“Different From the Others: LGBT History Month and the Century-Old Legacy of an Early Gay Rights Film” By Chase Dimock

A still from Anders Als die Andern (1919)

 

 

Different From the Others:

LGBT History Month and the Century-Old Legacy

of an Early Gay Rights Film

By Chase Dimock

 

October is LGBT History Month, and this year it is as important as ever to study our past. With all of our recently won civil rights and our dramatically increased visibility in society, the LGBT community sometimes assumes that the features of our culture and the values of our politics are recent inventions. Conversely, sometimes we make the opposite mistake and assume that LGBT people of the past (even before the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender first came about) thought of themselves and the community exactly as we do today.

These misconceptions are primarily due to the fact that American culture has closeted LGBT history for so long. We learned little to nothing about the history of the LGBT community in school and have thus been denied the benefit that comes with studying history or even being aware that we have a history. I remember, as a teenager, reading gay poet A E Housman in my English textbook, not knowing that his poems written about his male “friends” were actually addressed to the men he loved romantically. It was more important for those who created the curriculum and standards for our education to lead us into misunderstanding the material than to risk admitting to young people that men could love other men in the 19th century or today for that matter.

Having a history is an essential part of having a cultural identity. A history explains where we are in the present and allows us greater insight into the direction in which we are heading. It reminds us that ideas, values, and expressions do not materialize out of nothing; they are the product of the collective communal action of the people over time. This history is always evolving and our story is never finished being told because we are constantly discovering more about it. Finally, knowing our history cautions us against the uncritical belief in a progress narrative. It is easy to assume that we live in the most civilized and enlightened of times and that progress inevitably arcs toward justice. In reality, civil rights are often a cycle of advancement and blow back. Social action is usually greeted by an even greater and opposite repressive reaction. We cannot afford to presume that our current social standing is permanent or that it will naturally improve in the future.

This insight that studying LGBT History grants us is featured in the first film to seriously discuss LGBT identity, Anders Als die Andern(Different From the Others) made in Germany in 1919. Directed by Richard Oswald and co-written by and co-starring legendary sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the silent film tells the story of a music teacher in love with an adult student. He falls victim to blackmail and in despair, he looks for answers. A quack offers a cure through hypnotherapy, but when that fails, he seeks out Dr. Hirschfeld’s advice. Hirschfeld assures him that his inclinations are normal and that it is not homosexuality that is shameful, but rather, it is our intolerant society that deserves scrutiny. I don’t want to go too far into the plot because I would rather you watch it for yourself. 

 

One reason why this film is an important part of our cultural legacy is that it reminds us that many of the same basic issues we confront today were part of the same struggle 100 years ago. Grappling with a culturally enforced notion of “difference,” dealing with the disproportionate rate of depression and suicide among LGBT people, and finding access to queer friendly counsel and health care are still difficult parts of the coming out process. Yet, much has changed since Hirschfeld’s time. The idea of sexuality as distinct from gender identity was still evolving. Most psychologists still subscribed to the inversion model of the homosexual man as “a woman on the inside” and a homosexual woman as a “man on the inside.” Hirschfeld himself proposed the idea of the homosexual as a “third sex,” though he later revised that idea after further work with his associates. Continue reading

Learning from (Illinois) Nazis

 

Learning From (Illinois) Nazis

By Ezra Claverie

In the weeks since a white supremacist in Charlottesville used a car to attack anti-fascists, a lot of people have been posting on Facebook the scene from The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980) where Jake and Elwood drive their car at Illinois Nazis. The Nazis jump off the bridge, humiliated but unhurt, then spend the rest of the film trying, but failing, to kill Jake and Elwood.

The bridge scene gets laughs in part because of the self-seriousness of the leader of the Nazis, played by steely-eyed but short and unimposing Henry Gibson, but also in part because Jake and Elwood transgress a liberal norm. They defy the limits of an American liberalism that says the law should protect the speech (and so on) even for groups who would, given control of the levers of state power, use that power not only to eliminate legal protections for dissenting speech, but also to expel or exterminate opponents.

If Jake and Elwood really believed in American-style liberalism–the old “I may disagree with you but I defend your right to speak”–we wouldn’t have the scene, as famous as any in the film. The brothers’ transgression allows audiences to experience vicariously the thrill of flouting this norm against a group that most people already love to hate. But the stakes for Jake and Elwood, white Catholics not affiliated with the left, began low. Had they just waited their turn in the traffic jam, they might have had no problems even if the Illinois Nazis had later captured the government. (The same does not hold for their Black band mates or the Black artists whose songs the Blues Brothers cover. And would Illinois Nazis even allow the performance of such entartete musik?)

Karl Schmitt–the German, coincidentally Catholic, and, after 1933, Nazi jurist–explicitly articulated a principle relevant here, which American liberalism rejects: the friend-enemy distinction, upon which (Schmitt argued) all political life operates.

According to Schmitt, you must define as “enemy” one who seeks to eliminate the circumstances that allow you and your group, collectively, to exist as political actors. The Enemy “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” 

Rivals and opponent groups may bitterly debate and wrangle with your group, but provided they do not constitute an existential threat, you can count them as Friends. In contrast, an Enemy aims to remove your group from the field of political contestation. Schmitt therefore argued that only political parties not intent on neutralizing or dismantling the parliamentary system, as the Nazis did, should be allowed participation in the Reichstag. Nevertheless, when they came to power, he joined.

Alex James Fields, the white supremacist who drove the car that killed Heather D. Heyer and injured many others, identified his Enemies. He drove a car into a crowd that included members of Democratic Socialists of America and Industrial Workers of the World, leftist groups of the kind that fascists, whether in or out of state power, target for killing. Fields, who associated with the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, sought to eliminate the fundamental circumstance that allowed his Enemies to exist as political actors: their lives. For observers and survivors, the attack functioned as terrorism, an implicit warning: if you come out against white supremacy, the same could happen to you. He clarified American white supremacy as an existential threat to anti-racists and the left.

And yet on the same grounds we could characterize Jake and Elwood’s rush at the Illinois Nazis as an act of political terrorism. We hear the car’s engine revving, but we never hear the brakes; nothing in the scene suggests that Elwood will stop if the Nazis stand their ground. Their leap into the river gives them and the movie a means of escape from the serious question of what to do about people who, if they came to power, would slaughter you, me, or our friends. The failure of Jake and Elwood’s act of terrorism, like the failure of the Nazis’ quest for vengeance, turns the scene into comedy.

Liberals, both in the classical European and American senses, tend to imagine a political world without Enemies, where political stakes never rise to life-and-death. Within their political horizon, liberals treat disagreements as temporary and tactical, with deliberations over details of policy or administrative practice taking the place of struggles over fundamental questions, which mythologized culture heroes settled long ago. The failure or betrayal of state-socialist alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, to which Thatcher famously claimed “There is no alternative,” has only exacerbated this tendency.

Schmitt and many on the left and right regard as wishful thinking the notion of a world without political Enemies. Charlottesville reminded us that the stakes of political life remain high, especially for those who confront America’s resurgent and racist far right.

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About the Author: 

Ezra Claverie has a PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His essays have appeared in Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, The Journal of American Culture, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. His primary research looks at Hollywood studios’ use of superheroes owned by the comics duopoly of DC and Marvel, reading these films as allegories of the corporate management of intellectual property. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai.

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