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by Reed Ide
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On November 9, 2009, Berlin hosted a major celebration to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of Communism was an event that shook the world. In Berlin, lives were turned upside down overnight. One can say with some certainty that no single group in the city was affected more dramatically than Berlin’s gay and lesbian citizens. The fall of the wall heralded enormous changes in the city’s queer landscape.

Today, Berlin sits as the gay capital of Europe. The breadth of its gay nightlife, the strength of its culture, and the ever tested and changing community norms have easily eclipsed the city’s continental urban neighbors.

Since 2001, the city has been led by its gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, a man who announced early in his first campaign, “Ich bin schwul und das ist auch gut so,” which translates to “I am gay and that is a good thing.” Berliners agreed, and elected him. Two years ago, Passport magazine recognized his contributions to the tolerance that is the hallmark of Berlin life. In that article Tim Pinckney wrote, “When Wowereit welcomed an international gay sadomasochist fetish party to his city in 2005, the distributed program for the event included a letter from the mayor stating, ‘Berlin is a tolerant and open metropolis. We are proud that people from different backgrounds and with different preferences feel comfortable here and party together.’ Not surprisingly, conservatives did not embrace this warm mayoral reception and the Mayor’s judgment was called into question. Wowereit stood firm, stating, ‘There’s no question it is a flamboyant scene, but that is also Berlin…and as long as there is nothing forbidden happening, I expect tolerance.’”

This tone, emanating from the very top of the city’s government, continues to be an important aspect of Wowereit’s administration. “Berlin is open, tolerant, creative, and international,” he said “Those are attributes that are important to others, too, but especially to LGBT visitors from all over the world. We have a huge LGBT community here and a huge range of services and attractions targeting this group.”

A visitor finds more on the sexual and cultural menu than can possibly be taken in during one visit. It can all seem overwhelming. The city has over 100 gay bars, clubs, and entertainment venues located in three distinctly queer neighborhoods. On any given night, choices can include comfortable cafés, fabulous queer restaurants, entertaining cabaret acts, queer comedy, cocktail bars, cruise bars, gay saunas, clubs that can accommodate 2,000 sexy, sweaty dancers, and fetish parties that meet desires and tastes from across the spectrum.

If you visit Berlin in June, you’ll find yourself in the midst of the annual Christopher Street celebration that includes a march that has grown to encompass all the city’s queer enclaves. A gay street fair kicks off the week-long celebration that includes over-the-top parties, cultural events, and exhibitions.

For those who grew up in East Berlin there is an abundance of riches almost too amazing to take in. For those from the West, all this represents a logical continuation and expansion of what had already been established.

Life in Berlin, however, was not always this way. From the end of World War II until formal German reunification in 1991, Berlin sat as an island city in the middle of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), what we know more familiarly as East Germany. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall divided the city into two vastly different zones.

In the West, where capitalism flourished and democracy was restored following Hitler’s rule, a gay culture and community developed along lines very similar to those in other western cities. Sadly, however, West Germany kept the stringent Paragraph 175 in its criminal code. The law, passed in 1879 and broadened by the Nazis in 1935, criminalized all acts of sex between men. It wasn’t until 1969 that the law was amended to allow consensual sex between all people 21 years and older. By the mid 1970s, gay rights demonstrations in the West were both demanding broader equal rights for gays and lesbians, and putting a more public face on the community. A lively bar scene sprang up, cruising areas increased, and gay saunas opened. West Berlin’s gay life emerged as one of Europe’s liveliest.

Across the wall, gay life, while not completely stagnant, certainly appeared moribund compared to its “so near and yet so far” neighbor. Beginning in the late 1950s, East German courts, which kept the 19th-century form of Paragraph 175, decided that homosexual acts between consenting adults would cease to be punished, due to the insignificance of the acts. Nevertheless, under the strict rule of Soviet socialism, this did not provide any support for a more organized gay community. In the eyes of socialism, any organized community represented a potential threat to the established order. Discretion was urged upon all. There was “no social necessity for any association of persons with a certain inclination,” according to the official doctrine. Conformity was the desired end, and the East German Secret Police, known as the Stasi, were omnipresent to instill fear and ensure orthodoxy in all corners of life.

There were some attempts in the 1970s to overcome the social inertia and create a means of advocacy for greater openness in the East. The Homosexuelleninitiative Berlin (HIB), the first gay and lesbian group in all of Eastern Europe, was formed in East Berlin in 1973. The group met at the museum/home of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who, by the time she died in 2002, had become a world-famous transvestite and gay activist. By 1978, the group had grown large enough to be of concern to the authorities who stepped in and ordered it to disband. In the coming years, other groups were formed and were given meeting space by Protestant church congregations in the East. In the mid-1980s the Sonntags Club (Sunday Club) was formed, with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf once again playing a key role.

The district of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin was known for being sympathetic to artists, writers, students, and gays. It was the regime’s steam valve that, in some very small ways, provided creative breathing space without even faintly disrupting the greater social order. It was here that East Berlin’s few gay bars were clustered. Two of these, the Schoppenstube and the Stiller Don, exist today.

In 1987, Alec Mclure, a 24-year-old American student studying in Germany, took a week-long winter trip to Berlin and ventured into the East, where Westerners were welcomed as long as they forked over the hard currency of 25 West German marks, and brought no printed material. He crossed at the famous Checkpoint Charlie. Having thoughtfully copied out the names and addresses of two gay bars, he set out by foot and by U-Train to explore. He managed to find one of the bars on his list. “It was more like a run down café, really,” he said. “Not like a typical gay bar we were used to at that time. I can still see the flocked wallpaper and lacy café curtains. It was all very plain, not crowded, and had a mostly older clientele.” He sat down at a table and ordered a beer. “Eventually I was approached by a guy in his mid-forties. We chatted. He was very flattering, very polite. We had a nice chat. Nothing made me uncomfortable. It was all just drab, the way I always imagined the 1950s were at home.”

Martin von Ostrowski, a German artist living in Berlin, also remembers crossing into the East in the 1980s. He too paid the required hard currency and crossed to visit the Eastern gay establishments. “I didn’t want too close of contact with Eastern people,” he said. “It was too complicated, too costly, and too difficult. These were old-fashioned bars, but certainly comfortable and sympathetic.”

The ever-present but unseen Stasi, engaged East Berliners in spying on their friends and neighbors. There is a good chance that the gay man who approached young Alec McLure was a Stasi operative who felt the need to check out this new stranger in the neighborhood.

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It is true, Berlin is not only the gay capital of Europe, it's the gay capital of the world as well. The free rules when it comes to sex, the free openhours of the clubs, the massive and different kind of fetish clubs you can't find elsewhere.
- Joseph , Stockholm

One main reason West-Berlin drew so many gay men into town from the 1960s till unification in 1990 was that residents were exempt from compulsory military service because Berlin was officially not sovereign and still occupied by the Allied Forces.
- Neram , Berlin, Germany

I would do some research before moving to Berlin. I spend a lot of time in both Berlin and Munich, and I prefer Munich. There is a great deal of difference in the personalities of the Germans in the north and south. Best to research
- Al , Fort Lauderdale, FL and Paris,

I've been thinking about moving to Berlin for months now, then i read this article. It got me very excited! However, I'm a bit skeptical....would anyone else really consider it the gay capital of europe???
- Dave , West Hollywood, C

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