“Nobody Flees Without a Reason”: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History

Photo Credit: Ryan Garcia

By Ryan Garcia

Growing up, I watched the cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys every winter season. Often, I felt a connection with these toys that Rudolph visited that had some “defect” of some sort but were perfectly okay to play with. The toys were outsiders in a world where everyone wanted a perfectly made toy. At the time, I did not know I was queer, but I knew I was different. I often felt displaced and could never “fit” in anywhere, so I found places where I could be myself leading up to my coming out not too long ago. In relation to Berlin, this is city of who some might call “outsiders”—the ones who were considered “misfits” even where they considered home—an Island of Misfit Toys. Berlin was often a safe place to be queer, often pioneering “proper” spaces without judgment for the “outsiders” of the world.

“The Queer Capital of Europe,” as Original Berlin Walks writes, has a rich history, especially in the queer hub of Schöneberg (referred to as “Boys Town”) to the vibrant and multicultural Kreuzberg. Our tour was guided by Jared Pool, who not only seemed to know a lot about the history of queer Berlin but was ecstatic to share his knowledge with us. Something to note about our knowledgeable tour guide is that he is a published academic with a background in Anthropology. This focus also guides his work in Neuroscience, which has fueled his passion for radical politics and identity analysis. As he walked and talked us through almost a hundred years of queer history from the 1920s to today, we visited some well-known spaces, as well as hidden spaces, while being introduced to a few prominent queer figures along the way.

The Albrecht von Krosigk Stopelsteine (or Stumbling Stone) [Photo Credit: Ryan Garcia]

Hailing from the lands of Great Britain, we are introduced to our first queer artist—an author, Christopher Isherwood, a typical Berliner and man that notably “came for the boys.” Rather than living “out” in Britain and facing castration, he moved to Berlin to be with friends, such as Erika Mann and Auden Spender. While in Berlin, Isherwood wrote two novels that would be collectively put together to become the musical Cabaret. Isherwood wrote his famous works while living with his partner, Carl Heinz. Heinz’s family welcomed Isherwood with open arms, probably because they were excited that Heinz was dating a famous British author. They eventually married and had two children. Under the Nazi party, it was considered safer, politically or legally, to live in Germany if you identified as homosexual. However, socially, it was not safe, as these individuals were often targeted. For this reason, Magnus Hirschfeld, a human sexology specialist, would call on Isherwood to take care of his institute while he was gone in New York doing advocacy work—then, the institute was invaded by a cadre of the Nazi Party to steal books. These books would later be used as the kindling of the infamous book burning.

At our next stop, we visited a queer bookstore—Eisenherz. As the first gay book store in the city since the war, they relabeled themselves as a queer bookstore to be more inclusive in the late 1990s. Here, there are books by Isherwood and various other authors. Eisenherz has also pioneered the gay award for the Berlinale International Film Festival. Jared then proceeded to recommend the book, Gay Berlin, which discusses the difference between the homosexual and homosexualist cultures of the 1920s. Interestingly enough, the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sturmabteilung (SA) military organizations believed that the strongest bonded relationships were between men. So, the homosexualist movement was a militant homosexual movement. On that note, we were introduced to Ernst Röhm, a bisexual homosexualist leader of the SA. He often took advantage of those who were helpless in nature, most notably his abuse of children. Because of Ernst Röhm, the “queer pre-history” gay community believed that they would be left alone. But Röhm was not popular amongst the Nazi party. Eventually, he was expunged, bringing an end to the homosexualist movement.

