Transcript S2E1: Queer German
Here is the transcript of S2E1: Queer German. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.
The transcript has been edited for readability.
LG = Luke Green
KW = Kai Witvrouwen
LG: In every social group and community, there is a certain kind of language that’s used that’s often specific to that community. The LGBTIQ+ community is no different. In this first episode of series 2, we’ll be talking about just some of the aspects of the German language that are specific to the people of this community. For instance, why are there so many anglicisms used in German in the context of talking about the queer community? Is there an equivalent of the singular “they” in German for non-binary people? And what’s the situation like for queer people in general in countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland? We’ll be exploring this and more in this episode. But first, just a heads-up: this episode contains mention of some offensive language and slurs. There’s also mention of topics of a sexual nature, but nothing too explicit. If you’re listening with kids around, you may want to quickly check the show notes before listening, just in case you’re not ready to have certain conversations, or you don’t want them hearing certain slurs just yet. So, with all that being said, let’s crack on with the show.
This is Yellow of the Egg, the podcast where we marvel at the many colours of the German language. I’m Luke Green and this is series 2 episode 1, Queer German.
KW: Well, LGBTIQ+, basically the more letters you put into it, the more inclusive it gets, really. But it also gets, uh, a lot more confusing for the general public to, you know, follow what it is you want to get across, really. So I think that LGBT, just as the shortened form is a good starting point for a lot of people, but, you know, try to be as inclusive as you can be.
LG: This is Kai Witvrouwen, a radio presenter and podcaster from Germany. He hosts the podcast Sputnik Pride, where he talks to a range of guests about all things LGBTIQ+.
KW: It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, A could be ally or asexual, and the plus just stands for whatever else comes after that.
LG: This abbreviation is in wide use in German-speaking countries, even though it stands for English words. This seems to be a bit of a trend in general, where English terms are used within and about the LGBTIQ+ community instead of the German alternatives. Take the term LGBTIQ+ itself. There is a German equivalent, but it’s not really used, so it’s not that well known.
KW: It's LSBTT, something. I don't have the whole thing in my mind right now, but there is a translation, and it’s lesbisch, schwul, bisexuell, trans, and so on and so forth.
LG: If we just take the LGBT part, that simply becomes LSBT, so it’s only the G that becomes an S. Other than that, it’s basically the same anyway. Lesbian is lesbisch, bisexual is bisexuell, and so on. But even though there is a German equivalent of LGBT, the English term has stuck. The word gay itself is becoming more and more popular as an alternative to German terms.
KW: I know a lot of people who like to use the word gay, especially lesbian women I've talked to. They feel as if, you know, the word lesbisch sounds too aggressive, almost like you, like you want to attack someone or, or it's, you know, linked to a bunch of things that they don't really like, like it sounds very butch to them, which, nothing against butch lesbians, but they feel as if gay, just gay as a term is better and, you know, broader to really speak about the lesbian community.
LG: Of course, this is very individual. Lots of people like using the term lesbisch. But the popularity of the word gay possibly has something to do with a foreign word, such as gay, carrying fewer connotations than words from one’s own language. It might be seen as more neutral, making it more attractive to those who maybe don’t like the associations that come with the German term. Plus, there’s also the added benefit that gay isn’t as restricted to one gender like schwul is in German.
KW: No, that's the thing. Like schwul only refers to gay men. So it's not the most inclusive word, like a gay woman wouldn't say that she's schwul. Schwul is just males.
LG: Interestingly, schwul used to also refer to women, but over the past half a century or so, lesbisch started to cement itself as the term to describe homosexual women, and schwul started to refer exclusively to homosexual men, to the point where nowadays, you’re unlikely to hear a woman refer to themselves as schwul. Though some may still choose to. While in English, gay is used for men more often than for women, it’s not as set in stone. Anyone can be gay, regardless of their gender. And then of course there’s simple personal preference. People might simply prefer the way the word gay sounds compared to schwul. This trend goes on as we continue along the initials LGBT, or LSBT. The T in English stands for transgender, while the T in German usually stands for… transgender. Even in the German version, the English term is often preferred.
KW: Transgender is something we use, yeah, a lot. Because I've heard that transsexuell, ‘transsexual’, that doesn't really do trans people in general justice. So they go with transgender instead. But I also hear people using trans just in German. So it's really close to the English words.
