Berlin had long been a queer-friendly place when the Weimar Republic was born. Thanks to an illuminated policy that preferred monitoring to repression, Berlin became a place where homosexuals could live a relatively peaceful life in the 1800s already. This is certainly what attracted so many of them in the city from all across Europe.
It is also the city where the first Institute of Sex Research was founded in 1919 by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who was likely a gay man himself, although he generally wrote about ‘homosexual’ at a remove. The Institute was a non-profit foundation backed by anonymous wealthy benefactors and provided services about sexual life to rich and poor alike, ranging from marriage counselling to early attempts at hormone therapy.
Dr Hirschfeld was an activist and scholar of sexuality who in 1909 wrote The Transvestite, an essay in which he argued that people cannot chose their sexuality and so sexual orientation cannot be taken as a guilt to punish. The term “transvestitism” at that time encompassed people of all gender identities, from those who occasionally wore men’s or women’s clothes on weekends, to those who today might well identify instead as transgender, a term that was not in common usage at the time. Hirschfeld sustained that people who clothed themselves as the opposite sex truly felt how they dressed, and would greatly suffered if they had been forced to do otherwise. On this ground, and through his active campaigning, Dr Hirshfled finally eased the creation of ‘transvestite passes’.
Homosexuality was against the law in Germany even during the Weimar Republic. Cross-dressing however wasn’t, although the practice often led to charges of being a “public nuisance,” which could mean six weeks’ imprisonment or a fine of 150 marks. The ‘transvestite passes’, which were issued by the police, allowed transvestites to walked in the street unchallenged.
The ‘transvestite passes’ opened up greater opportunities for drag artists. Previously, male and female impersonators had risked arrest by stepping on the stage or walk on the street. It subjected them to any arbitrary decision the police might make, which greatly depended on how well they were able to ‘pass’. The ‘transvestite passes’ allowed them to freely perform on stage as well as going from one venue to the other without taking out their dresses.
The term ‘drag’ is credited to Shakespeare as the shorten form for ‘Dressing resembling a girl’, though in modern times it has been applied to girls dressed as men as well.
While there had always been a stigma attached to men dressing as women, women dressing as men had generally encountered more tolerance. This was particularly true during the Weimar Era when the ideal of the garçon emerged: a woman that not only dressed as a man, but also acted as one and demanded the same treatment and aspirations. Because this could turn into a social and even political statement, many women started dressing in a masculine clothes. It became a fashion, to the point that if a woman dressed like a man this didn’t necessarily indicate her sexual preferences.
Cabaret once again appropriated the political meaning of this behaviour. After the ‘transvestites passes’ were created, ‘drag’ performances became quite common in Berlin and even popular. While there were still ‘closeted’ clubs that only queer people would frequent, cabarets where drag actors performed – the Eldorado was the chief example – were quite a different place. They were frequented by all kinds of people that in the cabaret met and interacted freely, without barriers either physical or psychological.
By their mere existence these cabarets invited a more open acceptance of one another, adding to the queer-friendly feeling characteristic of Berlin.
NOTE: thanks to Carrie-Anne for commenting on the origin of the term ‘drag actor’. I did some more digging and apparently the origin of the term is very unsure, although it doesn’t seem to go further back than the 1700s. One article specifically says it has nothing to do with Shakespeare, since the direction ‘dressing resembling a girl’ never appears in his plays nor in those of his contemporaries. Most articles I found attribute the term to the ‘dragging’ of female’s clothes on the stage when used by male actors. Or going back to an English dialect especially used in the theatrical environment.
In short, it appears nobody knows the true origin.
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993