German and Austrian Pioneers in LGBT Rights


Although we tend to think of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement as a modern, fairly recent phenomenon, the advocacy of homosexual rights goes back to the nineteenth century in Austria and Germany. Two pioneers in the field were the Austro-Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny (who coined the word “homosexual”) and the German Magnus Hirschfeld (who invented the term “transvestite”). We’ll learn more about them and others below, but first let’s compare several European countries in the area of LGBT rights.

Hirschfeld

Pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) in 1929. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The treatment of homosexuals in Europe, socially and legally, varies greatly by country. Only nine of Europe’s nations have legalized same-sex marriage. The Netherlands was the first European country to do so (in 2001). Northern European nations tend to be more progressive in LGBT rights than southern and eastern European lands. Here are some examples:

Germany
Being gay or lesbian is largely accepted in Germany, with most of the population feeling that sexual orientation is a non-issue. Berlin had an openly gay mayor (Klaus Wowereit) for many years. Legally, however, Germany has not been a leader in gay rights. But on June 30, 2017 that changed when the German Bundestag (parliament) voted in favor of same-sex marriage (“Ehe für alle”). Ironically, the CDU/CSU party of Angela Merkel, which had long blocked a vote on the issue, was encouraged by the chancellor to proceed with a vote. Although Merkel herself voted no, the marriage-equality law passed with 393 yes votes versus 226 no votes, meaning that 75 CDU/CSU members voted in favor of the new law.

Klaus Wowereit

Klaus Wowereit served as Berlin’s mayor (SPD) from 2001 until 2014. He “came out” prior to the 2001 mayoral elections. He is known for his now famous phrase: “Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so.” (“I’m gay, and that’s a good thing.”)
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A special type of civil union existed for gay and lesbian couples for many years, but it was not really equal to marriage in several respects, including taxes. In May 2013 a high court decision on so-called “tax-splitting” (Steuersplitting) required the German government to allow homosexual couples to combine their incomes for tax purposes, just as heterosexual couples could do. This reduced the difference between a gay civil union (eine eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften, “a registered life partnership”) and a “normal” heterosexual marriage, but it was still a “separate but equal” status. (Tax-splitting was already legal in 13 of Germany’s 16 states before the court’s ruling.) Many Germans had already called for doing away with this legal distinction before the recent marriage-equality vote. Continue reading

How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German


If you want to confirm the fact that the internet is not improving people’s IQs, just type “rude Germans” into your favorite search engine. Boom! You’ll get over 1.9 million results, most of which were written by morons. (But “rude French” pulls an amazing 39.1 million results!) Few of these online commentaries run counter to the usual “rude Germans” rant and the negative stereotype that so many Americans, Brits and others have of Germans. Even fewer of these web articles, forum posts and blogs offer any useful, helpful information on the topic of “rude” Germans, French, or other Europeans.

The Rudest Countries
I recently saw a CNN online article that listed the “10 Rudest Countries” in the world. As usual, France took first place in the rudeness race. Germany only came in fourth, right behind the UK. The USA placed seventh. But a survey like this, by the skycanner.com cheap flights travel site, is subject to all sorts of distortion, including cultural biases, language difficulties, personality differences, and ignorance, to name just a few.

What a person perceives as rudeness may only be a cultural misunderstanding. What is considered rude in one country or culture may not be regarded as rude in another. But every culture has people who are rude, no matter which culture it may be. Certain impolite behaviors are unacceptable in almost any culture. Sometimes an expat or traveler is actually right to consider someone rude! Continue reading

Life and Customs: Germany versus Sweden


Expats living in Europe have a unique opportunity to travel and visit interesting places in many countries. Traveling from Berlin to Stockholm, for instance, is only a 75-minute jet flight – about the same time as flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the USA. If you’re an expat who hasn’t been taking advantage of this, it’s time to start!

Recently, I had a chance to compare some of the customs and practices in Germany and Sweden. I was surprised by some of the differences, but I have written about similar differences before in “Comparing Germany and France and…” Here are a few interesting and practical cultural comparisons between Germany and Sweden.

Money
Living as an expat in Germany or Austria, it can be easy to forget that the EU does not equal the euro. Most of the time it does, but as soon as you venture off to Scandinavia, the UK or eastern Europe, you are reminded that there are still ten European Union member nations (out of 28) that do not use the euro.[1] You are transported back to a time when travelers in Europe had to exchange money at the border when entering another country – back to the days of French francs, Spanish pesetas, Italian lira, and German marks. (Prior to the Schengen Agreement of 1995, travelers also had to get their passports checked and stamped.) Traveling from Germany to Denmark, for instance, means exchanging euros for Danish kroner (DKK, 1 krone = €0.13 or $0.14). If you head to Switzerland (not an EU member), you’ll need to use Swiss francs (CHF).

