To further set the stage and give you a little more background information on myself, here is another fun fact about me: I currently live in Berlin. Blogs typically call it things like “Capital of Cool” or “Sin City” … whatever the names, Berlin’s reputation is well known. And that doesn’t come out of the blue, I guess.
Living in Berlin has been the most character-forming period in my life so far. Well, there was early childhood…but I’m talking about that kind of character-forming that is apparent, that you can actively reflect upon. Since I left home at the age of 18 and having travelled quite a bit, Berlin is the city I spent most years in. I’ve been calling it home now for already more than four years.
One of the reasons I came here for were my studies. During my Master’s program of “Futures Studies” I had the chance to do an anthropological study on Berlin’s gay subculture and its future titled “Not all that glitters is gold. A view on Berlin’s gay subculture and its role in society” that I would like to share with you now.
The original was published in German in 2015. I just took the effort and translated it to English to make it accessible for a bigger audience. So, here it is. Grab a coffee and immerse yourself into Berlin’s gay subculture. Enjoy the long read!
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Not all that glitters is gold
A view on Berlin’s gay subculture and its role in society
Gay men in Berlin have never been better. The number of men who can openly show that they are attracted to their own gender is bigger than ever before. One gets the impression that all those years of fighting for equality and acceptance finally bares fruit. But not all that glitters is gold. Despite the supposed acceptance, gay men are still a minority that has to deal with violence and social marginalisation in every day life. The path towards the center of society seems to be longer than expected.
Maximilian*, 30 years old, moved to Berlin one and a half years ago to continue his studies. After having done an internship in this city ten years ago it was clear to him that at some point he has to build a life here. Reason for that were the sheer endless possibilities to enjoy his sexuality: “Everything is possible, everything is allowed!” Due to the size of the city and its anonimity Berlin offers a place for every fetish that one can think of. He supposes that all desires, however extraordinary they might be, can be satisfied.
But it turns out that that is also the biggest problem within the gay subculture. The entire scene seems to define itself around sexuality. Depending on sexual tendencies, groups are built within the subculture; the marginalisation within the scene is huge. Interestingly, it is often only the display of the society’s – or the gay subculture’s – constructed beauty ideal: “It is just about being young and beautiful. Handsome men exclude the ugly; masculine machos separate themselves from more effiminate men. Only here in Berlin I have learnt marginalising terminology”, Maximilian says. With these words he alludes at all the labels gay men put on each other. Is this a phenomenon that can only be evidenced in bigger cities in which the gay scene has reached a certain size?
Carlos, who was born in Latin America and who has lived all over the world, would answer this question with a clear “No”. In his opinion “even in New York there is more solidarity than in Berlin.” Similar to Maximilian, Carlos was also drawn to Berlin because of its well-known vibe. He has been calling Berlin home for six years already. “Back then as well as today Berlin has a unique reputation in the global gay world – cheap costs of living, crazy parties. Such things spread fast.”
This “back then” he refers to dates back to the peak of the nineteenth century when Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the world’s first gay activist, already fought against Paragraph 175. Since then Berlin developed its own way with the gays. That is why the American historian Robert Beachy, whose research deals with the development of sexual identity in Germany, subtitled his recent book “Gay Berlin” with “Birthplace of a Modern Identity” . Around the turn of the century it was the tolerant chief of police, Hüsselem, who tolerated gay men and their bars despite legal repression. And then there was also Magnus Hirschfeld and his “Institute of Sexology” that became the pioneer in sex education worldwide in the early twentieth century. The following glorious time of the Weimar Republic was nothing but the result of a natural evolution: Berlin became a magnet for gay men from all over. Above all, intellectuals from the prudish Anglo-American part of the world, like Christopher Isherwood, were drawn to the legendary city which offered a lot more freedom and tolerance in comparison to their home country.
