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The pioneering age of Swiss gays

Members of the gay group, Der Kreis, at a party in 1937.

(Keystone)

An exhibition in Zurich retraces the history of one of the first gay groups, which played a pioneering role in changing attitudes to homosexuality. Der Kreis, the circle, was founded in the city in 1932.

The exhibition is the first retrospective of work done by the group to promote equality for gay people and secure the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Switzerland.

Under the leadership of the German actor, Karl Meier, who made his home in Zurich, Der Kreis became a beacon of freedom for gay men across the world, especially those persecuted under Germany's Nazi regime. Attracting 2,000 members in its heyday, Der Kreis built up an international network that covered Europe and the United States.

Der Kreis was probably best known internationally for the magazine it produced from 1942 until its closure in 1967. Written in German, French and English it was at the beginning one of the few publications in the world which could talk freely about the issues facing homosexuals at that time.

Ernst Ostertag worked with Der Kreis in the 1950s and helped organise the exhibition in Zurich.

"The subscribers to the magazine were not just subscribers, they were also an organisation of people there to help you if you needed it," he told swissinfo.

The exhibition was put together by the gay museum in Berlin last year and has been brought to Zurich to coincide with the lesbian and gay Eurogames, which take place from June 1-4.

Offering a fascinating glimpse of the social history of Switzerland during the 20th century the exhibition includes pictures and letters, many from private collections, that deal with the work of Der Kreis over its 35 year history.

It is a surprising history in that it shows a vibrant and politically forceful group of Swiss gays and lesbians fighting for their political rights ahead of many of their European counterparts. While detailing a sometime tragic tale of harassment and oppression, it is also a tale of immense hope.

Within Switzerland, Der Kreis was successful in securing more freedom for homosexuals. The Swiss people voted in 1938 to decriminalise homosexuality, and the law came into force in 1942.

by Tom O'Brien


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