Interview with René Mertens from Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany

CO-WC: Hello René Mertens. What is the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (Lesben- und Schwulenverband in Deutschland aka LSVD)?

René Mertens: The LSVD sees itself as a civil rights association and represents the interests and concerns of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI). Human rights, diversity and respect — with this motto we campaign for the human rights of LGBTI people in Germany and internationally.

CO-WC: Where are your roots?

René Mertens: We emerged from the civil rights movement in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and were founded in Leipzig in 1990; at that time still as a gay association. In 1999, we merged with lesbian initiatives and groups to better achieve our common demands. Since then, we have been fighting together as the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany. Last year, we could celebrate our 30th anniversary — unfortunately, this was only possible to a limited extent due to contact restrictions.

CO-WC: What does the LSVD deal with?

„We want LGBTI people to be respected and recognized as a natural part of social normality.“

René Mertens: We want LGBTI people to be respected and recognized as a natural part of social normality. Even after the opening of marriage, there is discrimination against LGBTI people — socially and legally. For example, rainbow families continue to be discriminated as our parentage laws neither recognize co-motherhood nor grant legal recognition to multi-parent families. In recent months, the Adoption Assistance Act has even risked making discrimination against two-mother families even worse. Fortunately, this could be prevented, also because of us. Furthermore, we demand constitutional protection for LGBTI people by supplementing Article 3 of the Basic Law as well as a human rights-oriented law on gender self-determination.

CO-WC: Can you elaborate on that a bit?

René Mertens: Homophobia and transphobia are still prevalent in parts of society today. Homophobic and trans-hostile voices have even become much louder again recently. Insults and disparagement, discrimination and disadvantages, hostility and assaults, and even open violence are still part of reality in Germany. If people cannot move freely in public space because of this, it is a massive attack on freedom. But never has the federal interior minister responsible for internal security publicly condemned a homophobic or transphobic act of violence, never has he said a word about the safety of LGBTI people, let alone done anything about it. Usually, there is not even a hint of awareness of the problem in criminal policy. The Conference of Ministers of the Interior exists as a permanent institution since 1954. There has never been homophobic or transphobic violence on the agenda of these conferences of interior ministers.

„We are part of the new competence network Selbst.verständlich Vielfalt“

CO-WC: Politically, there is a lot to do. Where else is the LSVD active?

René Mertens: We are active in education and advocate for LGBTI inclusive education plans and diverse teaching materials. With our nationwide project „Queer Refugees Germany“ we strengthen queer refugees in the asylum process and promote empowerment. We are also very active in politics for refugees and their rights.

CO-WC: Can you say something about the competence network Selbst.verständlich.Vielfalt, to which the LSVD belongs?

René Mertens: Since 2020, we are part of the new competence network „Selbst.verständlich Vielfalt“ along with the Akademie Waldschlösschen, the Bundesverband Trans* and Intersexuelle Menschen. This new coalition of the queer community is sponsored by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) as part of the federal program Demokratie leben!. Together with our network, we as the LSVD do not only want to expand knowledge outside and within the community about how to deal with sexual and gender diversity issues in a professional and non-discriminatory manner, but also to further professionalize welfare professionals in this topic area. In this context, we will also continue our Rainbow Parliaments — this year we will put the topic of LGBTI-hostile violence and prevention at the core of our nationwide forum.

„Our freedom is at stake. Hate and incitement are not allowed to win.“

CO-WC: Openness, diversity and respect seem to be gaining ground. However, there are also reactionary tendencies. What are the grand challenges of our time?

René Mertens: Derogatory and even hostile attitudes towards LGBTI people continue to be a major challenge. These attitudes and ideologies can still be found in the midst of our society today, fueling violence and hostility.

CO-WC: We can observe this almost everywhere…

René Mertens: It is an issue in the sports club as well as in the schoolyard, everywhere in public space. Inhuman ideologies of inequality fuel resentment. Religious fundamentalist, right-wing extremist and right-wing populist forces are fighting hatefully to restrict equal rights and opportunities for LGBTI people and to push them out of public life. In this way, they storm against a pedagogy of diversity or defame the efforts for more gender equality. All this shows us that values such as freedom, equality and respect have to be fought for anew every day. Liberal democracy is now under pressure worldwide. The open society needs offensive forward defense, a constant effort to win people for a culture of respect. Our freedom is at stake. Hate and incitement are not allowed to win.