Photo Credit: Nikki Mills

Next Stop, a Bio-Markt on the corner of Motzstraße and Kalckreuthstraße, which was once the El Dorado theater and bar, the biggest in the city. In the past, “Hier ist’s richtig!” (translated to “Here is proper!”) was a sign on display at the store, meaning it was a place of no judgment. Here, we learned about “The Hitler Girls” review, Marlene Dietrich, Anita Berber, and Josephine Baker. The El Dorado became popular, in part, for featuring the former, which some took as a glorification of the Nazi party but was actually the farthest thing from that. Dietrich also frequently performed here, and was very open about her sexuality and relationships. Her most famous relationship was with Berber, a German exotic dancer who, at the age of 18, turned exotic dancing in Germany into an art form. She pioneered a form of androgyneity that allowed her to be booked all across Berlin. However, even before the 1934 laws were passed that shut down the El Dorado, Berber had a fallout with a few male tourists who grabbed at her legs during one of her performances. Berber then grabbed a champagne bottle and “cracked it over their heads” on stage while she was preforming. Due to this, she was made “persona non grata,” or person not appreciated. She eventually made her way back, but died of drug abuse before the Nazi’s could destroy the culture she loved so dearly. Baker became popular in Berlin after leaving France, where she was “exoticized” in the media for her “animalistic character” and “African” features. When the Nazi party came into power, Baker was further dehumanized for these reasons, and was attacked in the media through racist characterizations. This is not surprising when we recall what May Ayim writes in “The Germans in the colonies, that “it is important to recall Germany’s much repressed colonial history and colonial consequences” along with a combination of racism and classism that allows such manifestations (19). Hence, Baker moved back to France and gained citizenship there. Subsequently, the El Dorado became a polling station for the Nazi party. But after the war, there was a “reinvigoration of culture,” along with homonormative gentrification of Schöneberg. Fortunately, this history was not erased, as there is a picture in the bio-markt of Deitrich, memorializing the historic queer culture that once existed there.

We then moved on to a plaque commemorating homosexuals murdered during the Nazi regime at Nollendorfplatz—a large pink triangle that reads, “TOTGESCHLAGEN, TOTSGESCHWIEGAN” (translated by Jared to “beaten to death, silenced to death”). Jared began to explain the conditions under which homosexuals were tortured in order to be taught the “right way” to be sexual. Gay men were raped by various objects, while women were “raped straight.” They were also murdered and “beaten to death.” Additionally, “silenced to death” is a reference to the conditions of these communities after the war. The German government thought everything would go back to the way it was prior to the war; everyone was “released” and homosexuals received blanket apologies from the State. This made me recall Erik N. Jensen’s “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the memory of Nazi Persecution.” Here, Jensen questions whether the use of the pink triangle as a memory of Nazi persecution “trivializes” the suffering of concentration camp victims. The use of the pink triangle, in my opinion, brings an awareness and visibility to a community that. This visibility is crucial because of “the absence of testimony, of personal memories, from the victims themselves” (321), as Jensen points out and the legal and social stigma against the “outsiders”—the homosexual community. Though Berlin is a considered safe place where so-called “outsiders” and “misfits” often flock, the queer community was once ostracized and truly treated as misfits needing to be fixed; a history that is slowly being unraveled piece by piece.


Ryan Garcia is a first-generation rising sophomore at Colorado College. After taking Feminist Theory this past block 6, they decided to dive right in and declare a Feminist & Gender Studies major with an intended minor in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies. They are currently working with the Bridge Scholars Program at CC and co-lead the Queer Community Coalition. This is their first time abroad, and they plan to make the most of this educational experience from getting lost on public transportation to being awed by the tour sites. With an intersectional and transnational approach, they hope to apply prior knowledge to various discussions and tours while also learning more within their field of focus—Queer Studies.

Superqueeroes at the Schwules* Museum

By Grace Montesano

IMG_0500The Museum

Our guide, Hannes, was one of the exhibit curators and began the tour with some background information on the museum. The Schwules Museum* was founded 30 years ago by three white German gay men who were working at the Berlin Museum and wanted to establish a permanent museum devoted to gay history. “Schwule” means gay in German, and Hannes noted that, similarly to “gay” in English, this word had been (and continues to be) used in a derogatory many, but that many in the LGBTQIA community, including the museum, were reclaiming it.

Hannes also told us why there is an asterisk following the museum name. In 2008, the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to open up the museum for the rest of the LGBTQIA community, considering that it had focused primarily on the history of white, cisgender, gay men up to that point. Borrowed from something the trans community was doing in the U.S., the asterisk denotes that even though the name of the museum is specific to gay men, the museum itself is inclusive of many queer identities.

IMG_0477This strategy can be problematized through an examination of liberal politics. Many organizations that are marginalized sometimes feel they must expand the scope of their organization either to give the appearance of progress or out of a genuine desire to include other marginalized people. These both stem from liberal understandings of “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Black feminists have been critical of this notion for years, especially concerning white feminism. First, because other marginalized groups often have their own thing going on (Hannes mentioned that German lesbians have a more extensive archive that predates the Schwules Museum* by ten years), and second, because assimilation is not a tactic that helps the most marginalized, but rather a tactic that helps those complicit in existing power structures to maintain power. Additionally, “trans*” has been changed in the U.S., because it implies that anyone who is not binary/passing/post-op is conditionally trans.

