Book Review

Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

Robert Beachy

Published November 18, 2014

Alfred A. Knopf

Hardcover; 336 pages

It is a central argument of the thoroughly illuminating book, Gay Berlin: The Making of a Modern Identity by Robert Beachy, that the emergence of an identity based on fixed sexual orientation was initially a German, and especially, a Berlin phenomenon.

The author offers a compelling narrative as to how the strange alchemy of interwar Berlin produced, from a combination of pseudo-science, ersatz philosophy, media propaganda, and moral decadence, forged what we now experience as the modern gay identity.

The real achievement of activists such as Dr. Magnus Hirschfield and his Institute for Sexual Science and Hans Bluher’s Mannerbund was to create, new “social imaginary” within an immanent frame, to use the terminology offered by James K.A. Smith in his book, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

Understanding the immanent frame and social imaginary of the modern gay identity is essential in grasping the identity that appears to have overshadowed much in recent national debates of culture, law, morality and politics. In the rendering of Smith, who is interpreting the magisterial work, A Secular Age, by the philosopher Charles Taylor, an immanent frame is “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.”

Philosopher Charles Taylor, author of "The Secular Age" and many other books.

Philosopher Charles Taylor, author of “The Secular Age” and many other books.

There is no question from the history provided by Gay Berlin that there was a deliberate rejection of any supernatural, especially Christian moral teleology, in the experience of homosexual desire. In fact, the mythology conjured and deployed by Hans Bluher in his Mannerbund movement, and that of Magnus Hirschfield’s pseudo-science, were meant to supplant the Christian moral narrative surrounding homosexual desires and actions.

The goal of their work was to establish homosexuality as “natural” and to remove any residual supernatural opprobrium that might obtain in residually Christian societies. In adopting the immanent framework as the seedbed of the modern gay identity, Hirschfield, Bluher, and other lesser lights created a new social imaginary that has come to fruition in our day.

In the terminology offered by Smith, a social imaginary” is not a theory about the way things are, but the unreflective way that most people experience reality — that is, the assumptions most of us make about the way things are, without thinking about it.”

In our time, it is clear this social imaginary, which holds that homosexual desire, in some form, is characteristic of everyone; that gay relationships are the moral equal of heterosexual marriage; and that sexuality is about subjective gratification, devoid of intrinsic moral meaning and procreative aspirations; has taken deep root.

More and more these things are simply assumed, and where it is still not just assumed, people increasingly pretend as though it is. For the Christian, the creation and assertion of the modern gay identity should pose less of a challenge than it presently does.

The Christian, through grace, appropriates the identity, virtue, and teaching of Jesus Christ, from which he draws his identity. This means that even those Christians experiencing homosexual desire, along with any other desire not in keeping with the covenant and truth of salvation, will submit those desires to the grace and truth of Christ for the purpose of the right ordering of those desires.

The maxim “grace builds on nature” is certainly true, but what is often forgotten is that while grace does build on nature, grace also corrects nature so as to direct it to its proper and eternal end.

This process of submitting our disordered desires—all of them, no matter what they are–is what we call conversion. In reading this enlightening history of the creation of the modern gay identity, I am confident that the conclusions I draw from the volume are exactly the opposite of what the author intends: that the gay identity as we now experience it is the product of chicanery, promoted by fabulists, and based on falsehoods and conjured myths.

And that an ersatz identity, constructed on a foundation of falsehoods is one that can be deconstructed by patiently observing reality, adhering to the truth, and having the courage and compassion to say it at precisely the moment it is most unpopular.