LG: Transsexual, or transsexuell, is a term that is quite contentious. While some may use this term and identify with it, many consider it to be stigmatising and offensive due to its historical use in the fields of medicine and psychology. Transgender people would tendentiously be considered as having a mental illness, or they would be regarded as sexual deviants, and these views are connected with the term that was widely used in this context – transsexuell. There’s also the suggestion with transsexual or transsexuell that medical changes are necessarily involved, whereby this isn’t as strongly implied with transgender. Even these are generalisations though, and it’s down to the individual to decide how they would like to be referred to. But considering the connotations that come with transsexuell, it’s understandable that transgender started to catch on. Although is there really no German alternative?
KW: There is a word for that. I think people use transgeschlechtlich, but it sounds very medical. It sounds very sterile. I don't think that it's, you know, it's not good for everyday use.
LG: This is also a bit of a tendency. That the English word is borrowed into German and is preferred because the German one sounds too clinical or literal. Either that or the German equivalent has other additional meanings and uses that simply don’t align with what you’re trying to express. Take for instance the word pride. This is an English word that’s also widely used in German in the context of the LGBTIQ+ community. Think of gay pride, pride month, pride flag – even Kai’s podcast is called Sputnik Pride. But couldn’t you use a German word instead? For instance, Stolz?
KW: No one would say Stolz, no. Because Stolz sounds so- I'm probably the only one who thinks that way, but it's such an old German word that it really brings you back to, like, 75 years ago. And Nationalstolz and that kind of thing. Things that have been, you know, corrupted by right-wing people, you don't really wanna use that. Stolz is so close to Nationalstolz, and Stolz really, even in a, like, general context, to me always sounds like you're full of pride, but in a way that puts others down, like you you've conquered something and, you know, put others down. And now you’re stolz. It sounds bad, really. I don't like it. Pride, on the other hand, I like that. I think it sounds colourful and I connect it to the LGBT community.
LG: So I don’t think we’ll be going to Schwulstolz during Stolzmonat waving our Stolzflagge. Although in Germany, there is another term they use instead of pride.
KW: Usually when we talk about actual pride, like a pride parade and all that sort of thing, it's usually CSD, Christopher Street Day.
LG: So still an anglicism. But there’s good reason. Christopher Street is where the Stonewall Inn is located, in New York City. The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar and was the site of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, during which there was violent retaliation against the latest of a series of police raids. The riots escalated to severe levels, and events of the early hours of the 28th June 1969 became the instigation of the first gay pride marches, not only in the US, but in other countries around the world. In Germany, Switzerland and some parts of Austria, pride day is referred to as CSD, Christopher Street Day.
KW: But nobody in the States says, you know, Christopher Street Day to refer to pride. But we've kind of taken that for us. And now everyone knows CSD, like we say it in German. We pronounce it in German, but we know that it’s Christopher Street Day. I don't know if everyone knows what happened on Christopher Street, you know, but I hope a lot of people know. But more and more German CSDs turn to the term pride. So I think it's getting more use over the years as well, the term pride.
LG: In most parts of Austria, including Vienna, you’re likely to hear the term Regenbogenparade, so ‘rainbow parade’, although of course colloquially you will probably also hear people referring to the event as Pride. Which is less of a mouthful than Regenbogenparade. The English words just seem to be generally more attractive to use a lot of the time.
KW: English makes everything more cool. And I don't know if you've ever seen a, like, a written paragraph in German and then it's translated into English, and the English version is so much shorter. It's because you can get a whole lot more across in fewer words and syllables than in German. That's what's so interesting and fun about English because you can incorporate it into your, you know, tired, old language.
LG: Aw, poor German. But this is a view that’s pretty common. Take the word community. This word has established itself within the German language and certainly within the LGBT community, which in German is, unsurprisingly, die LGBT-Community. We have German equivalents for Community, though. So why do we refer to this group of people as a Community in German, and not, for instance, a Gemeinschaft?
KW: I think again, it has a really old- it sounds so old and, you know, yesterday to use Gemeinschaft. [sighs] I don't know. I don't know how to explain it. The English word just sounds more fun, I guess. [laughs]
LG: And that’s exactly it. Sometimes you just can’t put your finger on it. There are all sorts of factors at play which make English more preferable. An LGBT-Gemeinschaft might not sound as fun, as Kai says, or it might come with different connotations. But then there are words and phrases in English that are borrowed into German for which there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent at all, even though you would probably expect there to be. For example, there is one thing that is so specific to the experience of people within the LGBT community. It’s a huge milestone in so many people’s lives. That moment when a person decides to tell someone for the first time: I’m gay, or I’m transgender, or I’m bisexual. That moment when someone takes the step to live openly and authentically. That moment they decide to come out. It’s definitely a thing in the German-speaking world. But there is no real German word for “coming out”.
