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Michael Fehlhaber and the press coverage of the 1992 “Aktion Standesamt”

In July, Michael Fehlhaber aka Michael Waentig talks about his journey from a reticent architect to an indispensable volunteer at Schwules Museum. Through the challenges and successes of archiving the 1992 registry office campaign, he gives us personal insights into his unconventional life story. Here he tells us why gay marriage became a subject close to his heart and what unexpected discoveries he made in the process:

Hello Michael, I’m looking forward to our conversation today. How can I introduce you to people online?

There’s a first peculiarity: when I appear with the SMU, it’s often as Michael Waentig, a kind of stage name. However, my real name is Michael Fehlhaber.

Why a stage name?

When I started working as a supervisor at the museum, I used my mother’s maiden name, Waentig. It’s the same today when I write texts. Michael Waentig is a bit freer, he doesn’t have to be an architect like I am by nature.

Interesting! Please tell us more about your career.

I studied architecture and urban planning in Aachen. It was an absolute diaspora as far as gay life was concerned. During my studies, me and a few gay fellow students founded a gay student group. According to our research, it was the first in Germany in the mid-60s. Only in Maastricht was there a gay group in the AStA, with which we were in contact and also held weekend workshops. Through my studies, I generally turned to teamwork. I quickly learned that there is no such thing as ‘one star architect’, but rather ‘the group’ with many talents.

Were you also gay-networked in your professional life?

Not at all. I wasn’t out at work, I’ve never come out in general. My American nephew came out when he was 20, that was in 2015. That was the first time it occurred to me that I could have a moment like that. I thought about how brave he was and then I wanted to take action. Incidentally, that’s also how I ended up at Schwules Museum! I never came out to my family though, I always just brought my lovers with me. I didn’t have to explain anything, they were just there. And as there were two or three relationships over the years, everyone could draw their own conclusions.

We need more insight into your beginnings at Schwules Museum!

I’ve known the Schwules Museum for a very long time because I met Andreas Sternweiler at the Berlin Museum in the early 80s. A little later, he co-founded the Gay Museum and I always followed it in the press. The first time I was there was, of course, at the old location on Mehringdamm. It was a really cramped space… I came here in 2015 with my niece, who was visiting from Chicago. It was nice to no longer treat homosexuality as a family secret. I took home the information sheet about volunteering at SMU. One formal application and an interview later, I started volunteering here.

What did your voluntary work look like?

Professionally, the first really great job I did was in a research and development department for the microfilming of drawings for the archive and library. Accordingly, I applied for the volunteer position in the archive. I officially started in February 2016, processing the mix boxes. The work was sobering, the search for the right category often tedious, but I got to know the structure of the museum archive very well. After 1 ½ years, I had learned so much that I had the confidence to work on a real topic. Through my archive work, I knew that there were several boxes on gay marriage that had not been processed. So I turned my attention to this topic. In about three weeks, I will have worked through the entire collection.

Why gay marriage of all things?

The first partnerships were possible in 2001 and marriage in 2017. I am friends with a couple who took both of these steps immediately. And beyond that, all my friends are gay couples. The project is a tribute to freedom and the desire for partnership. For me, the issue has never arisen, although I haven’t rejected it and I’ve never had a relationship without romance. But I always wanted to do well in my relationships. I don’t feel like I’m unhappy when I’m alone.

Very noble of you to center your volunteer work around marriage when you haven’t made use of it yourself.

That’s true, but it also gave me a certain distance from the topic. I had a university friend who died of Aids a long time ago. He was partnered, they lived together and shared an apartment. After his death, his partner’s parents kicked him out of the apartment and he had to return all his valuable gifts, such as jewelry. That was one of the first exclamation marks for me, despite all the distance. That is absolutely unfair! So it slowly became an issue for me too…

Can you describe in more detail what attracted you to it?

In retrospect, this anecdote became decisive for my focus. The registry office campaign, and everything that developed from it with Volker Beck and Manfred Bruns, followed the basic idea of putting same-sex partnerships on a legal footing. I think that’s great and right. These are not socially friendly compromises, but: Equal rights for equal love!

That makes sense, a moralistic discussion has no place here.

It is also interesting that conservative approaches refer on the one hand to the famous Article 6, i.e. the protection of marriage and family, and on the other to the assumption that homosexuals cannot have children. These are conservative values that have nothing to do with reality and therefore cannot be reconciled with legal reality.

I see that your little darling is also talking about marriage for all…

Yes, the brilliant thing is that Article 6 does not specify that it has to be a man and a woman. In my research, I was able to work out that the 1992 registry office action paved the way for marriage for all with §1353. 25 years before marriage for all, a small amendment to the German Civil Code was proposed, which became law in 2017. It reads: “Marriage is entered into by two persons of the same or opposite sex for life.” It used to read: “Marriage is entered into for life.” Small but powerful. I’ve been working on this project since 2017 and only came across this victorious paragraph in 2020. It’s hard to believe that this solution has been around since 1992.

What makes your little darling so special?

Aktion Standesamt was one of the most sensational campaigns in Germany. Everything that was written about it in Germany can be found in this archive box at  Schwules Museum. And we see: Every newspaper in every small village reported on it. And for me, that’s also the courage of the people involved: couples who wanted to get married together had to come forward. They gave their names and went public. I think that this personal identification anchored the whole thing very well in the population. The opinion polls on the subject got better and better after that!

What did it mean to you when marriage for all was introduced in 2017?

It wasn’t so sensational because it was already in the air in 2013 and 2015. There were elections that people thought would bring the discussion there. When marriage for all came years later, it kind of felt like a given, not like a big win. I was just annoyed that I hadn’t finished my SMU project yet!

Are you also critical of gay marriage?

I really like a quote from the journalist Hans-Ulrich Jörges: “Who believes in the disintegration of society when lesbians and gays have chosen the most controversial and endangered institution of bourgeois society as the dream goal of their lives: marriage.” Personally, I don’t really see a problem with this. On the contrary, that’s something I admire in my friends: to choose this critical institution, or in other words, partnership in general, togetherness, and to be together for 30, 40, 50 years… I find that commendable and courageous, then as now, regardless of the circumstances, whether it’s written or not, whether it’s voluntary or with the seal of marriage. I still rate it very highly when you do that.

So romantic! You said that very well, Michael. Thank you very much!


Interview & Foto: mino Künze