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Campaigner passes away Röbi Rapp: Swiss gay rights icon has died

Two men hold heart-shaped signs

Röbi Rapp, here on the left holding a sign that says 'me', with his partner, Ernst Ostertag holding a sign that says, 'you', in a TV appearance


Röbi Rapp, a gay rights campaigner who became a household name in Switzerland, has died at the age of 88. Rapp and his partner Ernst Ostertag were the first in the country to register a same-sex partnership. 

After a long illness, Rapp chose to end his life with assisted suicide, and passed away on Sunday, August 26 2018. His death was confirmed on Thursday by Contrastfilm, the company that made a recent film about Rapp and his partner.

A life in the limelight

Rapp was a child actor, starring in the lead role of the film "Das Menschlein Matthiasexternal link" (The little fellow Matthias) in 1941. 

(SRF/Gotthard-Film & Praesens-Film)

He continued his life on the stage as an adult, performing often in a female role or in drag in theatre productions.

Röbi Rapp in a one-man cabaret show in 1962/3


Rapp and Ostertag were part of the gay cultural group “Der Kreis” (the Circle), in Zurich in the 1950s. This is where the couple met.

The pioneering organisation hosted legendary balls attended by gay men from all over Europe. It also curated and distributed a magazine with some adult content and a worldwide readership. 

Things changed in the 1960s when institutions became more openly repressive of homosexuality, and “Der Kreis” slowly fell apart. Both Rapp and Ostertag found themselves targeted by police. 

The pressure put an end to "Der Kreis" in 1967. Rapp and his partner joined its successor and became active in pushing for gay rights in the late 1960s and during the 70s.

Switzerland was one of the first countries to decriminalise homosexuality.

Although this law was passed in 1942, the couple spoke often in interviews of how their sexuality remained a taboo, and why they didn't make their relationship public knowledge sooner.

Two men stand next to each other

Röbi Rapp, and Ernst Ostertag at one of the Circle's balls in 1957


Rapp only came out officially to friends and family, alongside his partner, at their joint 70th birthday party in 2000.

The first same-sex registered partnership

Rapp and Ostertag made Swiss history together when, in 2003, they became the first same-sex couple in the country to register their partnership.

In 2014, a film, "Der Kreisexternal link" was made about the gay organisation in Zurich in the 1950s, told through the story of Rapp and Ostertag's relationship. It won four Swiss film prizes and was a candidate for an Oscar nomination.

The couple had been together for more than 60 years. A public memorial service will be held at the end of October. 

You can contact the author of this article, Jo Fahy, on Facebookexternal link or Twitterexternal link

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