By Amelia Eskenazi
The gray skies and chilled temperature greeted us this morning as we hustled out of our apartment at 8:15 trying to decide whether or not we wanted to ride the bus this morning. Quickly becoming Google Maps pros, we decided to walk, weaving through the streets of West Berlin to the Reichstag, where we were supposed to meet the rest of our group and our tour guide, Ryan, who leads the Queer Berlin Walking Tour.
Ryan began our tour by explaining how it had changed since the FemGeniuses took the tour last year: “It used to be the history of gay men in Berlin tour, but we changed it because it’s a queer history tour.” Pleasantly surprised, we began the tour near Hotel Adlon where Ryan told us a story about prolific artist Francis Bacon and his stay at the infamous hotel. According to Ryan, one morning when the room service was delivered and Bacon was in bed with his male partner at the time, the person delivering the food “didn’t blink an eye.” This is apparently when Francis Bacon knew that Berlin was the city for him. But as a white gay man, any city that markets to queer culture markets to him. While Berlin is oftentimes described as the “queer capital of Europe,” we must ask ourselves, whose queerness is valued and whose is diminished within this so-called progressive culture?
As we walked towards the U-Bahn station to catch a train to the “notoriously gay” neighborhood of Schöneberg, we learned about some of the legislation behind LGBT criminalization in Germany. Ryan explained to us that when the separate states of Germany were unified in 1871, Section 175 of the German penal code was written, criminalizing sodomy across the country. When the Nazis were in power, they utilized Section 175 as a means of persecuting homosexual individuals. On our walk, we passed a memorial for homosexual individuals who were persecuted along these lines during the Holocaust. The memorial, designed by Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen consists of a concrete cube with a five-minute video of a gay or lesbian couple kissing projected on the inside. When the memorial was first created, the only videos used showcased gay men. According to Ryan, after some public outcry by individuals living in Berlin, videos of lesbians were added and the videos are now rotated every six months. Due to the pervasiveness of gay male culture in Berlin, this addition later on is not uncommon. Unfortunately, due to construction, we were not able to view the videos.
Schöneberg, the first neighborhood we went to, has been notorious for being lesbian and gay friendly since the 20s and 30s. About ten years ago, however, the owner of a Dolce Freddo, a local ice cream shop, threw out two gay men after one of the men kissed the other’s cheek while ordering ice cream. The next day when the owner walked from the subway stop to his ice cream shop, he saw hundreds of lesbian and gay couples kissing—the result of a kissing protest that had been staged in response to his requests for the couple to not publicly display affection in his shop. According to Ryan, the Mayor of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Ekkehard Band (who was openly gay), stated that these “types of action were no longer welcome in Berlin.” Spectacles of queer affection, like this one, have been used as a means of sexual assimilation throughout Berlin for the last few decades. According to Jin Haritaworn in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” the use of kiss-ins are used as a means of exemplifying progressivism. “Today’s kissers occupy space very differently. Rather than sick perverts outside the law, they are state-sponsored envoys” (76). She continues to claim that “the vulnerable, respectable body of the gay kisser brings home the need for a military and police apparatus to protect the safety of the vulnerable and to defend ‘our’ hard-won values of freedom and diversity” (83). But Berlin’s use of gay and lesbian history as a means of marketing modernism does not stop at commemorating public displays of affection in parks and support from political figures.
While in Schöneberg, we visited the former home of acclaimed author Christopher Isherwood. Similar to Francis Bacon, Isherwood was not originally from Germany; he came to Berlin after hearing about the openness of the gay and lesbian community in the 20s and 30s. While in Berlin, Isherwood developed a relationship with a man named Otto Dix. He stayed in Berlin for a few years, writing short stories and developing relationships within the gay community of Schöneberg and Kreutzberg. Two of his most famous books, Goodbye to Berlin and Christopher and His Kind, are focused on his experiences in Berlin. According to Ryan, Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, the night after the Nazi book burning. Though Isherwood’s relationships and literary accomplishments were quite significant for Berlin’s lesbian and gay community, Ryan did not mention any people of color who have also impacted marginalized communities within Berlin, especially LGBTQ communities.
Part of the reason why the FemGeniuses study in Berlin is because for many years, Audre Lorde came to Berlin each summer, teaching, working, and writing with women of color, especially Black German women. Her presence in Berlin was so impactful that a group of Afro-German women, including May (Opitz) Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye co-edited a book entitled Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Gechichte in 1986 with Dagmar Schultz as a means of documenting their experiences and diasporic herstories individually and collectively. This book was the first published edited collection of autobiographical writing by Black German women. Despite this accomplishment, neither Lorde’s impact nor her times in Berlin were mentioned on our tour. As Lorde writes in the foreword of Farbe bekennen, “Racism cuts a wide and corrosive swath across each of our lives. The overt climate that racism takes can alter according to society and our national situations…[A]s members of an international community of people of color, how do we strengthen and support each other in our battles against the rising international ride of racism?” (x). Although queer and trans people of color throughout Berlin and all over Germany have been working to create a cohesive and well-known community, the lack of recognition on a tour from a well-advertised company becomes a lack of acknowledgement.
In a place that has been so influential for LGBTQIA+ history in general, we must analyze the way in which these subjectivities have been evicted out of mainstream history. Due to the focus of this class being the intersections of identity within Berlin, it is important to know the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer individuals. Nevertheless, the way in which this history is framed and who frames it is important to critique. Along these lines, in “Knowledge of (Un-) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Dr. Maisha Eggers writes, “Narration is considered central to changing perceptions of normalcy. Since narration creates and conserves normalcy, dismantling legitimized and historicized dominant knowledges requires counter-narration” (7). Regarding Berlin, these counter-narrations are widely written, spoken, and known. The issue now is shifting the whitewashed epicentral focus to one that includes voices that are oftentimes forgotten in dominant discourses.
Nevertheless, the traps of marketed neoliberal queerness within Berlin are hard to avoid and easy to get excited about. However, at the end of the day, they are not an accurate depiction of the various intersections of queerness within Berlin. Without acknowledging these intersections, the dominant narrations appear to be the sole narrations. Over the last few days, I have begun to question my role in perpetuating the normalcy of prevailing discourses. As a white queer individual, I’ll end with this question: How am I contributing to the hegemonic discourses already in place?
Amelia Eskenazi is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Indianapolis, Indiana with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies. In their free time, Amelia is a fan of film photography, making zines, and listening to punky girl bands. While in Berlin, they look forward to eating vegan pastries, exploring flea markets, and documenting all of the street art.