But where would Berlin be today if it wasn’t for all these pioneers? This question is hard to answer. Neither is there an answer to the question where Berlin would be today if this liberal approach towards homosexuality was not destroyed by the Nazis during the “Night of the Long Knives” in the 1930s in which Ernst Röhm and his lovers were killed.
Klaus and Horst, both in their mid-70s and together for 48 years, are the most likely to have answers to these questions. Although they are too young as well, they at least had the chance to get in touch with witnesses of that period. For them paragraph 175 is still a synonym for the repression of gay men. To their youth in the former GDR they look back worrysome as well: “It was all hide and seek against the law and police.” But not only Klaus and Horst are aware of the city’s history. “Berlin has learnt from its negative past. History will not repeat itself”, Carlos mentiones convincingly. The desirable situation in the 1920s is only desirable out of today’s perspective because we know that it became worse afterwards. However, in terms of legal issues it was similarly undesirable. In the meantime the situation has improved a lot, the general opinion towards gay men has changed positively.
Many of Berlin’s homosexuals think globally, they know the world’s cities and consider themselves world citizens. So does Sven, 30 years, who was born in Berlin and – except for a few years abroad – has spent his entire life in the city. In comparison to New York or London he still thinks Berlin is very provincial. This separates him from the others who moved here becuase of the unique situation Berlin has in global comparison. Nontheless, he also associates a certain uniqueness with Berlin. No matter if they are called Maximilian, Carlos, Klaus or Horst, everyone describes the city as a huge playground that allows everyone to rage themselves out. Berlin seems to be the perfect city to find and invent oneself.
But when it comes to defining a certain place that is symbolic for the city’s gay subculture the could not disagree more. No one can really answer this question. Maximilian responds as follows: “Back then the answer would have been easier, today it’s a little more hazy. On the one hand there are all the clubs. However, they aren’t concentrated in a certain area anymore but are spread across the entire city. On the other hand there is this plethora of virtual spaces like Planet Romeo or Grindr.” Michael, 54 years old, who moved from Hamburg to Berlin a few years ago and who belongs to a totally different generation, thinks of it differently: “It’s pretty obvious, it’s the area around Motzstraße and Nollendorfplatz. But while my generation concentrated there deliberatly, young people rather aim for social mixing and the abolishment of borders.” After the fall of the Berlin wall also Klaus and Horst got to know Schöneberg as the center of Berlin’s gay subculture. Interestingly, despite the obvious generational differences, it is always party locations that are defined as spaces for the gay scene. It is only the recently emerging virtual spaces that disrupt these developments. It remains unclear where this journey will continue. However, the increasing use of virtual spaces will undeniably have a huge impact on the way gay men communicate and get to know each other. Perhaps this development will also have psychological consequences. The art installment “Wanna Play? Love in the times of Grindr”, which lead to huge discussions within Berlin’s gay community, already provided food for thought by exhibiting intimate data that were shared in the virtual space in real surroundings to the general public.
The paradox is that the product of this development and the increasing anonymity that comes with it as well as all the endless possibilities is an increasing loss of orientation and a feeling of being lost. “It is like masturbating with shards of glass”, says Carlos. Many are driven by the multitude of possibilites but at the same time suffer from loneliness. Often they refer to themselves as victims of a future contingency which leads to the constant fear of missing out on things. “But you can already see that there is a change towards traditional values”, Michael is convinced. For many gays equality is still the possibility to marry. Maximilian has a very critical opinion to this: “It’s totally absurd when you think of how questionable marriage really is. The original thought is that the father passes on the responsibility over his daughter to another man. Maybe we should think of replacing such archaic concept. In a new system is has to be guaranteed that everyone has the same possibilities as well as advantages and disadvantages; no matter if it is adoption, hereditary rights, tax issues, etc.”
Carlos is also in favour of abolishing marriage as a societal institution. “It is time for a social transformation towards a post-gender and post-sexuality era far from gender-binary systems. Dualisms like male/female or gay/hetero cannot cope with society’s complexity anymore. The only problem, however, is the path dependency society is stuck in.”
