This podcast—led and produced by Maya Littlejohn—examines our session with Peggy Piesche, Maisha Eggers, and Katja Kinder of Generation ADEFRA. In the mid-1980s, a group of Black women activists were brought together in Berlin by self-described “Black lesbian mother warrior poet” Audre Lorde (1934-1992) and inspired to found the initiative ADEFRA: Black Women in Germany. Additionally, historian and founding member Katharina Oguntoye “points to the complexity of the task of not only bringing together previously relatively isolated Black women in Germany with their sometimes very differently developed vital interests, but also to keep them together in the long run.”
Photo Credit: Maya Littlejohn
Maya Littlejohn is a junior at Colorado College majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and minoring in Political Science. She’s originally from Brooklyn, New York. During her free time, Maya is involved in the President’s Council and works for Attorney Jarrett Adams at the Innocence Project. On her good days, you’re likely to find herin a sunny spot sketching and binge watching MSNBC.
Photo Credit: Maya Littlejohn
Joining Maya in her discussion are D. Adams—a Memphis, TN native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies, and Atiya Harvey—a Washington, DC native and a senior at Colorado College majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies.
NOTE: The featured image photo credit also belongs to Maya Littlejohn.
CORRECTION:Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out) was co-edited by Katharina Oguntoye, May (Opitz) Ayim, and Dagmar Schultz.
Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.
First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.
How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma Arzouni about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.
Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]
Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.
Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.
Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis
2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
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To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here.
Annie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.
L to R: Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, Jasmin Eding, and Marion Kraft [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]
By Nikki Mills
On a rainy Friday afternoon, three remarkable women sat quietly, listening to the rainfall on the roof of the FHXB Museum. While moms outside shielded children from the downpour and businessmen and women sprinted for the metro, we gathered, a class of nine, young and eager, into the museum’s auditory. Marion Kraft, Jasmin Eding, and Judy Gummich spent the next two and a half hours recounting their memories and their work, including stories about Audre Lorde and May Ayim, two remarkable people who led the way for Black women in Germany.
Marion began. She recalled the first time she met the legendary Audre Lorde. She was asked to interview her. “I was so nervous,” Marion told us. “Very shaky.” She went on to describe the tape recorder she brought along, not conveniently sized back in 1985, and her questionable ability to work the machine. Marion conducted the interview and after an hour Audre asked, “Are we done? That was beautiful! Can we listen to it now?” Marion clicked the play button and nothing played back. She hadn’t recorded any of it! Mortified, Marion apologized, to which Audre responded, “Oh well, let’s do it all over again!” And they did. Marion shared this anecdote with us to describe Audre’s honesty and genuine compassion for her work as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Marion continued, “I believe every word public or private came from her heart.” Her encounter with Audre Lorde was life-changing and the beginning of a personal friendship.
Photo Credit: Nikki Mills
Marion, Jasmin, and Judy have each had their own unique hand in shaping Black communities Germany. Marion, a scholar and philosopher, has spent decades trying to right the racist wrongs of society. For example, her recent book, Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration, is a direct response to the lack of Black literature in Germany, because she, along with many other Black Germans of her generation, grew up in “total isolation.” Judy Gummich, diversity trainer and life-coach, recalled how before any organized Black German groups existed, it was sometimes hard to look at another Black person. She noted that it was like looking in to a mirror that reflected back the oppression and racism so prevalent in Germany. They didn’t even have a name for themselves. “Afro-German” and “Black German” wasn’t a common way for them to describe themselves until ADEFRA, a Black women’s organization claimed the name in 1986. Before then, being “Black” and “German” were not what we would call “compatible” identities. Along these lines, in “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To,” Jasmin, co-founder of ADEFRA writes, “We chose to define ourselves, name ourselves. We called ourselves Black Germans, Afro-German or Afropeans, Blacks in Europe (instead of Europeans) or simply Black. We felt it time to challenge German society that being German doesn’t always mean being white and that we also had a long Black history in Germany/Europe.” This statement lays the groundwork for the importance of the Black community to define itself rather than be defined by anyone else.
