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The LGBT experience is very much a process of watching the world and hoping desperately for progress. We watch as legislations get passed and queer representation in the media gets more inclusive, thinking that maybe this will change people's minds. Maybe we won't have to live in quiet fear or self-repression any more. As with so many social reforms, this can be a journey that takes several steps back to every step forward. 2016 has been a year of many backward steps.

But this isn't all the LGBT experience is. Location is key to our lives, with countries, cities, and smaller communities dictating how we represent and express ourselves. And thankfully, there are small pockets, little rainbow-coloured bubbles that we can flock to (if we are able). I am lucky enough to live in such a bubble.

Brandenburger Tor lit up in Pride flag colours for the Festival of Lights. [Enrico Verworner]
Brandenburger Tor lit up in Pride flag colours for the Festival of Lights. [Enrico Verworner]

I moved to Berlin almost two years ago. I wasn't motivated to live somewhere more accepting to LGBT people — I just wanted to travel, and I settled here because within the space of a week I felt like I was home. I was accepted, in all my extravagance and social oddities, in a way that I had never been before. It wasn't until later that I realised why Berlin is such a haven for queer people, and why I'm now so reluctant to leave.

When I first moved here, I didn't really understand why Berlin was known to be an LGBT hub, aside from the annual Pride parade that turns Tiergarten into one massive party. But that's the beauty of it — in Berlin, queer people are everywhere. You can wander into a spoken word night to hear gay poets wax lyrical about their romances, shoulder to shoulder with straight writers talking about their experiences; go to a seminar on travel and you'll find yourself chatting with a woman who's been to places you'd never heard of, her girlfriend in tow. Hell, stick your head into a Star Trek viewing party, and you'll discover a post-episode discussion on queer subtext.

Sam Wood lives with his husband in Berlin, and writes about his travel experiences on the blog Indefinite Adventure. He explains that city's LGBT life is everywhere because "there isn’t a well defined part of the city that is especially known for being the 'gay district'." In a way, the whole city is the gay district — and that's exactly why we feel so safe here. The attitude of the city is perfectly summed up in this advert for the public transport system BVG, featuring drag queens and gay couples with the tagline "we don't care".

So why this acceptance? Elle McFarlane, who moved here recently, theorises that this is not necessarily acceptance but indifference, a by-product of Berlin's celebration of any creative or socially divergent expression.

"No one really cares, she muses. "I guess bored indifference is the true face of equality!" It's certainly true that Berlin owes its LGBT culture to its history of social radicalism and divergence from the norms imposed by the outside world. During the Cold War, Berlin was an island surrounded by the oppressive DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), split in two by that infamous Iron Curtain. This made West Berlin an exciting place to live, as it was quite literally on the front lines of socio-political conflict, and the poor financial state of the city just made it easier for poverty-striken outcasts to make their home here.

As a trans, non-binary performance artist working in Berlin, Darling Fitch feels the history of the city is crucial in the fact that "desperate, underprivileged people and [those seen as] international degenerates" were drawn to the city — and this is something that still occurs today.

The refugee shelter in Templehof Airport. [AP Photo / M.Schreiber]
The refugee shelter in Templehof Airport. [AP Photo / M.Schreiber]

2015 saw over one million people seek refuge in Germany, with over 90,000 of these refugees settling in Berlin. Of this number, an estimated 3,500 are LGBT — and they've faced serious discrimination.

Despite the generally accepting attitude of the city, LGBT people are still at risk from abuse, and refugees most of all. But there is always help at hand: Schwulenberatung, an LGBT support organisation, opened a shelter specifically for queer refugees in 2016, after discovering that they faced violence in other shelters (mainly from other refugees and interpreters). Berlin's city council has also designated LGBT refugees as a group of people most at risk, and is taking steps to ensure their protection. In a troubled time, it's good to know that as outcasts still flood to Berlin the city is concerned about their safety, proving that acceptance has moved beyond social trend to institutional support.

Berlin welcomes LGBT refugees. [Schwulenberatung]
Berlin welcomes LGBT refugees. [Schwulenberatung]

Of course, underprivileged people aren't the only ones who find themselves in Berlin — the city plays host to millions of tourists a year, and these newcomers also find themselves immersed in queer culture. Thanks to a carryover from the party-mad nineties, many of the clubs and bars in Berlin are queer friendly and sex positive, if not specifically LGBT focused. And because Berlin is known for its nightlife, this really helps to spread LGBT acceptance beyond the city limits.

This is what drag performer Mauro Vilela Pietrobon sees as one of Berlin's standout qualities, because "some of the most well-known places in the city — Berghain and Monster Ronson's Ichiban Karaoke, for example — are LGBT-oriented, and they remind people who aren't part of the community of different sexual and gender identities."

Promotional image for Palais Plastique at Ichiban Karaoke.
Promotional image for Palais Plastique at Ichiban Karaoke.

Berlin has managed to strike an almost perfect balance between the queer and straight communities, and the key seems to be integration. While there are safe spaces — events such as Queer Stories at Another Country, and shelters like Schwulenberatung that exist purely to support the queer population — the beauty of Berlin is that there isn't much social segregation.

Maybe that's the reason I immediately felt at home here, even after staying only a few days. Something just felt right, and as time went on I realised why. It's the rainbow flag stickers on supermarket windows, "refugees welcome" scrawled in graffiti on muraled walls. It's the thriving party scene, the BVG adverts that feature queer couples, all the little ways that Berlin reminds me that my sexuality is not just tolerated, it is celebrated. And we need this LGBT haven now more than ever.

[Source: DW News, Slate]

This article was created as part of the fanzine, We Will Make It Better: Stories Of Hope For The Future Of LGBT

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