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OK, I figured it out, but I do not understand the reason.

My .bashrc has an "exit 0" at one point, to prevent further commands from executing.

With this exit 0 in place, logging in via gdm is impossible. I just get barfed back to the login screen, with no error.

Removing it solves the problem, and everything works fine.

This doesn't make sense to me. Exit code 0 is "success", and isn't that returned anyway by default?