In many ways, however, this is working quite well. For example, all the signs in the Superqueeroes exhibit use the “gender gap,” which resists how certain German words are gendered by replacing part of the word with an underscore. In addition, the exhibit featured several trans artists and the rest seemed to be almost equally about lesbians and gay men. Another exhibit that we stopped in briefly at the end was art entirely done by trans artists. While not perfect, this is in many ways a step above similar attempts in the U.S.

IMG_0484Although most of the comics in the exhibition are actually American, there were some interesting historical parallels that seemed relevant to Germany and other parts of Europe. Hannes told us about the comic burnings between 1945 and 1955 in the U.S., during which people would publicly burn piles of comic books. Much of this stemmed from author Frederic Wertham, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent in order to argue that comic books were turning the children into criminals. While Hannes didn’t mention this explicitly, his discussion made me think about the Nazi book burnings happening around the same time. As Erik Jensen writes in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” “While the American gay community often employed the Jewish Holocaust as a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, the German gay community generally avoided this comparison” (342). The collective memory of American gays concerning the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust is very different from the German understanding. Perhaps that is why this parallel seemed so obvious to me.

By Queers, For Queers

Throughout the exhibition, there were two main categories of comics that were shown: comics that were written by queers for queers, in which a significant part of the story line has to do with queer identity, and mainstream comics that incorporate queer characters as a side note to a larger plot line. These categories are both significant, especially given the influence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Between 1955 and 2011, the CCA (a private board that governed all the mainstream publishing houses) dictated what types of content could be in comics. The list of banned subjects included any type of explicit sexuality, drugs, violence, the words “horror” and “terror,” undead characters, and critiques of military/police/judges. Further, homosexual content was not allowed by the CCA until 1989. In response, the 1960s brought about an explosion of underground comics that used “comix” instead of “comics” to denote the change.

IMG_0482Within this underground movement, there was yet another split as queers and women grew tired of the sexism, racism, and heterosexuality that dominated the underground scene. Comix publishers, such as “Wimmens Comix” and “Tits & Clits” were founded to counter this phenomenon. An important note is that in 1972, a woman named Trina Robbins created the first gay comic “Sandy Comes Out.” As our friends at the ADEFRA meeting pointed out, lesbians are always at the beginning of a movement, despite dominant groups trying to push them from the front lines.

In the newer era of web comics, one person making a name for herself is Scout Tran-Caffee (Dax). She is a non-binary, trans woman of color who has created comics that transcend the page and are only possible in the virtual parallel universe. This unapologetic love for the trans experience is amazing, especially when compared to the stale decades old statements that Marvel is trying to make about sexuality.

Mainstream Comics

IMG_0485There is an absolutely striking difference between the levels of political thought and storytelling in the mainstream comics and comix. The former use a quite different parallel universe in which gay sexual encounters exist between superheroes as a way to simultaneously draw in queer readers while retaining their (presumably) heterosexual audience (a tactic used in almost every form of media, commonly referred to as “queer-baiting”). Sadly, the most progressive comic we looked at featured Wonder Woman officiating a lesbian wedding and then explaining her actions by saying, “Where I come from it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage.” This sort of assimilationist, liberal language illustrates the significance of many queer artists saying that they are queer and actively queering the way comics are written and produced.

These comics also incorporate the problematic notion of “coming out.” Hannes repeatedly referred to the “coming out page” of a comic. As noted by many scholars, the conceptualization of “outness” is a Western construct that is often used as a litmus test for progressivism. Within the Western context, coming out is often problematized for perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality. As Jürgen Lemke writes about the coming out process in East Berlin before the Wall fell, “The coming-out generally catapults her or him…into the cold, hard world. Very often a banishment from the family unit will be the harsh result” (33). The “coming out pages” for these superheroes are only necessary because until that page is created, they are heterosexual by default. This marks another stark difference regarding comics being written by queers, for queers, because operating with a knowledge base of other sexualities changes the way you write about and conceptualize those sexualities in media you are producing.