„We all need to position ourselves.“

CO-WC: Where do you think we should start?

René Mertens: The education sector is important. There is much that can be done in schools to reduce homophobic and transphobic attitudes. The same is true for churches and religious communities. Churches have a great influence because they are important institutions for many people and provider of many social institutions. There is still a lot of resistance. Especially here, we strengthen those who work for a diverse and open togetherness. We demand an effective national action plan against LGBTI hostility and for the acceptance of sexual and gender diversity. There is a need for clear, time-defined target agreements, reliable self-commitments by the responsible government agencies and adequate budgetary means to prevent and combat homophobia and transphobia.

CO-WC: Homophobic hostility is everywhere, in different forms. What can we do about it?

René Mertens: We all need to position ourselves. Almost all German states, except Bavaria, have state action plans to promote sexual and gender diversity. However, a corresponding federal-state program against LGBTI hostile violence at the federal level is still missing. Especially today, when anti-human attitudes are openly expressed, civil society is also coming under massive pressure. Therefore, as part of civil society, we must make it explicit which values and, above all, which idea of a diverse and respectful coexistence we stand for.

„It is also a social signal that there are not only men and women, but a variety of gender identities. The CO-WC signs show this very well.“

CO-WC: At the moment there is a lively discussion about public toilets. The so-called unisex toilet is not only a global trend, but also the subject of political and social debates. How do you perceive this cultural trend?

René Mertens: Using sanitation is one of our basic needs and access to it is a human right. But usually, there are only men’s and women’s restrooms or so-called disabled toilets. However, trans* people often have to overcome big hurdles when they go to a restroom. They experience opposition and hostility. With unisex toilets, sanitary facilities could be redesigned so that everyone can visit them without fear. In addition, it is also a social signal that there are not only men and women, but a variety of gender identities. The CO-WC signs show this very well.

CO-WC: For good reasons, people all over the world are campaigning for the unisex toilet. However, there are inconsistencies in the realization. For example, there is a gap between theory and practice. When institutions install unisex toilets, it is usually in addition to the existing men’s and women’s toilets. That is, the unisex toilet is an exception here and, as such, confirms the rule of segregating public toilets into men and women — in other words, it consolidates the concept of two genders. In this sense, you can say that there is a gap between a progressive way of thinking and a stocked everyday practice, between an enlightened gender image and an outdated pictographic tradition, and so on.

„The basic question is whether the unisex toilet is offered as a third toilet option or whether there is one toilet for all people?“

René Mertens: The basic question is whether the unisex toilet is offered as a third toilet option or whether there is one toilet for all people? I would say that this has to be decided depending on the context. For example, on trains and airplanes we have only one unisex toilet and no one bothers. However, these are cabins with washrooms that are used by only one person at a time. Something like this could also be implemented in public buildings, especially in new buildings.

CO-WC: Public restrooms are special in so far as we use them as a matter of course every day. And that usually means we use either the men’s restroom or the women’s restroom. This is a social convention with far-reaching consequences.

„Every time we go to the restroom, we categorize ourselves and are reminded of two-gender.“

René Mertens: Every time we go to the restroom, we categorize ourselves and are reminded of two-gender. Categorization is reproduced and with it, of course, binary notions of gender. After the introduction of the third positive gender entry, it is time that we also think about gender equity in sanitary spaces and find a solution that considers different gender identities.

CO-WC: In Berlin, there are unisex toilets in many places, not only in bars, cafés or restaurants, but also in companies and public buildings. However, their installation is not mandatory.

René Mertens: This is often related to the respective building code, which often requires only male and female toilets. Unisex toilets are still the exception. With the introduction of the third positive gender entry, there is an enormous need for action. Because this has actually also legally broadened what is meant by gender discrimination. This will result in social change. We think it is good and important to provide unisex toilets everywhere. You can do it step by step. At various LSVD events, such as the Rainbow Parliaments, we wanted to use the CO-WC signs to give thought-provoking impulses while providing gender-appropriate sanitary spaces for our participants. In this context, we wanted to have the labels „Pissoir“ and „Sitztoilette“ (sitting toilet) supplementary on the signs.

CO-WC: It’s a great challenge to overcome the old WC culture. WC signs are integrated via conventions into our reality, which they also produce. Real change had to come from and within the system. By creatively recycling conventional gender symbols and colors, the CO-WC sign parodies the artificiality of cultural norms. It reflects and challenges the old norms at the same time. It opens up new perspectives.