KW: It's so interesting. I've never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, there really isn't. I can't think of anything. I always said coming out. Coming out is just a term that's always been around in German. I feel like Americans would say, if they ask someone, “have you had your coming out?”, they wouldn't say, “have you had your coming out?” They would say, “are you out, question mark”, right? Or “I've been out since, you know, 2015”, something like that. But we've kind of borrowed it. And so now we say things like, “hattest du schon dein Coming-Out? Hast du dich schon geoutet?” So, yeah, we really stick with that. There is no German equivalent, there's no German equivalent. It's kind of like how Germans like to say “home office”, which, you know, an American or a British person would probably say “I'm working from home” [laughs], right? Because “home office”, what does that mean? [laughs]
LG: So, in a way, while coming out might have entered German as an English phrase, it’s become a German phrase, and had spawned unique forms like verbs such as sich outen, ‘to out oneself’. But a fully German equivalent? There’s not really anything there. Another similar example of this is the word queer. Once meaning ‘strange’, ‘odd’ or ‘curious’, it went on to be used as a derogatory term for people attracted to other people of the same sex. It was then reclaimed by activists later in the 20th century, and now it enjoys the status of being a sort of umbrella term for all gender and sexual identities that don’t align with the norm. We now have queer studies, queer history, queer theory. This word has quite a specific meaning and background which is difficult to capture exactly with a German word.
KW: Yeah, no, there is no equivalent that I can think of. And I think now more and more people use it and know what it means basically. But it’s not as widely known as the term coming out, for example. I think when you go into the big cities, Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin, you will find more people who refer to themselves as queer, because it's, again, more inclusive than everything else we have. And it's such a nice umbrella term to even get rid of the, you know, the whole spelling out of LGBTIQ+ and whatever comes after that. So, it's really, it lends itself to be more inclusive with yourself and maybe your journey. Maybe you’re still figuring yourself out, and then you can just say “queer” and stick to that for a while. But, hmm, I don’t think it’s as widely known as schwul or gay.
LG: The language surrounding the queer community is full of words that have been reclaimed in this way. But it’s also full of words that largely remain offensive, hurtful and often quite hateful. It’s a sad fact that there are a lot of insults that exist that are directed at people within the community.
KW: Oh, yeah. There are a bunch. I can try to translate them into what I think would be the equivalent in English. So there is Schwuchtel, for instance. Schwuchtel is basically ‘fag’, ‘faggot’. That, that word, ugly word.
LG: Very ugly word. Schwuchtel is used as a derogatory term for gay or effeminate men. The etymology is unclear, but it’s likely connected to schwuchten or schwuchteln, which is a regional word meaning something like ‘to rock or sway your hips while walking’, so probably alluding to this stereotypical picture of a camp man. Though this isn’t confirmed. Another insulting way to refer to a man’s homosexuality is to call him warm, so ‘warm’, or ein Warmer, ‘a warm guy’. Again, this is considered very offensive. This is also why learners ought to pay close attention to the grammar of talking about temperature. If you want to say, “I’m cold”, you wouldn’t say, “ich bin kalt”, but rather, “mir ist kalt”. Similarly, if you want to ask someone if they’re warm, you should ask them, “ist dir warm?”, and certainly not, “bist du warm?”. That could provoke a very different reaction to the one you were probably expecting. I learned that one the hard way. Interestingly the word schwul itself is considered to go back to the lower German meaning ‘swelteringly hot’. The word with this meaning ended up as the modern German word schwül, meaning ‘muggy’ or ‘humid’. The old form schwul stayed on to refer to homosexual men, following warm. The exact reasons for referring to gay men with adjectives to do with heat aren’t 100% clear, but it’s thought that it is due to homosexual men not being indifferent to other men in an erotic sense, which would be “cool”, but rather they would find them “warm”. This is thought to be the origin of the phrase warme Brüder, ‘warm brothers’, to describe homosexual men. Again, this is widely considered offensive. There are obviously many more examples of insulting words and phrases like this, which ought to be avoided.
KW: There’s also Kampflesbe, which is, it's a ‘butch lesbian’ but in a worse way. It's like a ‘fighting lesbian’, would be the literal translation. Someone who is really aggressive. There is Transe. Transe is- comes from Transvestit, so ‘transvestite’, and it's basically what would be ‘tranny’ in English.
