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.

“Hier ist’s richtig!”: Creating and Dominating Queerness in Berlin

By Spencer Spotts

IMG_9355Any 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.

IMG_9352The 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.

image2For 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.

IMG_9360A 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.

IMG_9363The 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?

IMG_9374In “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 IISpencer 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.