Conclusion

IMG_0498Hannes informed us that this was the first exhibition about queer comics in all of Europe. It is quite obviously a highly interesting field and many books could be (and probably have been) written about it. The key lessons I took away from the experience are that independent artists have more political freedom, which almost always means they produce more interesting art. The other thing I took away is that critical consumption of media is important and should be a constant process, but that sometimes it is just pretty cool to see Wonder Woman as a lesbian.


MontesanoGrace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.

Activism: To the Blogosphere and Beyond!

By Lila Schmitz

Grrrls Team ILast night, I was up late. As the drizzle pitter-pattered on our window, Amelia and I joined the chorus around the globe of the vocal chords forming the sounds of tragedy. The feeling of pain and fear in our guts was enough to keep eyes open and minds muddled. As Amelia spoke on their feelings of hurt and powerlessness, I recalled Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück’s message about the necessity of activist self-care. In musing about my latest musical obsession, Akala, I had to share his words with Amelia: “The only way to ever change anything is to look in the mirror and find no enemy,” adding, “But I think it’s more than that, it’s more than ‘no enemy.’ It’s about being good and healthy first.”

We woke without the springing bounce that seemed to guide us out of bed over the past week. In my grogginess, I made it at least a block from the apartment before realizing my shorts may not have been the most appropriate choice on this chilly, damp morning. On the train, I pieced together, with the aid of good ol’ Google Translate (complete with a downloadable offline feature!), a headline about the massacre that read, “[Donald] Trump Calls for Obama’s Resignation.” I wish the permeation of the former’s overused name into this German headline had been a jolting surprise, but alas, since arriving in Europe three weeks ago, I’ve noticed it more than ever. While in London, I read an opinion piece in The Evening Standard, which claimed, “The Trump phenomenon would be a little less alarming were it confined to America. But it is merely the most dramatic instance of what looks increasingly like a pan-Western pathology.” The extensive transnational effect of the United States makes me worry tenfold about the aftermath of the events of this election season and this Sunday morning could have around the world.

In “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” Erik N. Jensen explores transnational collective memory, as it bridges between Germany and the United States. Jensen finds, “Films, plays, historical studies, and commemorative strategies produced in one country have often found a receptive audience in the other” (339). Yet, he also explores the dichotomy that exists as the gay community in the United States finds the Jewish Holocaust “a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, [while] the German gay community has avoided this comparison” and looks to the history of the United States (342). By appropriating the story of the Holocaust in association with German gay movements, the United States is able to elevate itself above the level of that sort of inhumane oppression by “othering” the terrors of the foreign. Meanwhile, Jensen notes the German commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in the United States, an act of not only solidarity, but also adopted history, leaving me to wonder what could happen if our histories begin to cross again in the current political climate.

This is where my mind is as we sit, again in Each One Teach One, to hear from Magda Albrecht and acclamie, writers for the largest German feminist blog: “Mädchenmannschaft” (“Grrrls Team” in English). Magda and acclamie sit at the front of the room in cushioned chairs in a laid back, talk-show style, next to Heidi, who “feels like Oprah.” Today, the show is a continuation of the special series: “How to Live as an Activist,” Episode: “Blogging.” acclamie and Magda introduce the history of “Grrrls Team” and its development over its nine year lifespan. Coming to fruition in 2007 at the hands of three young white women, this blog family is now composed of fourteen writers, and has resulted in 4,500 posts that have received 51,000 comments.

The “Grrrls Team” writers, like most activists, work for a gain that exists outside the realm of capitalism ($0 per hour, after taxes). Magda is a self-proclaimed musician and political educator, doing events management to “pay the rent.” Her dress has smiling hot air balloons of different pastel colors, and she refers to herself as the “Grrrls Team granny,” as she is currently the longest standing writer, having joined the blog in 2009. She works specifically in queer feminism and fat activism. acclamie chooses to use a pseudonym for job safety reasons, but it also allows her freedom of voice that Magda writes without. “I’m still scared to hit the publish button!” Magda tells us. “Wow, really?” acclamie exclaimed, as she hasn’t fully realized the power of her own pseudonym until today. Both women found feminism in returning to Germany from studying abroad in “anglophile” countries, the U.S. and the U.K. They laugh, remembering the feminism they were reading at the time and reflecting on their constantly developing activism. acclamie finds that social change “takes for fucking ever.” “Things reconfigure, but do they really change?” she wants to know.

