While politicians meet in Brussels to flesh out the future of Europe, a European summit of quite a different kind convenes in Cologne: Europride, the old country's gigantic gay-lesbian fest kicks off this week.
Ooh la la!
It’s that time of year again in Cologne.
No, we’re not talking clowns, cherry-shaped noses, masks, painted faces and a city drinking itself silly.
The cathedral city on the banks of the Rhine may be better known for its revered carnival institution, but there’s another annual celebration that’s providing serious competition in terms of turnout, outrageousness and an uninhibited "letting it all hang out" theme. And to add to it, this one has a strong political message.
For 23 days, from June 15 to July 7, Cologne’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community will rock the ancient Roman city with the Europride 2002 which will culminate in the famed Christopher Street Day parade.
It’s billed as Europe’s biggest queer event, where gay pride and the "other" way of life comes out in a flurry of parades, music, parties and garish outfits.
Cologne the bastion of broad-mindedness
"Cologne celebrates diversity – Let’s make Europe a place for all of us" – this year’s motto of the Europride speaks volumes for the Rhine metropolis’ reputation for liberalism and tolerance and its stature as Germany’s gay capital.
Slogans such as "Live and let live" and "everybody’s an individual" are familiar local sayings in Cologne, where the rainbow-coloured flag – the trademark of homosexuality- flutters from roof tops and balconies all over the city year-round.
Given the extreme permissiveness of the heart of the Rhineland, it’s little wonder that the European Pride Organisers Association selected Cologne for the mega-event.
"We are proud that the Europride is taking place in Cologne for the first time", says chief organiser Michael Schmidt. Until now the Europride has only been held in capital cities, with the first being held in London in 1992.
Schmidt says that there’s hardly another city in Germany where gays and lesbians can be as self-confident and open. Cologne holds a special place in the gay-lesbian scene in Germany as well as internationally. Almost every tenth person in the cathedral city is said to be homosexual.
Two months of partying
Since 1998, Christopher Street Day (CSD) organisers from the Baltic Sea to Lake Constance, have joined forces to cooperate on staging the event. This not only has made the organization more attractive to the sponsors, but also done away with important party dates clashing in different parts of Germany.
As a result, CSD fans can travel through Germany for two months and indulge in the most excessive kind of party-hopping.
This year some 2 million CSD tourists from all over the world are expected to descend upon Cologne, bringing with them some 300 million euro.
The city’s restaurants and bars have already begun hiking beer prices. Over 200 events including exhibitions, readings, concerts, shows and even a "gay family day" will form part of this year’s Europride.
Acceptance of homosexuality – still a long way to go
But the Europride is not just about fun and celebrations.
This year’s motto - "Let's make Europe a place for all of us"- is also a sober reminder that despite progress like Germany's recent law allowing homosexual civil marriages, not all of Europe is as open-minded to gays taking to the streets as Cologne.
Just a few years ago, at the first CSD in Belgrade gay and lesbian demonstrators were beaten up by right-wing radicals right before the eyes of passive police.
Fighting violence and discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals is an ongoing political issue and one that gays have been involved with for more than 30 years, ever since the drag queen-led rebellion against violent police attacks and state power at the gay Stonewall inn on Christopher Street in New York on June 27, 1969 .
Stonewall gives gay community a common voice
Even before that eventful day, between 1965 and 1969 activists from throughout the United States regularly gathered outside Independence Hall, where the US constitution was drafted and signed, to remind the nation that not all of its citizens had equal rights under the law.
The Stonewall riots became a rallying point for a national movement as thousands of people turned out for the first anniversary of the riots in New York.
Over time the gay pride festivities commemorating the anniversary of Stonewall spilled over into other parts of the world and today they draw millions.
But the political message has stayed unchanged over the years.
This year too organisers of the Europride in Cologne say that tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Their goal is equal rights for all and equal treatments for all ways of life.
That's what makes the Europride and the CSD essentially political events albeit ones where the participants sport feather boas, leather trousers and fake lashes.