From the Margin to the Center: Integrating GLBT Topics in Upper-Level German Courses

(You can download the complete article as a pdf by clicking here.)

I think if most non-native German instructors think back to their undergraduate instruction, they will strain to remember textbooks that included texts that directly dealt with issues of homosexuality. This silence also extends into the advanced level in the literary works and the lives of authors discussed in courses dealing with literature or cultural history. Stefan George’s poems to Maximin can be explained as merely the platonic aesthetics of the man who promulgated a new elite. Any eroticism in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig can be declared to be not really about “that.” Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio is not for the body, but for the spirit, aesthetically transformed through the power of literature.

Today, one may discuss same-sex desire more openly, but even for those interested in the subject, few materials exist in the standard texts. What was on the margin three decades ago has barely edged closer to the center in the textbooks and course materials available to use. The discrepancy between the scholarship on GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) cultural history, an abundant, respected and firmly established research field, and the integration of this research into published course materials is striking. Indeed, one reason for the lack of integration of GLBT content in courses for our German majors and minors is the general dearth of materials for any course beyond those that teach German language. As anyone involved in teaching upper-level German courses knows, there is simply no market for books like the readers and anthologies that populated undergraduate German classrooms in the 1970s and the early 1980s. If teachers wish to have actual “textbooks” (as opposed to readers compiled by the instructor), then they must turn to a handful of anthologies, few of which have appeared since the early 1990s to find ready-made materials for their courses.[1]

Unfortunately, the very few that do acknowledge, in small ways, the existence of GLBT people or literature that includes GLBT characters often do so in ways that further marginalize the experience which the authors are trying to validate. I take as an example two literary anthologies. Einander verstehen places two texts in a chapter that is titled Die Anderen and which follows a chapter titled Frauen und Männer. In the latter, heterosexual relationships are thematized, and by placing gay and lesbian relationships or characters in a separate unit, with this unfortunately chosen title, the book contradicts its professed aim of achieving mutual understanding. An excerpt from Andersch’s Die Rote includes a possibly gay male character and this text is followed by an excerpt from Johanna Moorsdorf’s Die Freundinnen in which the lesbian relationship is described by the editors but absent from the chosen text. The student activities largely direct attention away from what little GLBT content there is. Deutsche Literatur im Kontext, 1750-2000 includes one text, an excerpt from Martin Sperr’s 1966 drama Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern. This brief extract of a scene between a gay son and his mother is wrought with homophobia, which is Sperr’s theme here. The problem is that the homophobia within the text is unmitigated and decontextualized in the textbook’s representation, along with the activities presented for students to complete after reading. There is no mention in the Zeittafel (275) of the Stonewall riots, the long recognized turning point for the gay and lesbian community in terms of personal identity and political consciousness (and celebrated today in many German cities with “CSD” parades).

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