The fight for equality for homosexuals in Germany is long and arduous. Despite progress, an interview with a leading conservative politician of Angela Merkel’s party indicates that prejudice against gays still exists.

Whether he would have any reservations about a gay chancellor, that was the question put to Friedrich Merz, a prominent politician of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), in an interview with mass-circulation tabloid Bild last weekend.

“No,” Merz replied, before adding: “On the question of sexual orientation, that is none of the public’s business. As long as it is within the law and as long as it does not concern children — that’s when I feel the absolute limit has been reached.”

Why, critics ask, did the former parliamentary leader of the CDU immediately mention the protection of children and possible violations of the law when asked about homosexuals? 

Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer)

Friedrich Merz (l.) ran against openly gay Jens Spahn for CDU chairmanship in 2018

Homosexuality illegal until 1969

Prejudice, suspicion and persecution are all closely tied to the history of gays and lesbians in post-war Germany, even if the acceptance of homosexuals is now widespread. Until 1969, homosexual men could be persecuted in Germany under a law dating from the Prussian Empire, which had been further tightened under the Nazi regime.

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Paragraph 175 of the penal code stated: “A man who sodomizes another man or allows himself to be sodomized shall be punished by imprisonment.” In 1957, the Federal Constitutional Court decreed this to be constitutional under Germany’s Basic Law. East Germany also adopted the legislation directly from the Nazis after World War II.

It was not until February 2001 that homosexual couples were allowed equal status under the Basic Law and granted the right to have civil partnerships, under the coalition government of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green party.

The German parliament finally voted for equal marriage in 2017. But right up until then, there were many — mostly conservative — members of parliament who opposed the law. Some 225 out of 309 CDU (and CSU, their Bavarian sister party) members voted against it. Chancellor Angela Merkel was among them. In the run-up to the vote, she had called for parliamentarians to be free to make their own decisions rather than vote according to a party line.

Klaus Wowereit with Curry sausages (Imago/W. Wagner)

“I am gay — and that is a good thing!” Klaus Wowereit’s statement is famous in Germany.

Politicians come out

Equally important to the legal progress were public statements made by politicians who were open about their homosexuality. In 2001, the Berlin SPD mayoral candidate Klaus Wowereit declared at the end of his party conference speech: “I am gay, and that’s a good thing.”

Later he said he had partly made the remarks because he knew the tabloid media were preparing reports about his homosexuality. Wowereit was elected mayor and served for over a decade.

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Germany’s late former foreign minister under Merkel, Guido Westerwelle, also contributed to the general acceptance of homosexuality: He took his partner on official trips abroad, making the homosexual relationship very visible in the public eye.

Today, Health Minister Jens Spahn is the first openly gay minister from Merkel’s ruling conservative CDU and, at the age of 40, seen as one of the party’s rising stars. He is being tipped as a candidate to succeed chancellor Merkel next year. He is one of Merz’s main rivals within the CDU, and have competed for the party chairmanship in the past.

Guido Westerwelle and Michael Mronz waving at camerals at Bayreuth festival in 2012 (Reuters/M. Rehle)

Late Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (r) was regularly accompanied by his partner Michael Mronz

Discrimination has not gone away

Openly homosexual politicians are to be found in all parties currently represented in the Bundestag. Even one of the leaders of the far-right AfD, Alice Weidel, is not hiding the fact that she is married to a woman of color; they live in Switzerland with their children.

Much has been achieved for the equality of homosexual people in the public sphere in Germany. This is why Merz’s statement seems to belong to a bygone era. But in many areas, there are still reservations about homosexuals.

For example, a recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research and the University of Bielefeld found that 30% of homosexuals are still discriminated against in working life. Among trans people the rate is even higher — more than 40%. This is one of the reasons why almost one-third still hide their sexuality from their colleagues.

This article was translated from German.

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