LG: As I mentioned before, most of these words are and remain highly offensive terms. Within the community itself though, you might hear some of them being used in an empowering or in an affectionate way.
KW: We've reclaimed the word Schwuchtel, for instance. Because when I say it as a gay man, I know I am that, and so I'm taking it back. It's kind of like with the N word for black people. At least for me, it sounds that way. And I know a bunch of gay people who don't want to use that word or don't want to hear it. But I think the only thing you can do is take it back for yourself.
LG: This reclaiming of Schwuchtel among gay people is becoming steadily more and more prominent, too.
KW: It's good that you mention it because there is this TV show. It's a gay dating show, just men, and they are looking for one prince charming. It's “Prince Charming”, it’s on TV in Germany. And one of the contestants walks in to meet everyone else. And he’s like, he says something along the lines of, “oh, so viele Schwuchteln hier, das wird wahnsinnig lustig!”. So, something like that. So he says, “oh, so many faggots here, it's gonna be fun”. And he can say that because he is, in fact, a fag. So he's taking that word back and saying, you know, “I'm going to celebrate myself with this word and everyone around me”. That's basically what reclaiming is in this context. And that's been happening in the German language as well among the community. But I know for a fact that right now in some schools they'll still use schwul, so the general term for ‘gay’, as a derogatory term, and Schwuchtel as well. So, the fight is far from over. [laughs]
LG: This is true. There has certainly been a lot of progress. But we can’t forget that western countries like the UK and the US, as well as western German-speaking countries like Germany and Austria, are far more open-minded in general than certain other countries. There are countries where being gay is still punishable by death. And even in the EU, there are places where things seem to be moving backwards, with new laws being introduced banning the so-called ‘promotion of homosexuality and gender change’. I’m thinking specifically of Hungary’s, quote, “Anti-Paedophilia Act”. The rights of LGBTIQ+ people are generally better protected in German-speaking countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and there have been steps taken towards equality, such as marriage equality in Germany and Austria in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Switzerland also voted in favour of marriage equality in September 2021. In Austria it’s been possible since 2020 to choose between not two but six gender categories in official documents. Next to weiblich and männlich, so ‘female’ and ‘male’, you can choose divers, inter, offen and kein Eintrag, so ‘diverse’, ‘inter’, ‘open’ and ‘no entry’, which is like ‘prefer not to say’. And in general, representation of people in the queer community is improving all the time.
KW: I think we're getting there. There have been a lot of TV projects as of late that, you know, focus on the community itself and don't have gay people or LGBTIQ people just as, you know, a fun side gag. Like the Paradiesvogel, that's a nice term that you can hear a lot in German.
LG: Paradiesvogel being a ‘bird of paradise’.
KW: Like a parrot that has a bunch of colours. So just a very colourful person, colourful character. And those have been around for quite a while. It's always a side gag. It’s not- You don't really see them as a full personality that has maybe a different gender, maybe a different sexuality from the norm. But now we have TV shows like “Prince Charming”, “Princess Charming”. We've had the lesbian version as well. There was a drag queen reality competition show on one of the biggest TV channels in Germany. The CSDs are getting bigger and bigger every year. I think it’s getting better.
LG: Still, even in countries like Germany, which are relatively progressive, there are areas where equality still hasn’t been achieved, and structural discrimination is still affecting the lives of LGBT people.
KW: I think homosexual males and bisexual males can't donate blood yet. They can only donate blood in Germany if they've been celibate for a year, which is a bit extreme.
LG: Only relatively recently, in May 2021, this rule of having to be celibate for a year was changed, but not entirely removed. Men are still banned from giving blood if they have had sex with someone new in the past four months, if this other person is also male. So for those not in a long-term relationship, men who have sex with other men must remain celibate for four months before being allowed to give blood. Which is better than a year, I guess, but it’s still horrendously discriminatory.
KW: There are a lot of activists who are trying to push against that because it's discrimination because that's like, it's saying that, “oh, we're more prone to getting AIDS and HIV just because we're such sluts and can’t, you know, take precautions to shield ourselves against it”. It basically says that we're promiscuous, everyone is, and that's a thing that's still around in Germany.
