“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.

“Not So Tangible but Still Real!”: LesMigraS and Intersectional Anti-Violence Work in Berlin

By Spencer Spotts

Author’s Note: For the privacy and safety of their clients, the names of LesMigraS staff members and photos of the facility have not been included.

LesMigraS IIn the United States, LGBTQIA+ rights and issues are a hot topic, as the media obsesses over Caitlyn Jenner, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage is heavily anticipated, and Orange is the New Black approaches its third season premier. While Berlin may appear to be ahead of the game in addressing LGBTQIA+ issues, our visit to LesMigraS reshaped this perception for me and highlighted how much work there is to be done and how very few people are doing it.

IMG_9013Founded in 1999, LesMigraS serves lesbian/bisexual women, inter* and trans* people. The organization “is engaged in antidiscrimination and antiviolence work, offers counseling and a space for self-empowerment,” and provides multiple services for their clients and their families/friends. Programs and services include, but are not limited to, counseling, workshops, film screenings, empowerment programs, support groups, and anti-violence/anti-discrimination networking. For example, they offer various forms of counseling (e.g. legal, psycho-social, partner/spouse) that address a wide range of issues (e.g. discrimination, coming out, migration, partner and sexual abuse, and other forms of identity-related violence).

Depending on the area of the city, Berlin can sometimes be relatively safe and comfortable for queer-identifying people to be open about their lives. There is a history of political and social activism for queer rights in Berlin, as explored by Erik Jensen in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution.” He writes, “In the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights protests, antiwar demonstrations, and the second wave of feminism…gays and lesbians [began] to organize on a broad basis and push for radical changes in their legal and social status” (321). Seemingly, however, only entrance into this increasing tolerance of non-heterosexuality is that you are a white, able-bodied, cisgender man. Anyone in LGBTQIA+ communities that falls outside this category will immediately notice the lack of resources, funding, and representation for them and their peers. In “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” Jin Haritaworn discusses this trend and notes the appropriation of “intersectionality” by white Leftist organizations. Haritaworn writes, “Dominant identity politics are learning the language of intersectionality and masquerading as multi-issues to gain representational power and a competitive edge over migrant organizations in struggles over public funding and recognition” (78). In our week and a half here in Berlin so far, we have repeatedly heard this narrative of funding discrimination. LesMigraS, which caters to a more intersectional and wide range of identities, is not unfamiliar with this experience of limited funding and resources.

IMG_9012Nonetheless, LesMigraS recognizes the importance and necessity of resisting this type of economic hegemony. As a result, intersectionality and inclusivity are the driving forces behind their work. Although their part-time staff only consists of nine members, all of them represent diverse and various backgrounds. For instance, most of their services and programs are offered in multiple languages, and workshops are carefully developed to address a wide range of topics and communities. Not only is LesMigraS providing resources where they are very heavily needed, they are also advancing the work and scholarship surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues and identity in Germany. Similar to Jensen, Clayton Whisnant writes about the progress and evolution of gay history. In “Gay German History: Future Directions?,” he writes that “the study of Germany’s gay history since its meager beginnings in the 1970s [was] driven forward by a relatively small cadre of devoted historians” (1). However, what Whisnant fails to acknowledge is the political and social location of these historians and what (or more specifically who) they are studying. The majority of the research that Whisnant highlights follows the history of gay and bisexual men in Germany, who are also assumed to be white cisgender men. In contrast, LesMigraS released a report in 2012 (developed over three years) that focused on the violence and multiple discrimination experiences of lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people in Germany. The translated title reads “Not So Tangible but Still Real,” and is a compilation of a large survey, six narrative interviews, and one focus group. The results showed that on average, lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people of color or with a migration background (self-identified) experienced higher rates of discrimination and violence as opposed to their white participants. LesMigraS expressed to us that, to their knowledge, their study is the first and only report in Germany to focus on these communities and multiple discrimination.

A gift for the #FemGeniusesInBerlin from LesMigraS!

A gift for the #FemGeniusesInBerlin from LesMigraS!

While LesMigraS may be the only organization of its kind in Berlin, they by no means are lacking in power and credibility. White gay men may be dominating the political and institutional spheres of queer identity, but LesMigraS is rewriting the cultural and social history at high speeds. Their resistance and impact, both on the day-to-day basis as well as long term, needs to garner more attention from LGBTQIA+ activists in Berlin as well as in the United States. Furthermore, LesMigraS provides the perfect example of how conducting intersectional and inclusive work is possible, effective, and above all, incredibly necessary.


SpencerSpencer 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.