By Spencer Spotts
Any queer-identifying individual searching for an LGBTQIA+ friendly city to visit or move to will repeatedly find Berlin listed as one of the top ten “gay friendly” cities. While it may be true that Berlin appears to accept and embrace queerness much more strongly than other locations around the world, one must also be critical of how queerness in Berlin operates, who controls and defines “acceptable” queerness, and which queer narratives dominate cultural and public discourses. So, unless your queerness manifests itself as a white, gay cisgender man, you might want to pause before purchasing your one-way AirBerlin ticket.
The FemGeniuses spent our last Friday afternoon on a “Queer Berlin” Walking Tour (primarily in Schöneberg), one of the many tours offered by Original Berlin Walks. We spent four hours traveling between different neighborhoods in Berlin to better understand queer history and culture in the city. As a gay man, I was drooling over most of the sites we encountered and stories we heard. However, I also worked to remain critical of the narrative. Although the history and sites were intellectually stimulating, I found myself more drawn to the way queer spaces have been created, defined, challenged, and destroyed in Berlin.
For example, one of the earlier stops we visited was the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. This monument, located in Tiergarten, was inaugurated in 2008 to commemorate those who were persecuted by the Nazis due to their sexuality. The large concrete cube slightly resembles the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and has a window carved into it where viewers can look inside to watch a short clip of same-sex couples kissing. Erik Jensen explores this history in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” commenting on the differences found in the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Nazi regime, as well as how they are remembered (such as the Pink Triangle). He writes, “During much of the 1970s, lesbians shared the pink triangle and its memory of persecution with gay men, and lesbian activists played a role in promoting it. Increasingly, however, lesbians felt overlooked or consciously ignored by gay men in the movement” (333). Similarly, this memorial originally only showcased gay male couples kissing:
After campaigns and protests, the memorial was changed approximately 18 months later to include lesbian couples. Such dominance over the definition of queerness by white gay cisgender men is incredibly present throughout Berlin, and it especially continued throughout our tour.
A significant part of the tour entailed hearing about individuals and their personal stories/experiences. These figures included Klaus Wowereit, the city’s first openly gay mayor, Christopher Isherwood, and the Prussian King Frederick the Great. Another very significant figure we learned about was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish doctor who developed the Institute for Sexual Research, and contributed to gender and queer theory. In “Gay German History: Future Directions?,” Clayton Whisnant argues that “much research has been writing the history of the first homosexual rights movement […] Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee has garnered much attention” (2). Clearly, Dr. Hirschfeld played a significant role in the development of queerness in Berlin. However, every single personal narrative we heard about focused on a white, gay man. To the credit of the tour guide, issues of racism and sexism were occasionally addressed when discussing certain companies or events. However, the tour itself still catered to the very narrative that it seems to want to avoid and possibly even deconstruct.
The point of this essay is not necessarily to criticize the tour, partially because the tour itself was great. It was very informative, and our tour guide was one of my favorite, and I think most of us genuinely enjoyed this afternoon. Instead, I want to consider this tour as a model for how the dominant queer narrative in Berlin has been constructed and continues to be reproduced. Towards the end of our tour, we learned about the slogan for a transvestite bar that is no longer in existence, the El Dorado. Their slogan reads, “Hier ist’s richtig!,” which translates to “Here it’s okay!” However, these words carry a certain meaning, and are positioned in a specific social and cultural location. Who is allowed into this space, both literally and figuratively? Whose queerness is okay? Who controls power over queer spaces?
In “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society before and after 1989,” Jürgen Lemke argues, “The fall of the Wall changed [the] situation completely” for LGBTQ communities in Berlin (36). And although his argument may be true, I wonder—for whom did it change? What narrative was rewritten and what narrative was buried deeper? Although the focus of the tour was to explore the history and culture of queerness in Berlin, we walked away also having unearthed the strands of sexism and racism deeply engrained in the city’s mainstream gay culture. And out of all the moments on this trip, it was this tour that I was reminded of America the most.
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.