The writers tell us about the slow introduction of intersectional feminist theory throughout the years at “Grrrls Team.” For instance, for their fifth anniversary, they celebrated with panelists and other invited activists, but as happens in the world of activism and Oprah, some of the guests who came to speak about SlutWalks spouted some “racist bullshit” and set off a divide in the “Grrrls Team.” Five members of the team left, while the rest stayed on with an even clearer notion that antiracism and feminism must coexist. Four years later the blog is still thriving and inspiring readers every day. In looking back at this timeline, Magda was wary of the potentially teleological narrative that could arise, saying, “This idea that development is so linear, I have a problem with that.”

The conversation turns toward the possibility of “eradication” of oppressive systems. Heidi finds this a place of impossibility, but acclamie counters, “Racism is not transcendental. [It has a historical emergence.] It takes for freakin’ ever, but it is possible. It is man-made. It has a starting point, so it could have an ending point.” Along these lines, one of the early proponents of women’s rights in Germany, Clara Zetkin, found, “Only with the destruction of capitalism and the victory of socialism would the full emancipation of the female sex be possible” (Honeycutt 133). As capitalism is an essential part of sexism, the idea that anything man-made could be man-destroyed, or better yet woman and/or trans-destroyed, allows for a train of thought I had long ago believed was out of commission. What does it mean that capitalism and sexism are man-made? What does it mean that that which is created can also be eliminated? How do I even begin to imagine a world in which eradication is a possibility?

On “Grrrls Team,” not all comments are published. The authors monitor them, and about 10% do not make it through the screening process. While that is often an easy decision, it comes down to the author of the piece because, as Magda shares, “We have to feel comfortable with it. In German, we say, ‘This is our neighborhood, our little garden.’” “Our turf,” acclamie adds. Contrary to popular belief, this is not censorship, because it is not executed by the state. It is in their self-cultivated garden, and there are only so many bacteria along with which their flora can survive.

Grrrls Team IIIn addition to their (free, volunteer, activist) work on the blogosphere, they organize and host Lady*Fest, which happens two weeks from now in Heidelberg. The poster promotes workshops, parties, lecture/performance, self-defense, film, café, Do It Yourself, and art. Magda noted today that although the blog’s internet capital is soaring, social and financial capital is only a fraction of the size, which for a primarily internet activist must be a constant frustration. With this festival, the opportunity to merge the physical and virtual activist bodies becomes an imperative. The festival is creating a space to find comfort, learn, and create. This reminded me of the introduction to Winter Shorts, a collection of short stories illuminating oppressive systems in contemporary Germany, Sharon Dodua Otoo recalls, “Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion called ‘Can art save the world?’ And when I think about how Black people are being dehumanized, my honest answer is: it is the only thing left that can” (18).

Grrrls Team IIISo here I am, sitting in Café Berio in Schöneberg staring at the art on the walls. Naked bodies in their own distinct coloring sit, thinking. A green woman kisses a blue one contrasting the bright red background. They exist as connected bodies, particles of paint, colors dancing with each other. I find the other works (all by the same artist, who signs “Sarah”) more subtly solemn and pensive, yet coexisting with the tender, passionate embracing couple. As activists, we will inhabit the single portraits of pensive philosophers, but we cannot thrive in the work without a laugh or a kiss. I’m still going to worry about the state of political affairs, queer safety, racism, and the many other pains that compose the world as I know it, but for now, I think I’m going to take a walk through Berlin and listen to Doublethink for the thirtieth time this week, as I’d like something to give me a little hope, and I think Otoo might be right: Art is “the only thing left that can” (18).


Lila IILila Schmitz is majoring in Film and Media Studies and minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She’s going to be starting her second year at CC and third year of college in the fall. She’s enjoyed getting involved with CC theater and a capella (Ellement!), as well as tripping and sweating her way through intramural sports. This summer she’s lucky enough to get to do some gallivanting on the European continent, where you can often find her in a park (photographed in Tiergarten) with that very notebook. Important note: She does not usually look so serious, but rather was trying to figure out how to draw a chin and ended up with this photographic chin display.

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.