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How Berlin became 'home' to trans people

March 25, 2023

Berlin is attracting LGBTQI people from all over the world, including many trans people. And it's not the first time: trans history was written here 100 years ago! Arts.21 takes a look at the story of transgender people in Berlin from then to now.

Trans*People in Berlin over the years
Image: DW

The "T" in LQBTQ+ stands for "transgender": people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex assigned at birth. In recent years, trans* people have become more visible — not least thanks to stars such as actor Elliot Page, or directors such as Lilly and Lana Wachowski. But it has always existed! In recent history, the German capital Berlin played a central role.

More than a century ago, the doctor Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. He was one of the first scientists to carry out research on gender identity. He offered hormonal therapy, and even sex reassignment surgery to trans* people, whom he then referred to as "transvestites”. He also helped protect them from law enforcement. The Nazis despised Hirschfeld, and called his research "un-German". Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 brought an end to the innovative institute, as well as further scientific debate on the topic. It wasn't until the 1970s, when student movements shook the conservative structures of the German Federal Republic, that people who questioned gender roles and conservative sexual norms began to call Berlin home again. And they still do: the city was officially named "The Rainbow Capital" in 2021. But trans people still encounter discrimination and violence — even in the "Rainbow Capital". In Berlin, more hate crimes against trans* people are reported than in the entire rest of Germany. Nonetheless, trans* people say they can find a community and live more freely in this city than anywhere else.

Trans*opera singer Holden Madagame
Image: DW

The American opera singer Holden Madagame once said about Berlin: "A lot of trans people come here because they know that they are safe here. (...) Berlin might not be a paradise for trans people, but it is a good place to live if you are trans and queer."

trans*person Felicia Rolletschke | tourist guide and activist
Image: DW

Trans activist Felicia Rolletschke only dared to come out as trans after moving to Berlin: "It was very well received — at least within the community, with my friends, in the student environment, and within my wider circle of acquaintances. " On this edition of Arts.21, people from Berlin's trans community describe what their lives are like in the capital now. Historians and gender experts look back on the long tradition that led to Berlin's current status as "home" to trans people from all over the world.

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Arts Unveiled — Experiencing and understanding the art world

Arts Unveiled dives deep into the international creative scene, uncovering new ideas and explaining cultural phenomena that shape our history, present and future. Who are the artists? What are their greatest works of art? And how are they having an impact? Where can we find their exciting projects?