By Spencer Spotts
Author’s Note: For the privacy and safety of their clients, the names of LesMigraS staff members and photos of the facility have not been included.
In the United States, LGBTQIA+ rights and issues are a hot topic, as the media obsesses over Caitlyn Jenner, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage is heavily anticipated, and Orange is the New Black approaches its third season premier. While Berlin may appear to be ahead of the game in addressing LGBTQIA+ issues, our visit to LesMigraS reshaped this perception for me and highlighted how much work there is to be done and how very few people are doing it.
Founded in 1999, LesMigraS serves lesbian/bisexual women, inter* and trans* people. The organization “is engaged in antidiscrimination and antiviolence work, offers counseling and a space for self-empowerment,” and provides multiple services for their clients and their families/friends. Programs and services include, but are not limited to, counseling, workshops, film screenings, empowerment programs, support groups, and anti-violence/anti-discrimination networking. For example, they offer various forms of counseling (e.g. legal, psycho-social, partner/spouse) that address a wide range of issues (e.g. discrimination, coming out, migration, partner and sexual abuse, and other forms of identity-related violence).
Depending on the area of the city, Berlin can sometimes be relatively safe and comfortable for queer-identifying people to be open about their lives. There is a history of political and social activism for queer rights in Berlin, as explored by Erik Jensen in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution.” He writes, “In the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights protests, antiwar demonstrations, and the second wave of feminism…gays and lesbians [began] to organize on a broad basis and push for radical changes in their legal and social status” (321). Seemingly, however, only entrance into this increasing tolerance of non-heterosexuality is that you are a white, able-bodied, cisgender man. Anyone in LGBTQIA+ communities that falls outside this category will immediately notice the lack of resources, funding, and representation for them and their peers. In “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” Jin Haritaworn discusses this trend and notes the appropriation of “intersectionality” by white Leftist organizations. Haritaworn writes, “Dominant identity politics are learning the language of intersectionality and masquerading as multi-issues to gain representational power and a competitive edge over migrant organizations in struggles over public funding and recognition” (78). In our week and a half here in Berlin so far, we have repeatedly heard this narrative of funding discrimination. LesMigraS, which caters to a more intersectional and wide range of identities, is not unfamiliar with this experience of limited funding and resources.
Nonetheless, LesMigraS recognizes the importance and necessity of resisting this type of economic hegemony. As a result, intersectionality and inclusivity are the driving forces behind their work. Although their part-time staff only consists of nine members, all of them represent diverse and various backgrounds. For instance, most of their services and programs are offered in multiple languages, and workshops are carefully developed to address a wide range of topics and communities. Not only is LesMigraS providing resources where they are very heavily needed, they are also advancing the work and scholarship surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues and identity in Germany. Similar to Jensen, Clayton Whisnant writes about the progress and evolution of gay history. In “Gay German History: Future Directions?,” he writes that “the study of Germany’s gay history since its meager beginnings in the 1970s [was] driven forward by a relatively small cadre of devoted historians” (1). However, what Whisnant fails to acknowledge is the political and social location of these historians and what (or more specifically who) they are studying. The majority of the research that Whisnant highlights follows the history of gay and bisexual men in Germany, who are also assumed to be white cisgender men. In contrast, LesMigraS released a report in 2012 (developed over three years) that focused on the violence and multiple discrimination experiences of lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people in Germany. The translated title reads “Not So Tangible but Still Real,” and is a compilation of a large survey, six narrative interviews, and one focus group. The results showed that on average, lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people of color or with a migration background (self-identified) experienced higher rates of discrimination and violence as opposed to their white participants. LesMigraS expressed to us that, to their knowledge, their study is the first and only report in Germany to focus on these communities and multiple discrimination.
While LesMigraS may be the only organization of its kind in Berlin, they by no means are lacking in power and credibility. White gay men may be dominating the political and institutional spheres of queer identity, but LesMigraS is rewriting the cultural and social history at high speeds. Their resistance and impact, both on the day-to-day basis as well as long term, needs to garner more attention from LGBTQIA+ activists in Berlin as well as in the United States. Furthermore, LesMigraS provides the perfect example of how conducting intersectional and inclusive work is possible, effective, and above all, incredibly necessary.
Spencer Spotts is a rising junior at Colorado College, with a major in Feminist & Gender Studies and a minor in Race & Ethnic Studies. His hometown is Thornton, Colorado, and he is a first generation student. Spencer currently serves as the co-chair of the Colorado College Student Organization for Sexual Safety (SOSS) and hopes to pursue a career in sexual violence and sexual health education for LGBTQIA+ communities. His research interests include sexual violence, emotional partner abuse, effemiphobia in queer communities, and the experiences of LGBT youth. He also has a background in theatre and occasionally directs productions at Colorado College. He works as the Open House Intern for the Colorado College Office of Admission and occasionally writes for The Catalyst independent student newspaper. Last but not least, Spencer is a proud and active Starbucks Gold Card Member.