Before helping to found ADEFRA, Jasmin found influence in Audre Lorde’s work—more specifically, the back cover of one of her books. On the back was an advertisement for another book, Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), co-edited by May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz. It piqued the interest of a young Jasmin and soon enough she had the book in her hands. During our discussion, she said, “It was like looking into a mirror.” Everything she was reading in this book about the experiences of other Afro-German women paralleled her own. So, she wrote a letter to Katharina Oguntoye, and eventually heard back. The two women got together and started talking. Those conversations sparked the thought process behind ADEFRA. It was a “mission,” Jasmin explained. In the 1980s, with no Facebook or Whats App, these women had to resort to person-to-person interaction to build their collective community. Handing out fliers on the street and through word-of-mouth, ADEFRA grew bigger and bigger. Jasmin noted it was like a “Black coming out.” They were no longer in “total isolation,” as Marion had described earlier. It was no easy process but slowly a connection on a national level was built among Black German communities. These women, including Ria Cheatom—who made a surprise visit to our discussion, spent hours driving all around Germany, even venturing into former German Democratic Republic (GDR) to find the Black community in East Berlin.
L to R from Top: Nikki Mills, Dagmar Schultz, Ika Hügel-Marshall, Marion’s Partner Oury, Dana Asbury, and Nora Holmes [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]
They recalled their first office, a kitchen table, and laughed about the hours spent hand writing fliers because at that time print copies were expensive. A fascinating part of our conversation about ADEFRA’s beginnings were the challenges they faced venturing into East Berlin. There they found a common sentiment that there was “no racism,” an official position of the GDR. This inability to accept the racist discrimination made it incredibly difficult to have honest conversations about life for Black Germans. But as Marion recalled, after the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent plummet of the GDR economy, many minorities were blamed. The classic story of using a minority group as a scapegoat for the ruin of the economy. The racial violence toward Black and refugee communities in the former GDR spoke to the necessity of groups like ADEFRA. Marion, Judy, and Jasmin all attested to the fact that there are still “no-go” areas for minority groups within Berlin. The voice ADEFRA and other Black German organizations, such as the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD), gives to Black German communities is essential in their fight for equity.
With the help of members of ADEFRA like Jasmin and many other voices within Black German communities, Marion created Kinder der Befreiung to “write [Black Germans] into the discourse in [their] own voice, in [their] own language, that’s not imposed upon [them].” The book is composed of “life stories,” histories of the children of the liberation. For example, in an interview with the Jewish Museum of Berlin, Marion explains, “The title Children of the Liberation refers to the liberation of Germany from fascism” and “stands in contrast to the term ‘occupation’ and at the same time refers to liberation from the discriminating labels that prevailed for a long time to describe the children of Allied soldiers and German women, in particular the Black children.” The language used by ADEFRA and Marion is crucial to the liberation of Black Germans from colonial imposition and naming of certain minority groups. As she writes in “Coming in from the Cold: The Black German Experience Past and Present,” “The self-definition of Black Germans began in the 1980s, and the visions and actions of the generations born after World War II have had a profound influence on the development of a Black German cultural and political consciousness.” Our panelists and guests, which also included—to our surprise—Ika Hügel-Marshall and Dagmar Schultz, nodded in agreement that today’s young Black Germans admirably have a certain kind of self-confidence about their identity and belonging. We concluded that this confidence developed, in part, because of our guests’ generation, the children of the post-war era, a generation of elders that allowed this confidence to come to fruition.
Photo Credit: Nikki Mills
Marion also argues that Kinder der Befreiung is a vital way of combatting the notion that racism is in the past. For example, the forward opens with Anton Wilhelm Amo, an influential Black German philosopher from Ghana who was also a contemporary of Immanuel Kant’s. At the same time that Amo was teaching and writing in Germany, Kant claimed that no African has ever made anything of a contribution to society. Marion used this anecdote to highlight the racism that has saturated society. But that was the 18th century right? Marion then juxtaposes this problem with a more contemporary philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Arendt wrote in the 1950s that the social structures of the Black community were something akin to that of animals. Even more contemporary, a current street sign in Berlin proudly sports an extremely racist slur about Black people despite their resistance.
