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.
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 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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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.
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.
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.
Claudia Harrison is a senior Classics–History–Politics 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.