In the short term it is not very likely that we as a society will go that far. A running machine with its inherent processes is hard to re-program. Homosexual men still fight for acceptance and integration. To reach this goal it seems to be easier to adapt to heteronormative structures instead of propagating a restructuring of society.
Or do gay man in Berlin have the power of setting trends? “Even if the city is home to so many gay men, it is presumptuous to claim that gays in their apparent role as trendsetters are responsible for the development of Berlin’s society. When it comes to that, sexual orientation is only secondary, other characteristics are much more determining”, Maximilian says.
Obviously Berlin would not be Berlin if it was not for the gays who have contributed so much to the city. The number of gay men is a self-reinforcing mechanism. Because there are so many here, many more are coming. The problem, however, is the lack of awareness for societal and interpersonal commitment which manifests itself in a been-there-done-that-messed-around attitude. After young men have sufficiently raged out and are in pursuit of a calmer life they leave the city. Because of this myopic approach they do not show any effort when it comes to putting their energy into the city’s future. “Young people say that they don’t have the time and often feel overwhelmed by serious topics and situations”, Michael complains. His biggest worry for the coming generation is the lack of progressive attitude and political activism.
But what willl Berlin’s future be like? “One can tell that the city is prone to the trend of increasing commercialization”, Maximilian mentions. There is the fear that Berlin will become replaceable. Even though hope is high that it can sustain its uniqueness, there is a prominent feeling that it steps into other cities footsteps and that opinions and behaviors are increasingly shaped by economical drivers. “The city mustn’t become a bubble like New York or London. But that’s exactly what it’s headed for!”, Carlos says convincingly. In all the conversations familiar words are dropped – gentrification, real estate prices, etc. Ironically, by the exact same persons who are among the most likely to cause these problems.
Similarly, worries about an increasing loneliness and lack of orientation are extrapolated into the future by the majority of respondents. This might be an explanation why many young men try to look for support in traditional values like monogamy or marriage. Sven is afraid that in future “pure narcisism, superficiality and triviality will become more prominent and that gay men will miss developments because of their self-referentiality.”
Although there are many who wish for Berlin to become a city free from prejudice and rather a city of peaceful solidarity across all ethnicities, sexual identities and social backgrounds, they are also realistic enough to see that this will most likely not be the case in the near future. “My biggest fear is that social peace is not guaranteed and that social classes are still separated in future”, Maximilian and Sven say unisono even though they have never met.
Apart from all these fears, gay men also have big hopes. They hope that in the near future it will not be necessary anymore to find strength in a group defined by sexual desires but instead find comfort in general society and that the term “gay subculture” becomes obsolete. Through acceptance and tolerance it shall be guaranteed that it is about the individual and the interest group and not about sexual identity. This wish, expressed by most of the respondents, is in so far of interest as they identify and categorize themselves based on different sexual preferences but abolish this thought when it comes to overall societal inclusion.
Berlin shall become a place for everyone. Where everyone can do what they want and where everyone is allowed. Financially and ideologically. Together and free from any prejudice. To get there, a common and guiding idea is needed. “In order for the city to keep its creative potential, it has to keep being a constant makeshift”, Sven says.
Interestingly, despite the different perception between young and old there is a shared dystopian vision on the future. But it only seems to be dystopian in view of a society that does not change fast enough. In the greater scheme of things everyone feels very well here in Berlin. Most of them are convinced that they will still feel comfortable in 2030 – in case they still live here then. Thus, it can be seen that the development is seen as tentatively positive. “It is often overlooked how far gay men have already moved towards the center of society.”, Maximilian says.
But even if a lot has been achieved, much more is yet to be accomplish. For gay men a lot depends on the party culture. “Religion used to be opium for the people. These days there are many different opiates. In Berlin it is stilly partying”, Michael says while looking into the distance.
*all names were changed.
 Beachy, R. (2014): Gay Berlin – Birthplace of a Modern Identity. Alfred A. Knopf, New York