LG: There is of course not only discrimination in the law, in social structures and in representation in the media, but also in the German language itself. We have looked at gender in German in detail in an earlier episode in series 1. In a language such as German, where grammatical genders are a thing and where gender is embedded into the framework of the language, it’s very difficult to use language that doesn’t discriminate in some way. Especially since we’re stuck with masculine, feminine and neuter, so either the binary male/female, or things. For people who identify as non-binary, for example, it can be difficult for them to see themselves in language without it being either incorrect or simply degrading. This is an issue with pronouns, for example. In English we have they, which even the people who oppose the use of singular they still use all the time without even realising. In German, there isn’t a good solution like this. At least not one that’s caught on on a wider scale. But there are some suggestions.
KW: So I’m not that knowledgeable when it comes to new pronouns in German. Because I've talked to non-binary people and even trans people who've, you know, explained to me what kind of things could be applicable here. Like something like xier, if a- xier, oder just sier in one word, but that's nothing I've ever heard used before. It's just people are now thinking about how to go about inclusive language.
LG: For people who don’t know what to do and don’t know these novel pronouns, how can people refer to people who are non-binary?
KW: So basically, I don't know a lot of new pronouns you could use, but one thing one could try when there is someone non-binary around, you could just say their first name. Sam Smith, for example, they go by ‘they’, but there is no, there is no way to say that in German. Because if you say “es”, the neutral word “es”, “es singt einen Song”, ‘they're singing a song’, that sounds mean. [laughs] I don't know how to explain it, but “es” is so- it's not human. While they sounds kind of human. And I think that the Americans have adapted to it, and the British. But in Germany, it's harder. So I would say “Sam singt einen Song”. Just use their first name.
LG: And you couldn’t use the actual word for they in German, which would be sie, firstly because it sounds just like the word for she, which is also sie, but also because the word for they already has a second meaning in German, this being the polite Sie form. So we couldn’t just translate they.
KW: Yeah, that doesn't work either. [laughs]
LG: Of course, the best solution is to allow the person to tell you for themselves how they prefer to be referred to and spoken to. If you are not able to ask them, then the best we can do in German at the moment is for example to use the person’s name instead of pronouns, as Kai says. Who knows, maybe a gender-neutral system of pronouns will catch on eventually. There have been a number of attempts to establish systems like this, and if you listen to the next episode, which is out now, I talk to two people who have done exactly that and have come up with their own new grammatical system which allows people to speak in a gender-neutral way. The episode is called The NoNa System, and you can listen to it right now. As we’ve heard, countries in the German-speaking world are on the more progressive side of things in terms of representation, rights, and efforts to make language more inclusive, even if things are far from perfect and, in the case of language, you’re battling against a well-established system where the gender binary is everywhere. So moving forward from here, what needs to be done to keep things moving in the right direction approaching full equality for everyone in the queer community?
KW: I think this goes for pretty much every developed country where, you know, homosexual people can, you know, be pretty open with everything, and they see representation on TV and movies and shows, which is the case for Germany, the UK, and Austria, and the United States. But for all these countries, we really have to go a step further now and look at all the other letters in the LGBTIQ umbrella. So, what does it mean to be trans? What is that experience like? How can we make it easier for trans people to get the right, you know, medical help to follow along their transition? How can we put less obstacles in front of them when it comes to sexual reassignment surgery, that sort of thing? I think that we still have a long way to go there. What does it mean to be non-binary? What is the difference between sexuality and gender identity? We're doing it, but just really slowly. We can kind of get there in the next few years, that would be awesome.
LG: Thank you so much to Kai Witvrouwen for joining me for this episode. Of course, this episode only scratched the surface of language and the LGBTIQ+ community in German-speaking countries. If you’re interested in learning more and hearing from more people, head over to Kai’s podcast, Sputnik Pride. He has interviewed a whole range of guests about all kinds of topics, many of which being topics to do with language use. Check it out on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, all the places. And while you’re at it, give Kai a follow on Instagram @thatiskai, spelled K-A-I. Links to everything in the shownotes and of course on the podcast website, yellowoftheegg.com.
Don’t forget I’m also on Instagram, @yotepodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-podcast, as well as Facebook, @yellowoftheegg. And you can get in touch by email, email@example.com. I would really appreciate you telling your friends about the podcast and giving me a nice five-star rating and review. Thank you so much.
So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening. This series we get to enjoy some music at the end of each episode by a band based here in Vienna, Euphoniques. Today they’re playing us out with Identity from their new EP of the same name. Check them out on Spotify, details in the shownotes, and I’ll see you in the next episode. Machts es gut, servus aus Wien.
[Music: “Identity” by Euphoniques]