Imperial Berlin's police can teach the SFPD a thing or twoabout LGBT tolerance

  • by Luisa Hulsrøj
  • Wednesday July 8, 2015
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Luisa Hulsrøj. Photo: Courtesy Stanford University<br><br><br><br><br><br><br>
Luisa Hulsrøj. Photo: Courtesy Stanford University

Before I attended historian Robert Beachy's recent talk at Stanford, I was unaware that modern gay identity was born in turn-of-the-century Berlin. Fascinated as I was, I promptly checked out his groundbreaking book, Gay Berlin.

To my surprise, Beachy's book suggested that the progressive attitudes of Berlin's police helped to destigmatize homosexuality.

Since the German Empire is famed for nothing if not conservatism, I was taken aback by how effectively Berlin's police a century ago supported sexual minorities' self-expression. By comparison, the approach of the San Francisco Police Department seems lackluster.

Although the SFPD has already taken steps to foster good relations with the LGBT community, police in one of America's most LGBT-friendly cities would do well to emulate the proactive ways in which Imperial Berlin's law enforcement engaged with vulnerable sexual minorities.

From the 1880s onwards, Berlin's police, under the direction of Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, monitored yet tolerated gay hangouts. The police president, in Beachy's words "a pragmatist with a profound faith in science," accepted progressive sexologists' explanation of homosexuality as a congenital trait.

Interpreting the German Empire's anti-sodomy statute to permit homoerotic socializing, Hüllessem was more interested in prosecuting flagrant crimes, such as the blackmail male prostitutes routinely perpetrated against their clients, than in hounding gay men or cross-dressers.

Hüllessem maintained a close working relationship with the famous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who championed the idea that non-normative sexuality, including what we now call transsexuality, was innate. Hoping to bring justice through science to sexual minorities, the two men worked together to support and popularize sexological research. Scholarly visitors to Berlin were consequently as likely to spend a day with the sexologist as to receive a guided tour of the city's gay bars and cross-dressing balls from the police president.

Known as it is for its vibrant gay culture, modern-day San Francisco can stand to learn something from Berlin's erstwhile collaboration between activists and police.

The astonishment evoked by the recent defacement of the Mission's Por Vida mural shows how glibly San Franciscans usually assume that anti-LGBT crimes are rare here. However, the more quotidian mistreatment of the most marginalized groups goes unreported and, hence, unnoticed simply because police outreach efforts seldom touch them.

This deceptive calm came up repeatedly at a recent meeting of the SFPD's LGBT Community Advisory Board, all of whose members either live in or are affiliated with the Castro neighborhood. Understanding that the city's center of gay life is already well served, these volunteers hope that measures like holding board meetings in police stations across the city on a rotating basis will allow those living outside the Castro to make their voices heard.

Thus far, however, efforts to engage with still-stigmatized communities have met with mixed success. Like the community advisory board's efforts two years ago to reach out to transgender sex workers, most such programs falter due to lack of interest from both the targeted groups and the police.

At its meeting, I got the impression that board members have regretfully accepted their inability to help everyone, even as they sorrowfully recalled the death of a young gay immigrant whose body was found in the bay last year.

It should be noted that the SFPD is already at the forefront of LGBT-friendly policing. In 2012, it released an "It Gets Better" video, in which over a dozen officers recount their coming out and unexpected law enforcement careers. At the instigation of the community advisory board, all police stations have furthermore been declared LGBT Safe Zones, where LGBT victims of crime can demand to speak to a liaison officer.

Well-meant as these measures are, Chief Greg Suhr's police force still lags behind Hüllessem's in terms of proactively engaging with sexual minorities. In an e-mail interview, Beachy pointed out to me, "that modern police departments need to know and understand the communities they police to be able to work effectively. This was certainly true of the Berlin police, beginning with Hüllessem, who made it his responsibility to study Berlin's sexual minorities."

By engaging minorities as actively as did its counterpart in turn-of-the-century Berlin, the SFPD can lay the foundation for a safer exploration of identity among some of the city's most vulnerable residents.


Luisa Hulsrøj recently graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in history. Come fall, she is headed to the University of Cambridge to pursue a master's in philosophy in modern European history.