Stockholm harbor

Stockholm’s busy harbor is also a scenic tourist attraction. PHOTO: H. Flippo

Much of today’s money exchange problem is solved by another recent development: the wide use of credit cards, especially in Scandinavia. Need to pay for a taxi? The driver grabs his portable credit card reader and wirelessly processes your card. Any shop, grocery store or restaurant will gladly accept your credit card for payment.[2] Continue reading

Brexit – notes from a Brit in Germany


Brexit 1 We found out the Brexit result at the top of mountain in Italy, the alpine hotel’s shaky internet connection making it almost impossible to read more than the headlines. Our reaction was disbelief. Like me, most people, whether Remainers or Leavers, couldn’t have predicted that Britain would vote to leave the EU. “Shocking news from the UK this morning,” I said to the six London bankers in the hotel’s breakfast room, a passing statement which felt pointless but important. They sat glued to smartphones piecing together market developments before one of them shook his shoulders and announced, “Right, this is too depressing. Let’s get out walking.” We happened to be driving back to Germany that same day, with me reading the news all the way through Austria, relaying the plummeting pound, the resignation of the Prime Minister, the incredulous disappointment of most people in my predominantly pro-remain social media bubble.

The ensuing events have been well reported – how the public faces of the Leave campaign scuttled under rocks as if they hadn’t really wanted to win at all, how the Labour Party plunged into (still ongoing) turmoil, how the first analysis suggested that old people had voted young people out, but then it turned out that too many young people didn’t bother to vote at all. The anger of the side that lost is well known too. The Leavers call them sore losers, but in the wake of a political gamble to satisfy a decades’ old internal party conflict, a campaign marred with tall stories and manipulated statistics, only to be capped with the desertions of its most prominent advocates, and with the rise in hate crimes against migrants immediately after the result, the soreness felt justified.  Continue reading

From Smoke Detectors to Electric Cars: New and Revised Laws in Germany for 2016

Sometimes it’s surprising how a modern nation like Germany can lag behind in certain areas. A good example from the past is smoking. While the US and many other countries long ago banned smoking in restaurants, the workplace, and other public areas, Germany was slow to do the same. After an initial period of voluntary restrictions by some businesses, Germany began to regulate smoking in public places. (Austria, on the other hand, still has a lot of work to do on public acceptance of smoking bans. Cough! Cough!) While non-smoking areas in Germany were once a rarity, today German anti-smoking laws are similar to those in the US in most cases.

caption

As of 2016, some German states require the installation of smoke detectors (Rauchmelder) in existing homes. PHOTO: Feuerwehr e.V.

Another area where Germany was lagging behind was smoke detectors. As with many things in Germany, this is an area left to each of the 16 Bundesländer (states). There is no nationwide law. After a slow start beginning around 2004/2005, almost all of the German states now require smoke detectors in new houses and apartments. As of 2016, only Berlin and Brandenburg still lack any smoke-detector requirements (Rauchmelderpflicht). Some Länder now also require smoke detectors in older, existing living quarters. Continue reading

January 2015 in Germany: New Year, New Laws, New Rules

2015 ushered in new laws and regulations in Germany. Our overview of new things that expats and travelers need to know also reveals a lot about daily life and customs in Germany.

If you drive a car, use public transportation, rent a place, watch TV, take out the trash, get paid in euros, or use the post office in Germany, there are changes that can affect all expats and travelers. We’ll start with one of the more bizarre things that the new year introduced to German law and life (and it’s not the precipitous fall of the euro). Continue reading

A new government for Christmas

Germany has a new government, and it’s arrived just in time for Christmas. CDU, CSU and SPD will govern under Angela Merkel (CDU) in a Grosse Koalition (Grand Coalition). That Koalitionsvertrag I wrote about in my last post has been approved. The SPD party members have voted it through with a reassuring 75%. After months of wrangling, ministers can now move into their offices, arrange their pot plants and assemble their staffs.

To an outsider, that so many important ministerial positions are filled with SPD politicians is a surprise. Given that Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, CSU, nearly gained enough votes for an absolute majority, you would have thought those two parties would well and truly dominate. Not so. Positions such as Wirtschaft und Energie (Economy and Energy) Auswaertiges (Foreign Minister), Justiz und Verbraucher (Justice and Crime), and Arbeit und Soziales (Work and Social) are in SPD hands.  Continue reading

Without a voting card on Election Day

Yesterday – Election Day. I, as an expat, was merely a bystander. But that did not stop a familiar shiver of emotion running up my spine at the sight of people strolling to the local polling station, peacefully coming together to democratically express their hopes and dreams for their country.

Today – it is clear that Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) have won, though no-one is quite sure as yet how the governing coalition will be formed. On that, there are commentators in abundance and my half-baked comments won’t bring you much. So instead, I’ll mark this rather remarkable day (or not, as some might argue) in German political history by writing about my personal impressions.  Continue reading