by River Clarke
What does queerness look like over time and in different contexts? That is a question I ask myself constantly and one that was on my mind during our session Thursday. Queerness cannot be defined by being put simply into one way of identity. Its fluidity allows for multiple histories to be recorded and various stories to be told. Berlin is a city that encapsulates and continues to situate itself in that complexity.
We started the day off with the Queer Walking Tour with Mal Pool at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße. They started off by explaining the historical background of Schöneberg, a neighborhood in West Berlin. Originally, it was a small town outside of Berlin that was mostly comprised of Muslim immigrants in the 1400s, and later in the 1600s, more Jewish immigrants moved to the town. Once the town became a part of Berlin, it continued to be a space known for its inclusivity. This history was able to be built upon for LGBTQIA+ people both in the existing immigrant communities and those moving in from outside.
The Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße is now lined with various LGBTQIA+ non-profit organizations dedicated to helping and empowering queer people. The 1920s were a period of open queer expression; yet, when the Nazis came to power in 1934, queerness was criminalized, which lasted even after the end of World War II. It was not until the 1960s that the Gay Civil Rights Movement emerged in Berlin, which created the foundation for the queer infrastructure of Schöneberg. The street itself is named for Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who defined the term “third gender” in the face of the unaccepting Bavarian Government in the 1800s. Coming together and resisting is what made Schöneberg the place it is today. By centering queer life focused on everyday topics, Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße has a lot to offer in terms of supporting LGBTQIA+ communities.
We walked for a bit longer and stopped at the Magnus Apotheke named after Magnus Hirschfeld, who continued Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s work on the “third gender” and proposed that gender is more of a spectrum. As a gay man, he also founded a group of scientists to investigate the discourse on why homosexuality is linked to mental illness. His film, Anders als die Andern, influentially depicted queer life beyond suicide. Although his film does depict suicide, Hirschfeld’s film inspired Coming Out, an Eastern German film that focuses on a troubled queer person before suicide occurs at all. As the Nazis rose to power, Hirschfeld was increasingly targeted. In 1920, he was attacked in Munich partially because of his film. They also destroyed his institute, and Hirschfeld fled from Germany to France shortly after. He passed away on his birthday on May 14, 1935. Hirschfeld’s work was an important foundation for conceptions of gender, and it still has impact today.
The final stop we made was at the Pink Triangle Memorial at the Nollendorfplatz Station. Translated, it reads: “Beaten to death, silenced to death. To the homosexual victims of National Socialism.” Many queer people continued to face the effects of criminalization even after the Nazi regime ended. For example, some gay men had their apologies on behalf of the government regarded as invalid and were made to fulfill the rest of their sentences. It was not until the 1990s that all criminalization laws would be repealed, and even later in 2012 when amnesty to be granted. The late time frame for these actions resulted in many victims no longer living to see it through.
With the messaging and location of the memorial, it can be read that “its initiators wished to direct the memorial’s message inward, toward the gay community itself, in order to remind this urban enclave of the perils of political apathy,” as claimed by Erik N. Jensen in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness” regarding a similar memorial in Frankfurt (337). Schöneberg has many places where queer people can go beyond simply living life to enjoying it, and the memorial serves to remind of those who did not get to see it through. Despite being a city that many remark its pride for queer life, Berlin must acknowledge the historical tragedies that occurred.
Still, I continued to wonder about similar spaces in East Berlin. It is not that queer people did not live in East Berlin and make a life for themselves. As Jürgen Lemke states in “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society,” “Gays and Lesbians have developed an identity as outsiders. But they still don’t conceive of themselves as a minority, which even under so-called socialism has a right to a self-determined life” (35). I think it would have been interesting to examine life during and after the divide between East and West Berlin for LGBTQIA+ people, and it may reveal different ways of resisting compared to those in West Berlin.
After walking around Schöneberg, the second part of our day was spent at the Schwules*Museum to see the “Encantadas” exhibit. The Schwules*Museum was founded in 1985, and, for the first 20 years, it was mainly focused on gay identity. Over the years, however, it has worked to become more inclusive and bring in other perspectives on LGBTQIA+ identity in their exhibits and archives. There are usually around ten exhibits a year, and they last for a minimum of 3-4 months.
“Encantadas” is an exhibit curated by three Northeastern Brazilian trans women: Sanni Est, A TRANSÄLIEN, and Ué Prazeres. The premise for the exhibit is based on knowledge that is passed down, performed, and gets lost easily. It is to be able to reflect on realities and questions that we may not be able to truly understand, and the curators did not create “Encantadas” to make sure everyone can do so. The title itself is based on the tradition of encantaria, which involves being engaged with mysteries and traditions that are not visible. Even before we could see into the exhibit, we were already immersed by the sound and music that was playing from the inside. They also had glasses of water with carbon sitting on top of tree stools and are meant as a way to cleanse the souls of those who walk by.
The first thing I noticed about Jonas Van’s “Crystal Ages” were the teeth. They sparkled in various shapes and seemed to be what was humming the music through the installation. “Crystal Ages” was made using the teeth molds from five different trans* people, and each got to select which crystal they wanted the teeth to be cast in. Van wanted to add nuance to the usage of language and reflect on what can be read through saliva as DNA. They complicate the instability of words and go to something that does not lie – teeth.
Daniel Lie’s “I Won’t Look to the Abyss Anymore” focuses on decay, new life, transformation, and time. Originally, the installation looked different than when I saw it. I imagine that the liquid was contained inside the pots, the turmeric-dyed fabric was brighter, and the flowers were alive. Since I only get to see it once, I am glad it was the time that I did. The newness of Lie’s work had all worn away. The flowers were shriveled and limp, the pots spilled leaking liquid onto the floor, and the turmeric was fading. Lie comments on how objects, living or not, change over time and succumb to decay. But does decay always mean death? It can be a new way of being for an object and one that may complicate what it was before.
As art curated for a German museum by three Brazilian trans women, “Encantadas” highlights the importance of understanding how queerness, transness, and more can change in different contexts. A transnational perspective is embedded into these artworks because they are made with the full nuances of their identities as trans Brazilian artists. What is considered valuable in face of decay may change and whose words are deemed important are various themes that we must grapple with as we see these works. They make viewers feel their impact on the exhibit starting with mirrored plaques. All the plaques of the installations are written on mirrors, so we are implicating ourselves in the space. It made me conscious of where I was standing, how I had to move to see what it was saying, and more. That reflection is vital. It is not there to make us fully understand but rather that we may not be able to. A lack of full understanding does not take away from art, and that is what “Encantadas” is asking us to sit with.
Being LGBTQIA+ does not have one single way of being. There is not a single fixed identity. It is messy, it is decaying, it is historical, it is the future, it is the present, and it is so much more than any one thing combined. The Queer Walking Tour and “Encantadas” are both examples of the complexities within being LGBTQIA+ and how they contribute nuanced narratives to Berlin.
River Clarke is a rising junior at Colorado College from Texas. They are also a Feminist and Gender Studies major and excited to be taking this course. When they are not in class, River can typically be found listening to music, singing, spending time with their friends, or sipping on tea. They are so excited to be in Berlin for the first time and have enjoyed all the experiences that they have had since arriving in the city. All the art that can be found around the city has excited them, especially as they learn more about it and its contexts.