Queer Berlin is almost a tautology. In a city in which homosexuality was once glorified, and then so horribly vilified, today LGBT culture is a driving force of the Berlin underground, as DW's Stuart Braun found out.
A weeknight at Roses bar in Berlin: men with men, women with women, men with women, Kanye West shaking walls padded in pink fluorescent faux fur, disco balls reflecting luminous garlands of kitsch fairy lights, leopard skin chairs filling up with smiling regulars.
Chris, my neighbor at the cramped bar, first visited in 1993 and says Roses hasn't changed since. It's a Berlin gay bar, kind of, but as midnight approaches it's simply a party as the music gets louder and hostess Gabriella shells out more shots, habitués always kissing before clinking glasses.
This is Berlin's Kreuzburg district, predominantly Turkish, and better known for its raw indie kudos than campy corners like Roses. But look closer. Queer culture is arguably the defining force in this bastion of the Berlin underground. Right next door to Roses is SO36, Berlin's punk and rock 'n roll venue of lore - David Bowie and Iggy Pop, then Berliners, attended the opening in 1978 - but also a queer scene playground, including the Gayhane parties where the pan-Arabic and Turkish LGBT scene let loose to Oriental beats.
Down the road, Möbel Ulfe and its newer sibling Südblock, both etched into social housing blocks where Turks largely reside, are all-night gay and lesbian bars that Berliners of any stripe might visit on any given night.
A few blocks the other way, the infamous Berghain nightclub, Berlin's grand temple to techno, is perhaps the most iconic manifestation of queer culture in the capital. Like most, I've been to Berghain, and have noted the dark, men-only fetish dungeon inside known as The Lab.oratory, an institution from which the grander club emerged. Lady Gaga, wanting to experience the real Berlin, held her after-party in "the Lab" when last in town.
Diverse and ubiquitous
In some cities, gay and lesbian scenes can be segregated, or tend to be cliché. Chris tells me that, in London, "all the gay bars are the same; it's boring." In Berlin, queer culture is so diverse, so integrated across all the city's subcultures and milieus, that the scene is both dynamic and everyday, part of the slightly rainbow-colored fabric.
Signs of gay culture are visible all over Berlin
It's hard to quantify the 100-odd bars and clubs in Berlin catering to patrons who like to couple, or triple, with the same sex. Though Schöneberg, on the western side of town, is Berlin's traditional gay district, the scene is überall. Around the corner from my apartment, at the juncture of the working-class districts Kreuzberg and Neukölln, two bars offer dungeons and "dark rooms" to their mostly male clientele. This is a street that otherwise includes Turkish grocers, tailors, convenience stores and nursery schools.
Not far in the other direction, the legendary SchwuZ club/café fronts the Schwules gay museum, where I recently enjoyed an extensive exhibition on gay French littérateur, Jean Genet. Schwules, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, was the first institution of its type in the world, and is wedged anonymously amid the hubbub of a downtown Kreuzberg restaurant strip.
A mixed past
My day-to-day encounters with Berlin's polysexual labyrinth will not surprise many. In the 1920s, the level of permissiveness in this global gayopolis was legendary. The English writer Christopher Isherwood, who subtly sketched such scenes in his "Berlin Stories," and the poet W. H. Auden, were among a stream of Englishmen who came to meet boys in Berlin bars where hermaphrodites and transvestites were part of the furniture.
This was in spite of the infamous Paragraph 175 that, since 1871 had outlawed homosexuality (it stayed in effect until 1969), and a forbidding Prussian military culture that dealt severely with intra-army trysts, despite some scandalous couplings between generals, diplomats and kaisers.
But in the pre-war Weimar years, much was tolerated, even accepted. And then it all came to a horrible end. Homosexuals met with severe reprisals under the Third Reich, and nowhere more than in their spiritual home: Berlin.
Today, Berlin of course has an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, and last week's Berlin International Film Festival hosted the 25th anniversary of the Teddy Awards - the Golden Bear's gay cousin - which has given unprecedented coverage to gay cinema.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a queer techno party dubbed "Gegen" that could have been any other party, except that the Italian men who promoted the event are bears - yes, hirsute men with septum piercings. Utilizing an amalgam of Berlin performers, musicians, artists and DJs, this unhinged celebration, held in a graffitied warehouse on the Spree River, was a veritable melting pot of subcultures and sexualities.
One of the organizers, Warbear, I know from German school. Warbear is a social anthropologist, queer activist, DJ, performance artists and event organizer from Rome who typifies the dynamism and cosmopolitanism of the queer scene in Berlin.
Even as I write this, looking out to Berlin's all-seeing golden winged monument, the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, I am reminded of the city's oldest existing Gay magazine of the same name, a symbol of Prussian conquest appropriated as emblem of gay rights. Warbear will be a featured DJ in the magazine for the month of March, when the second Gegen party will happen. Everyone is invited.
Author: Stuart Braun
Editor: Kate Bowen