„Everyday behavior shapes the way people think and act.“

René Mertens: If we change our perspective on gender, we will realize that there are not only binary gender categories, but that gender can be diverse. There are also non-binary people who defy categorization. Gender can also be fluid, it is not static. CO-WC sign shows it very well.

CO-WC: WC signs are everywhere. We use them as a matter of course. Now we must not forget that they have a huge influence on us: They create our (gender) reality.

René Mertens: That’s right. As many people as possible need to understand pictograms, internationally. That’s why it’s exciting to make signage with pictograms.

CO-WC: The goal is to initiate a real change. And for that, you should start in everyday life.

René Mertens: Everyday behavior shapes the way people think and act. And pictograms are good for triggering social change. People experience gender constructions in particular as natural and deeply personal. In the public debate, there is often an outcry when it comes to the „toilet issue“. This only shows that we need to address the issue of gender much more in society. As a society, we should be more open about diverse expressions of gender. If we manage to approach this topic more openly, then we have actually already achieved a lot.

„Teachers could use the CO-WC sign as an entry point to start a discussion about gender and encourage thinking about it.“

CO-WC: You can never start too early.

René Mertens: Yes. I feel it would be exciting to use the CO-WC sign to talk about gender in school. Because many teachers actually wonder how to approach the topic of diversity in class. It is still seen as a matter of affected people. So, teachers deal with it when they themselves are lesbian-gay-trans-bi. Teachers could use the CO-WC sign as an entry point to start a discussion about gender and encourage thinking about it.

CO-WC: Absolutely, CO-WC is for everyone and wants to build bridges, between past and future, theory and practice, gender discourse and image culture, straight and queer, and above all, the „other“ in us and other people. But it’s not about reconciling with existing contradictions and conflicts. It’s about becoming aware of them. More precisely: it’s about becoming aware of our fictions or fantasies and playing with it.

René Mertens: This is related to the question of what a „real“ man or a „real“woman should be like. Here, we should distinguish between lesbian, gay, bi and trans* and inter* — on the one hand it is about sexual orientations, on the other hand about gender. In fact, we all have to deal with gender norms. We often forget that these LGBTI hostile attitudes do not only affect LGBTI people, but all people who do not conform to a certain norm or understanding of gender. This makes it a problem for society as a whole. Ultimately, we all benefit from social openness and a relaxed approach to sexual and gender diversity. And dealing with minorities is also an indicator of democracy in the end. And we all benefit from a democratic society as well.

„We also want to go into mainstream society, bring our issues into the mainstream.“

CO-WC: The opportunities to advocate for a diverse society also depend on context.

René Mertens: Sure. It’s different whether you’re at the Lesbian and Gay City Festival in Berlin (Lesbisch-schwules Stadtfest, check out CO-WC’s Info Booth at the Lesbian and Gay City Festival) or at Saxony’s biggest folk festival, the Day of the Saxons (Tag der Sachsen), where the LSVD also has a booth once a year. However, at the last international matches of the German men’s soccer team, for example, there were also toilets for non-binary people. The German Football Association realized that. We also want to go into mainstream society, bring our issues into the mainstream. That’s why we also talk to people outside the community. We go where there is a broad audience: universities, adult education centers or youth hostels. This can also be interesting for the CO-WC project.

CO-WC: You had the CO-WC sign on the restroom doors at your conferences and networking meetings. How was the feedback?

René Mertens: The CO-WC signs made people think, that was my impression. Participants were excited and said things like „oh yeah, cool“. I didn’t hear anyone say „what is that?“. When we used CO-WC signs in public spaces, people almost took them as normal.

„The LSVD fights for people to be able to use sanitary facilities without fear.“

CO-WC: Unfortunately, many people are still ignorant when it comes to unisex toilets, not to mention WC labeling. But conversations like this and various activities show that we are in the midst of a culture change. Lastly: What is the position of the LSVD on the topic of unisex toilets?

René Mertens: The LSVD fights for people to be able to use sanitary facilities without fear. This is a human right. It cannot be that people do not want to go to the restroom fearing hostility or ridicule. Whether you solve it with a unisex toilet or third toilet depends on the context. There is not just one right way. We should always consider the goal of the specific facility.

CO-WC: René Mertens, thank you very much!

Lesben- und Schwulenverband (LSVD) e.V.
Hülchrather Str. 4
50670 Köln
Tel: 0221 / 92 59 61 0

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