For more than 50 years, the tabloid daily Bild -- currently Europe's best-selling newspaper -- has served as both a reliable barometer of Germany's conservative movement and a steady vent of its populist id. The editors have never felt compelled to question their winning formula: The conservative parties' current talking points go above the fold, the naked "Page One Girl" below it. The self-appointed guarantors of all that is traditionally Deutsch aren't much interested in the finer points of sensitivity training.
And in that way, the tabloid might have been expected at some point this week to express ambivalence, if not disapproval, of the fact that the country's newly elected vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, is gay. Instead, though, Bild waved a white flag on one of the fronts of the country's decades-long culture war. As part of its gleeful coverage of the victory of the country's two main conservative parties in Sunday's election, the newspaper paid its respect to Westerwelle in the form of a sentimental page-one profile of his boyfriend, complete with a trashy headline: "His Boyfriend Makes Him Strong!"
Taking its cues from voters, Bild's editors didn't wring their hands over Westerwelle's sexual orientation, nor did they sensationalize it as a novelty. For one thing, it wasn't news: The chairman of the FDP, the free market Free Democratic Party, hadn't hidden his sexual orientation during the campaign -- his partner, event manager Michael Mronz, was often on stage with him at his rallies -- and no one he encountered on the trail seemed inclined to make an issue of it. Being a gay politician in Germany, it seems, is well on its way to being utterly normal, even banal.
Germany's ready public acceptance of homosexuality is the product of recent sea changes both in the character of society and in the letter of national law. For much of western Germany's history, neither the CDU, the Catholic-dominated Christian Democratic Union, nor the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), with its focus on the industrial working class, had much interest in setting up protections for gays. In eastern Germany, the ruling communist party dismissed homosexuality as "contrary to the healthy mores of the people." Nazi-era laws that criminalized homosexuality remained in force in East Germany until 1958 and in West Germany until as late as 1969.
Change didn't come easy. The gay-rights movement that began organizing in earnest in West Germany in the 1960s -- part of the student-driven backlash that wanted to interrogate and overcome the country's Nazi past -- elicited strong conservative resistance. For decades, the polarized camps faced off in homes, universities, and city streets in a tense stalemate. When Helmut Kohl took office as chancellor in 1982 at the head of a "black-yellow" coalition between the CDU and the FDP, he promised a "moral-spiritual revolution" that would return the country to its traditional understanding of public morality and decorum. What that amounted to, during his 16 years at the head of German government, was periodic populist agitation against politically correct cultural liberals in the arts and academia. Certainly, it was unthinkable that a gay man would gain a major portfolio in the Kohl-led coalition that governed until 1998. (Westerwelle, as a high-ranking FDP official, was involved in the Kohl government, but didn't come out of the closet until 2004.)
How, then, has the tide turned so dramatically in Germany in favor of acceptance of homosexuality? On the legal and political side, the gay-rights movement was fortunate to have found an amenable political home in the late 1970s in the fledgling Green Party. Although dismissed by the establishment in their early years, the Greens came into power in 1999, together with the SPD, with a clear and focused agenda to update German law to better reflect society's present-day values.
In addition to reform of immigration and citizenship statutes, the Greens pushed through a law recognizing same-sex partnerships and also rooted out the final remnants of legalized discrimination against gays in the German military. These efforts were passed with the support of the left-leaning SPD and Westerwelle's free market, culturally liberal FDP. Westerwelle, for his part, blasted the Catholic Church for its "19th-century worldview" in response to a call by the Vatican to campaign against the gay-marriage law.