Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

In the early 1990s, the GLBT community hailed East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as a Queer hero, but she was revealed to be a more complex figure who made unsavory compromises to survive under two repressive regimes.

Born Lothar Berfelde in the Berlin suburb of Mahlsdorf in March 1928, von Mahlsdorf showed a preference for women's clothing at an early age. Von Mahlsdorf (who referred to herself in the feminine) had a tyrannical father, a local Nazi party leader who forced his sissy son to join the Hitler Youth, but she found more support from her mother and her Aunt Louise, a cross-dressing Lesbian who gave von Mahlsdorf a copy of Magnus Hirschfeld's book The Transvestites at age 15.

Von Mahlsdorf later claimed that in order to protect her family from further abuse, she bludgeoned her father to death in his sleep with a rolling pin. After a psychiatric evaluation, she was sentenced to four years in a youth prison, but was released early when the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945. Then age 17, she related that she was nearly executed by Nazi soldiers when she was discovered, cross-dressed, seeking refuge in an air-raid shelter for women and children.

In her late teens, von Mahlsdorf began cross-dressing full time and adopted the name Charlotte, after her aunt's lover. Identifying as a Transvestite rather than a Transsexual, she did not dislike her male genitals and did not seek surgery, though she described herself as a female soul in a male body. Favoring drab, old-fashioned clothing, simple jewelry, and no makeup, she did not pass convincingly as a woman as she aged. "I am what I am," she wrote. "Mostly, I wear an apron and a bandanna and I am satisfied being a housemaid."

From the time she was a child, von Mahlsdorf had an avid interest in junk-collecting, amassing household items such as furniture, clocks, and phonographs. She held a job at a second-hand store as a teenager, and over the years she accumulated possessions from Jews fleeing the Nazi regime, families sent to concentration camps, homes bombed and abandoned during World War II, and later, East Germans escaping to the West. After the war, she worked to save old buildings slated for destruction. She acquired a manor house in Mahlsdorf, where in 1960 she opened the Grunderzeit Museum, showcasing items from the late 1800s.

In the museum's basement, von Mahlsdorf recreated the Mulack-Ritze - an infamous Weimar-era nightclub frequented by Gays, Transvestites, prostitutes, and S/M aficionados - after its closure by Communist government officials in 1963. In the 1970s, the space became an important gathering place for the nascent local Gay and Lesbian movement. In addition, the museum was used as a set for period films, some of which included von Mahlsdorf as an extra. She played a Gay club barmaid in the first and only Communist-era East German Gay film, Heiner Carow's Coming Out, which premiered on November 9, 1989, the night East Germans were first permitted to cross the Berlin Wall en masse.

During the years of German reunification in the early 1990s, Von Mahlsdorf was hailed by the GLBT community as an eccentric celebrity. In 1992, she published her autobiography, Ich bin meine eigene Frau (I Am My Own Woman or I Am My Own Wife), which was followed by a documentary film of the same name by Rosa von Praunheim. Reportedly, the title derived from von Mahlsdorf's reply when her mother pressured her to marry. Over the years, von Mahlsdorf had a series of long-term romantic relationships with men and pursued an active sex life, exploring the bars, baths, and brothels of former West Berlin into her 60s. But the era's political changes also brought new problems; in 1991, a Gay party at the Grunderzeit Museum was attacked by neo-Nazis and several attendees were injured.

In 1992, author Doug Wright began interviewing von Mahlsdorf and researching her life for a play. Initially regarding her as a Gay hero, he discovered numerous discrepancies in her life story. Files from the recently opened state archives revealed that she, like many of her contemporaries, had acted as an informant for the Stasi secret police, which apparently led to the imprisonment of a Gay friend for selling antiques to American soldiers. Von Mahlsdorf was vilified in the mid-1990s when the media got wind of the information - which she had not disclosed in her memoirs - and in 1997 she left Germany for Sweden. Von Mahlsdorf died of heart failure during a visit to Berlin in April 2002. Wright's play, also entitled I Am My Own Wife, premiered on Broadway in 2003, garnering widespread acclaim and numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.

Von Mahlsdorf did not politically support the Communist regime, referring to East Germany as a "red concentration camp." Yet her complicity "was the price she paid for living the unequivocal, unapologetic life of a Transvestite," argues Wright. "To suggest she accomplished something so bold without compromise was to minimize the achievement itself. True iconoclasm always comes at a price."

For further reading:
Von Mahlsdorf, Charlotte. 1995. I Am My Own Woman: The Outlaw Life of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, Berlin's Most Distinguished Transvestite (Cleis Press).
Wright, Doug. 2004. I Am My Own Wife: A Play (Faber and Faber).

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.