By Roon Lewald
“Frauen kommen langsam – aber gewaltig!” (women come slowly – but mighty strongly.) When this double-entendre refrain propelled feisty singer Ina Deter’s song about “strong women” to the top of the German charts in 1986, it documented the gradually accelerating, finally irresistible onslaught of women against the lofty bastions of male privilege. Just two decades years later, Chancellor Angela Merkel is firmly entrenched as the only female leader of a major western country and scores of other women have captured important seats of power and influence in many areas of German politics, business and society.
Heterosexual male privilege has been under attack from another quarter in more recent years. This time, it’s the gays who are coming resoundingly. In a country where male gays in striped concentration camp pyjamas with the letter “H” (for “homosexuell”) on pink breast patches were starved, slave-worked and gassed to death by the thousands little over half a century ago, the wonder is not so much that it’s happening at all but that mainstream politics seem finally able to accept gay emergence from the shadows of bourgeois ostracism with such apparent sang froid. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the vice-chancellor at Merkel’s side, capped the march to power in September by quietly marrying the partner he openly describes as the great love of his life, prominent sporting events manager Gerhard Mronz.
Among the first to congratulate the newly-weds were Merkel and the popular Governing Mayor of the capital city Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, who emerged from the closet with unruffled aplomb after his 2001 election with the since oft-quoted words: “I’m gay – and that’s good!” Wowereit is a highly suitable figurehead for Berlin, which has emerged from cold-war division as a city with major economic and social problems, but somehow manages to play its destined role as the tolerant, vivacious capital of a modern, reunited Germany. Wowereit’s political energy, intelligence, charm and diplomatic skill have helped the capital to recover much of the old flair which made it an international magnet for international artists, musicians and pleasure-seekers in the pre-Nazi era of the Weimar Republic. Expensively refurbished museums, luxurious new hotels, avant-garde office towers and impressive new government buildings amplify its multi-faceted historic attractions. Millions of international visitors flock to the rambunctious annual Love Parades which are Berlin’s glittering answer to the Christopher’s Day marches in the USA. No matter that the sharp-tongued Berliners affectionately refer to their mayor as “Klaus Pobereit” (Klaus Bum-ready) – he is as popular as ever and Berlin’s reputation as the German capital of Gay Pride is secure.
But it is the wedding of Wowereit’s close friend Westerwelle which signals that gay emergence is finally washing the shores of national power. Westerwelle is possibly not Germany’s first homosexual foreign minister, but certainly the first to come out while in office. Weimar-era predecessor Walter Rathenau, who was assassinated in the 1920s by anti-semitic right-wingers because of his Jewish rather than his secret, forbidden sexual identity, is widely believed to have been gay. Despite gender and homosexual equality amendments to West Germany’s already liberal constitution in the 1970s, German mainstream politics reflected ancient anti-gay taboos and prejudices until the 1990s. As late as 1986, conservative Defence Minister Manfred Wörner stirred a major scandal by ignominiously firing a German NATO general on the strength of unconfirmed allegations of his homosexuality, reportedly under pressure from U.S. cold-war warriors at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Wörner was forced to climb down shamefacedly and rehabilitate – but not reinstate – General Günther Kießling when it turned out that the false rumours were based purely on Kießling’s unmarried status and his reclusive dislike of socializing on the NATO party circuit, which plays a major role in the life of conventionally married officers at NATO headquarters.
Perhaps schooled by public memories of the unfairness of Kießling’s treatment, most Germans hardly turned a hair when Westerwelle publicly confirmed his partnership with Mronz in 2004. Since their coming out, they have frequently showed themselves in public together, for instance at Chancellor Merkel’s 50th birthday party, the annual Federal Press Ball in Berlin or annual Wagner opera festivals in Bayreuth. Their now seven-year-old relationship is so patently based on deep personal affection that mainstream opinion has been largely sympathetic, despite doubts about the propriety of German representation abroad by an openly gay foreign minister and sneering jibes by dyed-in-the-wool anti-gays.
This is doubly remarkable in that Westerwelle’s chip-on-the-shoulder personality and neo-liberal politics have badly dented his popularity since he led his small, liberal Free Democratic party out of its earlier fringe status to an unprecedented 15% of the national vote in 2009 federal elections. The sensational victory, which opponents claim was won on the strength of tax-reduction promises he has since been forced to abandon, allowed the Free Democrats to shore up Merkel’s greatly weakened Christian Democrats as the kingmaker partner in the ruling coalition. Westerwelle took his place alongside Merkel as vice-chancellor and foreign minister. As vice-chancellor, he has been accused of paralysing the coalition with unrealistic tax-break demands for political clients in the medium-sized business sector at a time when Merkel is desperately trying to stem high unemployment and stabilize economic recovery without further expanding Germany’s sky-high public deficits. His political image caused polled support for the Free Democrats to plummet to a new nadir of 5% and stirred discontent in his own party over the erstwhile miracle man’s leadership.
As foreign minister, Westerwelle encountered accusations that he allowed Mronz to promote his event-management interests abroad by including Mronz in his official delegation on all foreign government missions. However, the fuss soon died down when Mronz convinced critics that he was paying his own way and not misusing government contacts for private business purposes. Mronz, who is the chairman of the children’s aid campaign “Ein Herz für Kinder” (a heart for children), told an interviewer he would like to accompany Westerwelle on all trips during which he can promote social support for children.
“Precisely because we have no children of our own, I want to show a heart for children,” he said.
Despite their high public exposure, both partners wish to preserve their personal privacy without hiding the essential facts about their relationship. “I’m not ashamed and I don’t want to hide,” says Mronz, but “I define myself through my profession, not my private life”.
Westerwelle is conscious of his delicate position as an openly gay foreign minister. He told an interviewer that the couple plans to avoid travelling together to countries in which homosexuality is a felony: “We want to promote the ideal of tolerance throughout the world, but we don’t want to achieve the reverse by acting rashly.”
This issue has already arisen in Saudi Arabia, where Westerwelle visited without his partner. They travelled together to China and Japan, where they were given a friendly reception. Westerwelle noted that homosexuality is punishable in 75 countries and carries the death penalty in Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Mauretania, Somalia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it’s important “for us to live by our own standards of tolerance and not accept the less tolerant standards of others,” he feels.
Under current German laws, either of the two spouses could have taken the surname of their partner and inheritance privileges apply to both partners. Should they divorce, the wealthier partner would be obliged to maintain the other as in a heterosexual divorce. Both homo- and heterosexuals can obtain a divorce in a special family court after a one-year separation period.
But divorce seemed hardly on the cards for the smiling, obviously happy couple after a private ceremony performed in the rococo-gingerbread town hall of Bonn by Lord Mayor Jürgen Nimptsch. Even Chancellor Merkel did not learn of the ceremony before she read the morning newspapers, although Westerwelle had previously tipped off members of his Foreign Office staff in Berlin.
However, the wedding was hardly a surprise. Scores of comments by blog readers indicated that many members of the general public were generously congratulatory, although their goodwill was often tempered by disenchantment with Westerwelle as a politician.
Even anti-gay commentators pulled their punches. “I don’t care about his being gay but it’s not acceptable to marry a man in his exposed position as foreign minister…It’s time he dropped out of sight,” one ill-wisher wrote.
More typical was the verdict that the marriage was “a sign of a tolerant Germany.” And one man was even moved to quote a few lines adapted from the “Ode to Joy”, on which the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony is based:
“…Who that height of bliss has proved
once a friend of friends to be,
who has won a maid (or man) beloved
join us in our jubilee!“