to white German queer narratives, but emphasizes conflict, identifying how white historiography had until now structurally excluded voices to the benefit of a clean genealogy – let us say from Hirschfeld to same-sex marriage –, and how a history of queer persecutions in Germany has been taken up as “a hallmark of white liberal citizenship” (Evans 2023: 13).

The Queer Art of History is not only asking us to embrace conflict in the past, but also conflict in the present. Queer German history has so long been afraid to wash its dirty linen in public – to address its ambivalence. From scholars shying away from mentioning Ernst Röhm’s sexuality to avoid propagating stereotypes of the “Nazi homosexual” that have been prevalent since the 1930s to debates about the necessity of diving in the problematic aspects of “pedosexuality,”in the archive, queer German history has been afraid of giving right-wing populism more ammunitions in a culture war trying to get rid of all political advancements by the New Left. Evans is not the only one shedding light on the darker sides of this history. Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller’s book and podcast on “bad gays” have forced us to dive into this history (Lemmey & Miller 2022) and Kate Davison refers to what she calls the “imperfect villains” of queer history. Similarly, Laura Doan has warned us against the paradox of looking for ancestral queer geographies in the past yet trying to deconstruct categories in the queer present (Doan 2013). Evans’ queer kinship helps us looking at the distant past, including its “bad gays”. Linking experiences of the past together through kinship allows us to analyze queerness without having to fix categories of analysis, classify our historical actors or deny them fluidity in their conception of the world. Bad gays and queer heroes are kin and looking for kinship underlines how “the critical work we do is to disturb the practice of essentialism, of seeing queerness unidimensionally, as inherently to progressive causes, always on the side of right” (Evans 2023: 3). The past, Evans tells us, is plural and byzantine. For instance, bringing us to the fetish scene of 1975, she points out how the celebration of the country’s first darkrooms and its leather bars were originally denounced as “male fascistoid sexuality” by some actors of German gay liberation, afraid that such an aesthetic contained the seeds of the movement’s demise (Evans 2023: 144).

Haunted by fascism, German queer history and activists – even so-called radicals – were on the lookout for persecution, therefore often framing and reducing queer politics through the injuries of the past. The Queer Art of History brings us across spaces of kinship through art and history. Looking for desire and messiness and echoing the work by Heather Love, it invites us to embrace differently the potential of ambivalence as well as the imperatives of a trouble past of violence. Instead of being paralyzed and defined by cultural and historical trauma, Evans asks us to anchor our politics and our writings in their emancipatory promises. (Evans 2023: 200; Heather Love 2009). This includes fraught moments of kinship carried on the shoulders of ambivalent historical actors linked to the violent past. The book brings us in the Berliner borough of Kreuzberg, opening the doors of Elisabeth Hartung’s Bier-Bar and underscores how a club created by a woman with ties to the NS-Women League and with an NSDAP membership created one of the most popular joint of the West Berlin queer scene after the war (Evans 2023: 47).

The Queer Art of History is not only an invitation for historians to question their space of inquiry, that is, a historiographical intervention on ways to look for queerness in the archive. It also underscores the imperative of challenging the entrenched power dynamics intrinsic to historiographic inquiry, in other words, the power held by historians, by the archive and by historical genealogies based on linear time. It accentuates the discord between the conventional historical exploration of gay and lesbian narratives (for example a definition of the queer subject through the medical gaze or through a history of criminalization) and a more inclusive framework of intersectional queer historiography. Here Evans suggests looking at queer worldmaking through a reparative reading of erotic photography of the past, for example the works of Herbert Tobias (Evans 2023: 71) or, inspired by the writings of Eliza Steinbock on trans* visibility, deconstructing gender chronologies through the reading of trans* photography (Evans 2023: 87). Furthermore, criticizing once more an institutionalization of politics focusing only on persecutions of the past, she warns us that queer liberalism “has turned into an endorsement of the status quo, which in today’s landscape is littered with fears of feminist, gender, and trans* critique bordering on anti-intellectualism (Evans 2023: 223). In order to confront contemporary assaults on queer lives, Evans argues that queer history needs to break free from the frameworks and narratives of progress engrained in liberalism.

The Queer Art of History finally celebrates conflict as manifestation of deep love for queer history. Evans highlights many times through the book the importance of Black feminist and queer critiques of German queer history (Evans 2023: 18). Instead of biting back in an act of white insecurity, Evans’ points to the generosity of these critiques, so many open doors for a better understanding of the archives and a better writing of queer history. This is refreshing in a German context, as a whole series of homonationalist publications published more or less by the same consortium of authors by the Berliner publisher Querverlag previously accused intersectional queer feminists of an almost pathologizing need to bite back at criticism (l’Amour Lalove 2017; Amelung 2020).  For Evans, a dialogue with Black feminist and queer thought is an act of love, of growing together, of kinship. Similarly, her deconstruction and appraisal of German homonationalism is far from petty, as she tries to understand ways in which racialized and structural violence inside the queer community transpire in academic publications. So doing, Evans invites her readers to confront the power dynamics of white-centered queer scholarship.

It only makes sense that she also revisits her own writings, open about ways her thought has changed following her new readings (Evans 2023: 21). This is reminiscent of other moments of kinship in queer German art, for example the queer Berlin-based rapper Sookee, who openly criticized her own albums in subsequential releases, answering and discussing assessments of her songs by the community. By opening her heart, her thought-processes and debating her own positionality, Evans is only reiterating a core aspect of her book but proving that whatever these French writers said back then, it is after all, necessary and productive to wash one’s dirty laundry in public.


Sébastien Tremblay is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in modern and contemporary European History at the Seminar for History and the Didactic of History of the Europa-Universität Flensburg in Germany



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