Editor’s note: Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Europe and assistant professor of history at George Mason University. He is the author of “States of Liberation: Gay Men Between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany” and “A Queer Theory of the State.” Huneke is currently at work on a book about lesbian women in Nazi Germany. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The air is growing muggy, and corporations are splashing rainbows across their logos: It’s LGBTQ Pride Month again. But unlike years past, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot to celebrate this June.
Across the country, conservative legislators have been proposing record numbers of laws targeting queer and especially trans people. These measures seek to ban LGBTQ books from libraries, deny trans youth the care they need, bar trans athletes from school sports and even prohibit teachers from mentioning sexual or gender identity. Far from the days of “love wins,” legislative persecution is now the order of the day.
These measures are traumatic, in part, because they remind LGBTQ Americans of a long history of persecution, from the sodomy trials of the Middle Ages to the Nazis’ terrorization of queer Germans to the horrors of the AIDS crisis. It’s a history we understand well, thanks to the efforts of generations of academics who labored to unearth this history.
Their work was politically important, too. Talking about queer persecution in the past gave activists a language with which to combat queer persecution in the present. As Harvey Milk memorably put it in 1978, rallying Californians against the infamous Briggs Initiative that would have allowed the state to fire queer teachers in public schools, “We are not going to sit back in silence as 300,000 of our gay sisters and brothers did in Nazi Germany.” (The Briggs Initiative ultimately failed.)
But the relentless focus on queer persecution — while politically necessary — often has the unfortunate effect of shunting to the side an equally important history of queer joy. After all, queer culture is a culture of play. Defined as sexual and gender outlaws, gay men, lesbians and trans people have long created countercultures that revel in subverting norms and expectations, in making things “camp.”
Yet while queer joy is alive and well everywhere from drag culture to TikTok, it can be hard to remember happiness when we’re fighting for our lives. Some, whether activists focused on preserving narrow rights or critics who tell us that there shouldn’t be “Kink at Pride,” would prefer to forget it.
But if we look to the past, there is a long history of queer joy to inspire us. In fact, some of the most famous works of queer history focus not only on persecution but also on how LGBTQ people were able to find meaning and pleasure even in the face of violence. John Boswell, the pioneering historian of homosexuality in the Middle Ages, revealed gay subcultures and relationships that crisscrossed medieval Europe. George Chauncey, author of the seminal “Gay New York,” uncovered a vibrant world of queer cruising — looking for sexual partners, often in public places — in the early 20th century. His work challenged the view that the queer past was solely the domain of persecution.
In my own research on sexuality in modern Germany, queer joy also appears in the unlikeliest of places. Take East Germany — an infamously repressive communist dictatorship from 1949 to 1989. Despite the best efforts of the notorious secret police, the Stasi, the country was home to a rambunctious gay and lesbian rights movement.
The first group to organize in the 1970s met in the cellar rooms of a museum run by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Germany’s most famous trans woman. There, they hosted poetry readings, political conversations, summer fetes and raucous cabarets. Men in dresses twirled with each other, while others clad in garish costumes performed skits. On one occasion, a member dressed as the fictional character Sally Bowles sang songs from the musical “Cabaret.”
Of course, East Germany was hardly the most violently homophobic or transphobic place in human history. Take the Nazi government, which convicted 50,000 queer men in its 12 years, sending around 10,000 to 15,000 of them to concentration camps along with an unknown number of trans and lesbian victims. It was undoubtedly one of the most violently anti-queer states in history.
But even here, queer joy persisted. In cities across the country, some bars kept serving queer clientele, defying the government’s homophobia and offering queer Germans small sanctuaries where they could mingle, dance and fall in love.
In the capital, queer women continued to host grand balls throughout the fascist period. Reports from the Gestapo, the Nazis’ feared secret police, chronicled monthly fetes attended by hundreds of Berliners: queer women and trans men sporting elegant evening coats, queer men and trans women dressed to the nines in flowing gowns. Throwing back schnapps and champagne, they danced into the wee hours of the morning. Even in the face of extermination, queer Germans found ways to experience pleasure and thereby resist fascist norms.
Not for one instant, of course, should we ignore persecution. Understanding how and why trans, queer, gay, bi and lesbian people were and are persecuted is vital to recognizing and combating oppression of all sorts today. But we must equally acknowledge and understand the joy of our queer ancestors, that they were not solely victims.
Without joy, it can be all too easy to slip into defeatism, to become militant ideologues or even to forget what it is we are struggling for. Too many queer activists and academics seem to forget that sex, happiness and desire are crucial to queer liberation.
At the end of the day, we hope for a world liberated from capricious and stultifying norms, a world where all humans are free to seek happiness. That is to say, we need more joy in our lives.
Unless we can experience pleasure in the here and now, those who want to eradicate queerness from public life will have already won. Finding joy in sex, dancing, flirting and loving is not just a matter of pleasure but also its own form of resistance against anti-LGBTQ hate.