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1973: Peter Tatchell staged the first gay rights protest in a Communist country

1973: Peter Tatchell staged the first gay rights protest in a Communist country

This article is dedicated to the heroic, inspirational East German LGBT activists who helped and supported me in 1973 and who pioneered the LGBT freedom struggle in communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic.

London, UK − 10 February 2019

By Peter Tatchell

John Bellamy Comments - Of all the people who we should bow down to and say a MEGA THANKYOU to, is Peter Tatchell. READ BELOW


The Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students was due to be held in East Berlin, the capital of what was then East Germany, from 27th July to 5th August 1973, its theme: ‘Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship’. 30,000 delegates representing progressive youth and student organisations from 140 nations were expected to attend.

At the time, I was a 21 year old student and an activist in the London Gay Liberation Front. The festival struck me as an ideal opportunity to promote homosexual human rights on an international scale, particularly within the communist bloc where, despite sometimes liberal laws, public discussion of lesbian and gay rights and the formation of independent gay political organisations were strictly forbidden.

Homosexuality was still totally illegal in Albania, Yugoslavia, Rumania and the Soviet Union; it had been decriminalised in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic).

However, only Poland had an equal age of consent (15 for everyone). In the other communist countries, the age of consent was usually 18 for gay men and lesbians compared with between 14 and 16 for heterosexuals.

Even in those East European countries with relatively progressive laws, gay bars were few and far between and always under surveillance.

There were no counselling or support agencies for lesbians and gay men; invisibility and silence were the norm.

Keen to challenge communist homophobia I applied for membership of the British delegation and was accepted as a representative of the Gay Liberation Front. So in late July, I set off for East Berlin, sailing from Harwich to Hamburg on the overnight ferry. Barely concealed under a few items of clothing in a rucksack and suitcase, I carried 30 gay rights pamphlets in five languages plus 2,000 leaflets, half in German, for distribution in East Berlin. While I anticipated difficulty in successfully smuggling this walking library into East Germany, I had no fears about negotiating the West German customs at Hamburg.

Imagine my surprise, when, on presenting myself at passport control, I was asked to accompany two uniformed immigration officers to a small room off the main customs area. Bare-walled and empty, the room had a distinctly officious, unfriendly feel. It was clearly not the VIP lounge.

After waiting about ten minutes in total silence, we were joined by two unidentified plain-clothes officials. Despite my protests, they subjected me to a strip-search while their uniformed colleagues went through my belongings. On discovering the schedule literature in my luggage, they proceeded to read the German versions in detail, occasionally pausing to take notes and make sneering remarks to the plain-clothes officials who were attempting to interrogate me in German.

I tried to explain that I did not speak the language but they refused to believe me and became increasingly aggressive, waving the German language leaflets furiously in front of my face. After an hour, an English language interpreter was summoned. By this time, the room had begun to feel very crowded and intimidating with five of them and only one of me.

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