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Volunteer of the Month: James Diskant

2. September 2019

I wanted to become a happy man”

James Diskant, a.k.a Jim, 63, is a historian, and grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States. In 1988 he completed his doctorate in German History in Boston; his dissertation focused on the changing role of works councilors in the mining and steel industries in Dortmund from 1945 – 1955. He had researched in numerous archives in the Federal Republic, Great Britain, and the United States, as well as interviewed former councilors and trade unionists about their roles in this period. Afterwards he taught as a World History Teacher in Boston for many years. In the fall of 2017 he emigrated to Berlin and began to volunteer once a week in the Library and Archive of the Schwules Museum. In the following he tells about his work here, as well as about himself.

Schwules Museum: What prompted your interest in the Museum?

Jim: I had initially come here to write an article about the museum, but that did not work out. Spending time in the library and archive sparked my interest and I began to spend one day per week in the library reading.

What is your research interest?

I am focusing on men like me, who came out later in life. I am both planning to write my autobiography and a collective biography.

May we ask, when did you come out?

In August 2014. And, since July 2018 I have been married to a German man.

How did you come to do volunteer work for the Museum?

For my own work I spent time reading and then began to research in the archive, which, as a historian, interested me greatly. After meeting with Kristine Schmidt, we agreed that I would work to organize the so-called “mixed boxes” another day a week.

What did you find there?

Anything and everything. One could find documents and objects about gay and lesbian life today or in the past. The material had been donated to the archive and one must first organize it; there could be material from countless different themes; many of which revolve around aspects of culture and politics, which interest me less, since as a historian my interests are piqued more by something from the past.

How did you work in the Archive evolve?

After I organized a few “mixed boxes”, I wanted to focus on a particular topic that was connected to my own research interests and write a finding aid about it. After considering a few topics, including the material on the United States, I settled on working on Paragraph 175. There were more than 10 boxes, most of which were given by the sociologist Joerg Hutter, which I have organizing to make them more accessible to other researchers.

What did that entail?

First, I looked in all the folders and asked what that had to do with the topic. In that context I contacted Hutter and then came to decide to create two finding aids: one on Paragraph 175 and one on Hutter’s dissertation itself.

How did you organize the material about Paragraph 175?

I have created 107 folders. There is a small folder that deals with the Holy Roman Empire; then there are many folders on Prussia and the Second Empire, since that was the focus of Hutter’s study; a few folders on the Weimar Republic; one on the Third Reich; a great deal on the Federal Republic; and a little on the GDR. That is not surprising, since much of the material comes from the former West Germany and/or the Unified Germany.

How far are you?

I currently writing the Finding Aid, which is about 50 pages in length, where all the folders are listed. That is a normal size for finding aids.

Can you read something from it?

Of course. Here is an example from Prussia: “All laws are about sin and fornication and how they should be punished.” The idea is to explain in one or two sentences what is in the folder so that the user will be able to know what to anticipate.

Your main interests appear to be on the legal situation of gay men in the United States and in Germany and on the other hand men who came out later in life. What is the connection, if any?

That is an open question; perhaps only a feeling as to what it is. In Germany there were nationwide laws, while in the United States laws varied by state. The focus in the United States appear to be less on laws, but more on religion and related factors, presumably through its puritanical history. In Germany historians have conceptualized the country’s legal history more, although since 1969 the laws have affected adult gay men less since they have been liberalized.

If the question is too personal, don’t feel as if you have too answer it; why was your coming out late?

An interesting question. I have two adult children and was married to my ex-wife for almost twenty years. While the marriage was not a happy one, I remained faithful. After my divorce I experienced something strange. At a teacher training workshop, I had had a feeling that a younger man was flirting with me. We had many long and intimate conversations about our respective identities. At the end of the week, I told him that I was gay. I think that it was simply the right time to admit it to myself; after all I wanted to be a happy man!

Does your personal story have something to do with research that you are doing in the Museum?

Of course! Two years ago I went on what was to have been a long trip; at that time I met my now husband. In this period I have read and read about gay culture and history to figure what my story has to do with the experiences of other men. As an intellectual I tend to find more in books than in bars about myself. Yes, I do that … but I find much more in books.

Photo: L* Reiter