This podcast—led and produced by Judy Fisher—examines our Queer Berlin walking tour with Jared Pool. During this tour, we try to understand why Berlin is sometimes considered the “Queer capital of Europe” due to its relationship with gay and lesbian rights despite the history of “Section 175” of the German penal code, which criminalized homosexuality for decades after the end of World War II. The tour takes participants through Schöneberg, the home of Marlene Dietrich that was chronicled by Christopher Isherwood and Otto Dix; the Eldorado, one of Berlin’s oldest gay bars that was frequented by openly gay Nazi SA leader Ernst Röhm; the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted by the Nazis; and Kreuzberg. It examines the advocacy of Magnus Hirschfeld, whose Institute for Sexual Science was shut down in 1933 and whose library destroyed in the infamous Nazi book-burning; queer figures in the administration of Prussian King Frederick the Great; and openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit, among others.
Photo Credit: Judy Fisher
Judy Fisher is a Sophomore at Colorado College from Oklahoma. She is a first-generation student, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and is active in the Native American Student Union (NASU) at Colorado College. As a Feminist and Gender Studies major and Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies minor, she has developed a focus on Indigenous Feminism and the different intersections of her own identity as a queer, Native woman from a low income background attending a predominantly white institution (PWI).
Photo Credit: Judy Fisher
Joining Judy in her discussion are Elsa Godtfredsen—a Seattle, WA native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Biology and minoring in Creative Writing, and Dylan Compton—a Tulsa, OK native majoring in Religion and International Affairs with a Chinese language minor.
NOTE: The photo credit for the featured image also belongs to Judy Fisher.
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.
Any 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.
The 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.
For 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.
A 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.
The 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?
In “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 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.