This, of course, can best be understood through an intersectional lens that carefully considers multiple forms of oppression. Along these lines, Judy has found herself immersed in the particular discourse on inclusion and what that means in terms of human rights. It’s a discourse about how to live together and allow all people the fundamental right to live. It’s also about moving away from words like “integration” and “assimilation” so often the terminology used to describe “progress.” Whether it’s a salad bowl, mosaic, or a majestic multi-colored coat, the discourse remains the same. “Integration” is not the goal. In Germany, this word often targets “people with a migration background” and problematizes them rather than the barriers they face. It is also important, as Judy asserted, to include all Black Germans, to pull everyone out of the “total isolation” Marion described and give them a voice in the conversation on Black German identity.
L to R: Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, Jasmin Eding, Marion Kraft, and Nikki Mills [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]
The work that these women are and have been doing to give the next generation of Black Germans a clear identity, a cohesive history, a voice in a country that pretends they don’t exist, is remarkable. As I walked out of the museum into the evening drizzle I couldn’t help wonder, did I just meet this generation’s Audre Lorde and May Ayim?
Nikki Mills hails from the swampy Washington, D.C. area, and treasures the moments she gets to spend in sunny Colorado. She’s an Anthropology major and Political Science minor, but in an effort to leave her comfort zone and still explore issues close to her heart, she’s chosen to take her first official Feminist & Gender Studies course this summer. On campus, Nikki can be found hanging from ropes in the climbing gym and attending Shabbat dinners at the Interfaith House. Throughout school and beyond, she hopes to continue working hard for the disregarded in our society and find creative ways of moving past this particularly vile moment in U.S. history.
Waking up this morning was surprisingly not as difficult as I had thought it would be. I willed myself to stay awake yesterday despite all of the naps I almost took while riding the U-Bahn. As I reflect on my first week in Berlin, I am baffled by how much history and how many narratives I have been given the privilege to hear and learn about. I was particularly excited for today’s class, since we were going to learn more about Generation ADEFRA 2.0. ADEFRA, an organization based in Germany that was created in 1986 by six Black lesbian German women, focuses on the empowerment of Black women. According to Jasmin Eding in “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To,” the word ADEFRA means “’the woman who shows courage’ in the Ethiopian language, Amharean” (131). In a few words, the organization enables Black women to explore what it means to be Black in a predominantly White German society. The organization has had a tremendous impact on various Black communities in Germany, and I was excited to engage in dialogue with three of its most influential members.
Upon our arrival, Cheanna, Amy, and I were warmly greeted at the door of Begine by Peggy Piesche. Piesche is a Black lesbian women who was born and raised in East Germany, staying, as she put it, “until the bitter end.” Peggy works in education, more specifically in Literature Studies, European Studies, and Diaspora Studies,, among other subjects. As we sat down, the entire class began to trickle into the room. Then came Dr. Maisha Eggers. Eggers was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. She migrated to Germany where she does social work and various forms of education, such as Gender Studies. Finally, Katja Kinder joined our group. Kinder is from Berlin, where she works as a conflict mediator and counselor. She is also a founding member of ADEFRA. With the addition of a couple more chairs, we all sat and began to simply talk to one another.
Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers were all brought together through ADEFRA. As they began to talk about their involvement with the organization, each of these individuals expressed a lack of language they felt before they found ADEFRA. ADEFRA flourished into a safe space for Black women and gender non-conforming individuals. They each emphasized how vital it was and continues to be to come together as a collective and work from a creative space in order to define who they are on their own terms by creating safe spaces, sharing knowledge and experiences, and articulating these knowledges and experiences. For example, both Piesche and Kinder shared with the group how, as lesbian Black women, they had to come out in many ways. Additionally, Eggers expressed how difficult it was for her believing she was one of few Black woman in Germany. ADEFRA became a space in which they could begin to create language that allowed them to define and explore their intersectional identities. Kinder recalled during the inception of ADEFRA how members searched the street for Black women, handing out hand-made flyers and encouraging these women to attend meetings by word of mouth.
