To Finally Let Fall the Burdensome Mask: The Queer Politics of Carnival in Early 20th-Century Germany

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Christina Carmen Chiknas, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
When sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published The Transvestites in 1911, the life stories contained therein were meant to normalize the practices of what would become Germany’s first public queer communities. Whereas Hirschfeld focused more on acts than the contexts that enabled them, his case studies overwhelmingly implicated a widespread practice of many turn-of-the-century queers: the use of Carnival by Third Sex members to enact social and sexual experimentation. Closeted populations used Carnival and related masquerade events at the time to engage in drag or homoerotic acts without fear of personal peril or legal action. Trans populations described these experiences as the most fulfilling in their lives, when they could finally let the burdensome mask of their everyday lives fall, able to be themselves only while wearing a literal mask. Many accounts – not just Hirschfeld’s, but also novels, memoirs, government inquiries, news articles, and sociological works – attributed personal awakening, self-understanding, decisions to come out, and community belonging among queer people to practices uniquely permitted at Carnival.

Carnival remains an overlooked topic in queer history, partly due to limited sources but also due to its frivolous nature. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of early-twentieth-century queers in Germany, exposure to social and political organizations like the Institute for Sexual Research remained comparably uncommon, whereas nearly all accounts of everyday life for Berlin queers cite the tremendous importance of masquerade balls. This culture only swelled in popularity over time, as German queers became a public presence for the first time during the decades from 1900 to the rise of Nazism; 1933 culminated in the immediate repression of queer masquerading institutions. These contexts concerned with masking and unmasking thus came to play crucial roles in the shaping, understanding, and facilitating of queer subjectivities, while simultaneously mediating individual and communal coming-out processes in modern Germany.

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