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.
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.
The gray skies and chilled temperature greeted us this morning as we hustled out of our apartment at 8:15 trying to decide whether or not we wanted to ride the bus this morning. Quickly becoming Google Maps pros, we decided to walk, weaving through the streets of West Berlin to the Reichstag, where we were supposed to meet the rest of our group and our tour guide, Ryan, who leads the Queer Berlin Walking Tour.
Ryan began our tour by explaining how it had changed since the FemGeniuses took the tour last year: “It used to be the history of gay men in Berlin tour, but we changed it because it’s a queer history tour.” Pleasantly surprised, we began the tour near Hotel Adlon where Ryan told us a story about prolific artist Francis Bacon and his stay at the infamous hotel. According to Ryan, one morning when the room service was delivered and Bacon was in bed with his male partner at the time, the person delivering the food “didn’t blink an eye.” This is apparently when Francis Bacon knew that Berlin was the city for him. But as a white gay man, any city that markets to queer culture markets to him. While Berlin is oftentimes described as the “queer capital of Europe,” we must ask ourselves, whose queerness is valued and whose is diminished within this so-called progressive culture?
As we walked towards the U-Bahn station to catch a train to the “notoriously gay” neighborhood of Schöneberg, we learned about some of the legislation behind LGBT criminalization in Germany. Ryan explained to us that when the separate states of Germany were unified in 1871, Section 175 of the German penal code was written, criminalizing sodomy across the country. When the Nazis were in power, they utilized Section 175 as a means of persecuting homosexual individuals. On our walk, we passed a memorial for homosexual individuals who were persecuted along these lines during the Holocaust. The memorial, designed by Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen consists of a concrete cube with a five-minute video of a gay or lesbian couple kissing projected on the inside. When the memorial was first created, the only videos used showcased gay men. According to Ryan, after some public outcry by individuals living in Berlin, videos of lesbians were added and the videos are now rotated every six months. Due to the pervasiveness of gay male culture in Berlin, this addition later on is not uncommon. Unfortunately, due to construction, we were not able to view the videos.
Schöneberg, the first neighborhood we went to, has been notorious for being lesbian and gay friendly since the 20s and 30s. About ten years ago, however, the owner of a Dolce Freddo, a local ice cream shop, threw out two gay men after one of the men kissed the other’s cheek while ordering ice cream. The next day when the owner walked from the subway stop to his ice cream shop, he saw hundreds of lesbian and gay couples kissing—the result of a kissing protest that had been staged in response to his requests for the couple to not publicly display affection in his shop. According to Ryan, the Mayor of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Ekkehard Band (who was openly gay), stated that these “types of action were no longer welcome in Berlin.” Spectacles of queer affection, like this one, have been used as a means of sexual assimilation throughout Berlin for the last few decades. According to Jin Haritaworn in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” the use of kiss-ins are used as a means of exemplifying progressivism. “Today’s kissers occupy space very differently. Rather than sick perverts outside the law, they are state-sponsored envoys” (76). She continues to claim that “the vulnerable, respectable body of the gay kisser brings home the need for a military and police apparatus to protect the safety of the vulnerable and to defend ‘our’ hard-won values of freedom and diversity” (83). But Berlin’s use of gay and lesbian history as a means of marketing modernism does not stop at commemorating public displays of affection in parks and support from political figures.
While in Schöneberg, we visited the former home of acclaimed author Christopher Isherwood. Similar to Francis Bacon, Isherwood was not originally from Germany; he came to Berlin after hearing about the openness of the gay and lesbian community in the 20s and 30s. While in Berlin, Isherwood developed a relationship with a man named Otto Dix. He stayed in Berlin for a few years, writing short stories and developing relationships within the gay community of Schöneberg and Kreutzberg. Two of his most famous books, Goodbye to Berlin and Christopher and His Kind, are focused on his experiences in Berlin. According to Ryan, Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, the night after the Nazi book burning. Though Isherwood’s relationships and literary accomplishments were quite significant for Berlin’s lesbian and gay community, Ryan did not mention any people of color who have also impacted marginalized communities within Berlin, especially LGBTQ communities.
Part of the reason why the FemGeniuses study in Berlin is because for many years, Audre Lorde came to Berlin each summer, teaching, working, and writing with women of color, especially Black German women. Her presence in Berlin was so impactful that a group of Afro-German women, including May (Opitz) Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye co-edited a book entitled Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Gechichte in 1986 with Dagmar Schultz as a means of documenting their experiences and diasporic herstories individually and collectively. This book was the first published edited collection of autobiographical writing by Black German women. Despite this accomplishment, neither Lorde’s impact nor her times in Berlin were mentioned on our tour. As Lorde writes in the foreword of Farbe bekennen, “Racism cuts a wide and corrosive swath across each of our lives. The overt climate that racism takes can alter according to society and our national situations…[A]s members of an international community of people of color, how do we strengthen and support each other in our battles against the rising international ride of racism?” (x). Although queer and trans people of color throughout Berlin and all over Germany have been working to create a cohesive and well-known community, the lack of recognition on a tour from a well-advertised company becomes a lack of acknowledgement.
In a place that has been so influential for LGBTQIA+ history in general, we must analyze the way in which these subjectivities have been evicted out of mainstream history. Due to the focus of this class being the intersections of identity within Berlin, it is important to know the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer individuals. Nevertheless, the way in which this history is framed and who frames it is important to critique. Along these lines, in “Knowledge of (Un-) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Dr. Maisha Eggers writes, “Narration is considered central to changing perceptions of normalcy. Since narration creates and conserves normalcy, dismantling legitimized and historicized dominant knowledges requires counter-narration” (7). Regarding Berlin, these counter-narrations are widely written, spoken, and known. The issue now is shifting the whitewashed epicentral focus to one that includes voices that are oftentimes forgotten in dominant discourses.
Nevertheless, the traps of marketed neoliberal queerness within Berlin are hard to avoid and easy to get excited about. However, at the end of the day, they are not an accurate depiction of the various intersections of queerness within Berlin. Without acknowledging these intersections, the dominant narrations appear to be the sole narrations. Over the last few days, I have begun to question my role in perpetuating the normalcy of prevailing discourses. As a white queer individual, I’ll end with this question: How am I contributing to the hegemonic discourses already in place?
Amelia Eskenazi is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Indianapolis, Indiana with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies. In their free time, Amelia is a fan of film photography, making zines, and listening to punky girl bands. While in Berlin, they look forward to eating vegan pastries, exploring flea markets, and documenting all of the street art.