Thirty years later, the room I now sat in, still remains a safe place for these Black women of Germany. As they shared their stories, I felt incredibly privileged and honored to have been invited into the physical meeting place where ADEFRA holds their meetings. Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers recounted the challenges of being Black in a White society, particularly during the 1980’s. Along these lines, Kinder also explained how the building next door remains a living space exclusively for lesbian women. Over the course of the past week, we have continually heard about the isolation that many Black Germans experienced, especially in 1980s Germany. While I could in no way begin to comprehend what it must have felt like to grow up being completely isolated, I can identify with the need for a safe space. At a predominately white institutions, such as Colorado College, many of my peers who identify as women of color and I have found it tremendously difficult to claim a safe space that is our own. I never imagined how emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting isolation could be. On that note, Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers stressed the importance of coming together collectively. As Eggers stated, “If you are dealing with oppression…there is no way you are going to do that in a place of isolation.” Thus, collective spaces play an important role in the creation of languages. Through these created languages, marginalized groups are able to define themselves and their experiences. However, with the creation of language comes the danger of it being consumed by mainstream culture. Along these lines, Kinder warned, “It is not me anymore as soon as it goes mainstream.” Thus, these safe spaces are imperative to members in communities to connect with one another and keep these languages and images of themselves. In this way, a collective and creative space can lead to collective reflection. Further, as ADEFRA continues to thrive, it has become a multi-generational organization. Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers lovingly call themselves the “queer aunts” of ADEFRA.
We later delved into a conversation about heteronormativity, a creation of colonialism. Piesche discussed how queerness has been “cannibalized” by the white world, which replaces itself as the original. People of color, who identify as queer, are then looked at in surprise because we come from “backward” cultures, when, in reality, Eggers pointed out how these intersectional histories have always been here. Here, I was reminded of Eggers explanation of the difference between sharing knowledge and sharing information. In “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Eggers writes, “Referencing knowledges that are being produced away from (and outside of) the hegemonic center of the West is a further advance in the project of decolonization” (13). There has been an erasure and white washing of queer histories within communities of colors, which has worked to further silence us. As the “queer aunts,” Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers explain how ADEFRA is a “collective archive of queer Black knowledge.” They conveyed how it is important for them to allow for younger generations to find themselves on their own however, they also expressed the want to be there for them to share their language and experiences.
As the dialogue carried on, the group began to speak about how identity and knowledge is articulated. Both Piesche and Eggers shared how writing themselves into existence and reading it is crucial to a community. For Eggers, reading about how other black women dealt with their oppressions helped pull her out of her isolation. Writing makes her feel that is no longer alone. Piesche stressed the importance of not just looking at different genres but also different formats of writing is important, such as poetry. However, Kinder didn’t express these sentiments; “No I don’t have to be in any book, I don’t want to be in history…we exist, period.” She critiques the articulation of knowledge and identity through books as limiting. “We have so many books, but we still have all of this oppression…we need to think about much more than just books.” Though Piesche, Kinder, and Eggers had different standpoints on this topic, they emphasized that storytelling and sharing experiences is, nonetheless, powerful. In “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,”Eggers also explains,
Sharing knowledge is perceived to entail a deeper commitment than merely consuming information. It involves engaging deeply with the power-critical analyses produced in everyday contexts. Within a critical pedagogy of decolonization, access to alternative knowledges can deeply influence action and the direction of social movement work (13).
ADEFRA’s activism is based on creating an informal, easy-going space where Black women and gender non-conforming individuals can meet each other where knowledge is shared rather than information. In the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, Audre Lorde writes, “In the interest of all of our survivals and the survival of our children, these Black German Women claim their color and their voices” (xiv). ADEFRA plays a crucial role in the community for Black German women and gender non-conforming individuals.
Sadly, the class had to come to an end. I leaned back in my chair dazed by how incredible the conversation had gone. Meeting with members of ADEFRA and hearing their narratives was surreal after having read about them. As I said goodbye and headed down the stairs, I couldn’t help but think about collectivity and creativity. There are days when I think I can do everything on my own; I am strong. But what is so wrong about coming together? I thought of the ways in which I identify and how I think and move in creative ways. Kinder said, “Whatever is normative kills us because we live in a creative space.” Identity should be defined on your own terms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on your own.
Alejandra Hernandez is a rising junior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies. She is also on the Pre-Medicine track, and is planning to attend medical school. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she learned to love reading and dancing to Latin music. While in Berlin, she is excited to explore and learn about different cultures and communities.
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.