Queer Spaces and Clubbing Culture in Berlin

By Claudia Harrison

My weekend began with a not-at-all-spontaneous trip to a sex shop a few blocks away from our apartment. Sitting at the corner by our nearest metro station, the shop had been taunting my classmates and me all week with the promise of appropriately eccentric outfits for Berlin’s amazing clubbing scene. Specifically, we hoped to find our way into Berghain, the most notoriously exclusive club in Berlin. We had been trading knowledge about this club since our arrival, laughing at the ridiculous admission guidelines: Look German, don’t be loud or have too much fun in line, wear mostly black, try not to stand out, and NEVER be on your phone.

According to Ryan, the guide for our Queer Berlin Walking Tour, Berghain’s strict door policy evolved as a way to deter obnoxious heterosexuals from invading and upsetting the club’s LGBTQIA patrons after it gained wider popularity in 2009. What surprised me was that before this, no one had ever mentioned to me that Berghain was actually a gay club. While traveling in Europe the past couple weeks, I had received multiple recommendations from heterosexual peers, gesturing wildly as they exclaimed how exclusive and desirable it was. Why then, were they clueless to one of Berghain’s central characteristics?

To me, this appears to be part of a long history of heterosexual cisgender people invading LGBTQIA spaces. Specifically in the nightclub scene, rising popularity for gay bars manages to be more of a curse than a blessing. When heterosexual people turn up in large numbers at these “up-and-coming” clubs, they tend to dominate the spaces, making it clear that they are no longer safe for queer individuals, who find it harder to be themselves under the oppressive heterosexual gaze. Often, then, LGBTQIA individuals are forced to move onto other places. Not only is this unfair to the intended patrons, but it also effectively erases the histories of these spaces.

This sort of invasion matters, because the existence of queer spaces is essential to LGBTQIA movements and sociopolitical progress as a whole. No change can occur without the ability of oppressed groups to organize freely. Exchanging narratives between friends and comrades within a specific social group (a principal activity in a bar) is one of the most powerful ways to challenge the prevailing order. As Maisha Eggers explains in “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” “Since narration creates and conserves normalcy, dismantling legitimized and historicized dominant knowledges requires counter-narration”(7). Therefore, it is no surprise that Germany’s history of queer activism and culture is inextricably tied to the proliferation of LGBTQIA spaces in Berlin.

Germany’s queer spaces could easily be seen as the birthplace of many LGBTQIA movements. Public discourse around gay rights (at least for white men) began after Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s 1867 appeal to the Sixth Congress of German Jurists to remove laws forbidding sex between men in Hamburg. Then, in 1869, “homosexuality” as a term was coined when journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny (writing from Berlin) articulated his opposition to sodomy laws. Soon after, Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, a police commissioner deemed Berlin’s gay bars inoffensive, and stopped prosecuting or preventing public gay events.

For decades, Berlin nurtured an extensive subculture of gay nightclubs, organizations, theatre, publications, and much more. For example, at the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1904, Theo Anna Sprüngli gave a talk on “Homosexuality and the Women’s Movement,” linking the gay right movement to the feminist movement and opening up a space for lesbian activism. Additionally, Christopher Isherwood famously lived in Berlin and wrote about his time under the Weimar Republic. In 1931, Mädchen in Uniform, a film about a young student in love with her older female teacher,was released, becoming one of the first “positive” onscreen portrayals of lesbians. None of this would have been possible without the freedom of queer people to congregate in their own spaces.

Then, in 1933, Hitler’s administration cracked down on homosexuality laws, amending Paragraph 175 to criminalize even the slightest homoerotic expression between men in public spaces. Gay organizations were banned. Nazi enthusiasts sacked the Institute for Sexual Science, which had performed the first transsexual surgery, and burned thousands of books written by gay authors. Gay men were forced into concentration camps and marked with an upside-down pink triangle, while the few lesbian who were identified were marked “asocial” and branded with a black triangle. Thousands of people died from this type of persecution.

And yet, the queer network proved too strong to be demolished by these events. While publicly banned, private gay communities continued to grow and thrive under the Nazi regime. As Erik N. Jensen points out in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution” regarding a book he read documenting the experience of gay men in Nazi Germany, “The men speak of the fear, the police raids, and the disappearance of friends, but they emphasize the ongoing quest for sexual contact, the formation and dissolution of relationships, and the resistance and acquiescence to the new regime that enabled them to make it through alive”(348). Although the bustling bars and vibrant shops of gay villages were gone, a powerful network remained, ready to restore and rebuild.

Decades later, in the United States, a new wave of gay activism began when queer customers of the popular Stonewall Inn, led mainly by LGBTQIA people of color, refused to submit to police harassment on June 28, 1969. As a riot ensued, word spread around the queer community and other member of the community rushed to join the protesters. The event sparked wide scale debates among LGBTQIA individuals and the formation of several gay activist groups. The queer community had successfully defended their space, creating a wider network for activism and social change. A year later, the first gay pride parades occurred in cities across the U.S. Yet, the sanctity of LGBTIA spaces continues to be penetrated in increasingly more violent ways.

On Sunday morning, fifty people were killed inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The club, Pulse, was celebrating pride month, more specifically Latino pride, when a shooter armed with many weapons including an assault riffle shot at the clubs, customers, injuring fifty-three people. These people were attacked in a place that was meant for their safety, one of the few places they could escape from the violence of modern society. What’s most striking about this event, already termed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, is just how unsurprising it is given the current trend in our country. In a nation where states continue to adopt discriminatory legislation, pushing transgender individuals out of public bathrooms, where the suicide rate for LGBT youth is three times high than that of non-LGBT young adults, not to mention ten times more for queer people of color, where transgender people are being murdered in staggering numbers every year, and where members of the queer community are banned from helping their peers by donating blood, an attack exclusively targeted at LGBT people of color ceases to be anomaly. It’s the norm. This incident should lead us to reexamine the state of LGBT communities in our county. With anti-LGBT legislation pending in twenty-two states, over 100 bills attacking the basic rights of queer and transgender people, it is more important now than ever to stand up for the rights of the LGBT community, taking special care to include and listen to queer people of color.

Our response to this event matters particularly because the rest of the world is watching. Although the U.S. is often perceived as being “ahead” of other countries in its efforts to combat racism, sexism, and homophobia, this notion oversimplifies the complicated nature of transnational social movements. Activist groups in other nations may get ideas from American activist efforts, but they often lose something in the process. For example, Jin Haritaworn explains, “In Germany, as elsewhere, hate crime activism has been uncritically imported from the United States and the U.K. and transplanted onto local contexts with almost no progressive debate”(71). I also hope intellectuals and politicians in can look critically at the situation rather than jumping to conclusions based on the attacker’s race or religion.

In the end, we did not find ourselves at the door to Berghain this past weekend, especially because of the prospect of a three-hour wait. When Saturday night came, we opted for a small gay bar in Kreuzberg, where we all felt comfortable. Here’s to hoping queer spaces like it stick around.


HarrisonClaudia Harrison is a senior ClassicsHistoryPolitics major from Washington, D.C. Her second day of college, she decided to spend the next four years trying to understand all of human history and thought. While she’s still actively failing at this task, she believes taking her first Feminist and Gender Studies class this summer may be a step in the right direction. In her free time, she can be found reading obsessively, over-analyzing TV shows, and boring her friends with useless facts about everything.

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