The History of Sex: Berlin -- An Uncomfortable Question -- (Chapter IX, Part 27)

At which point, I decide to go for broke and ask a question that sounds more controversial than it should be.

Let me explain: lots of people parrot the Nietzschean maxim that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger; Roman persecution, for instance, actually stoked the wildfire-growth of Christianity.

However, when you apply that same terrible irony to recent history and the groups that the Nazis tried to kill, well, people start to get uncomfortable: somehow it's not very politically correct.

But I've got to ask.

'In the long run,' I ask, 'do you think it was Nazi persecution that helped make Germany's gay movement as strong as it is today?'

Berlin's monument to the homosexual victims
of the Nazi regime

Karl-Heinz is speechless for a second, struggling to find the right words. 'I—I—I'm not a fan of arguing like that,' he says, gazing out the window.

'Because that gives all these activities a kind of shadow. It means that you're always reacting against something and you don't have your own ideas. If you want to live with all the rights that other people have, you should always fight for your rights.'

He mentions that this struggle is continually evolving.

'There is a new situation now, for example, with the children of immigrants who grew up with their religious thinking that does not fit in with our open thinking. And they would kick me out of this place if they could. So the forms of struggle and the aims will always change,' he concludes.

'There are always other questions and other conflicts.'

* * *

The History of Sex: Berlin -- It's the Nazis, Stupid -- (Chapter IX, Part 26)

Karl-Heinz shows me around the museum's temporary exhibit entitled 'Paradise' and murmurs appreciatively: 'Here is a very interesting drawing.'

That's one word for it.

The artist was a German POW who swapped erotica for cigarettes with American guards.

The drawing shows a group of naked cuties in officers' caps putting the 'cock' into 'cocktail:' one is peeing into the proffered glass of another.

Mmm… fresh pee-tinis, anyone? 

Images from the museum's 'Paradise' exhibit

Gad told me before coming here that Karl-Heinz 'used to be gorgeous.'

For the record, that seems ungenerous, because he's only fortysomething and still a good-looking guy, with white teeth gleaming against his tan and a salt-and-pepper goatee.

He's also fun to talk with because he engages difficult subjects head-on.

In fact, I like him so much, I've decide to burden him with a couple of questions I've been dying to ask:

'I know that places around the world celebrate Christopher Street Day—even in Istanbul,' I start off. 'But why do gays in Germany focus on commemorating an American event rather than their own, far more important achievement: the founding of the world's first gay-rights movement?'

Karl-Heinz pauses before giving me a diplomatic, respectful answer that amounts to 'it's the Nazis, stupid.'

'You shouldn't forget that the infrastructure that there had been in the Twenties wasn't established again until the Eighties. From 1933, within half a year after the Nazis came to power, this widespread network and infrastructure was totally wiped out and had to go underground or become invisible. What is especially important for all the more history-oriented groups—but even for restaurants or the organizers of fucking festivals—is the knowledge that a very good community can be destroyed in less than half a year. So in Germany and Berlin this is maybe more on the table, as we say, than in other countries.'

The History of Sex: Berlin -- No Famine of Phalluses -- (Chapter IX, Part 25)

In truth, that image summed up my initial impressions of Berlin's gay scene.

Given Germany's pioneering role in the gay rights movement and the sacrifices made by its homosexuals over the decades, it seemed overwhelmingly tragic that modern Berlin should be just another gay party capital renowned for shopping and shagging.

But then I went to see Karl-Heinz Steinle, the curator of the world's first Schwules Museum: the only 'Gay Museum' in the global village.

One of the museum's exhibits

'I would say that Berlin is actually more balanced than other cities,' he explains. 'Berlin has these dark-sex-triple-gangbang-fuck-rooms—'

—a word I would love to see written in German— 

'—with all the drugs and stuff. And it has, let's say, new ideas, experimental gender-crisscrossed rooms and programs and quite a few historical groups.'

The Schwules Museum began in a flat before the fall of the Wall and now occupies an old industrial workshop; its neighbours are a gay café and a shop called 'Faster, Pussycat!'

'There is one part of gays' thinking that isn't so interested in history, but there is another part which is enormously interested to be able to say "I'm not the first one,"' Karl-Heinz says.

'The museum's development from a little special interest group to the institution that we are now also establishes gay history as a scientific study. It's not done by gays who want to say, "I will collect 2,000 photographs of cocks."'

That said, there's no famine of phalluses in the museum's exhibit on two centuries of gay history.

Inevitably, as with Freud's house in Vienna, Berlin's Gay Museum takes the we-are-the-champions approach to history.

But amid the usual namechecks—nods to the Greeks and Romans, plus Dietrich, Wilde, Auden and Isherwood—it also displays plenty of curiosities: an anal diagram from a French medical text in 1878 showing 'Desordres que produit la pederastie' (it ain't pretty)… Gestapo photos of known homosexuals, taken in three poses (including with and without hats)… and kitsch Seventies copies of him: das magazine mit dem mann featuring weedy sex symbols with bush cuts and sideburns before the American gym-bunny aesthetic conquered the world.

The History of Sex: Berlin -- Back to the Party -- (Chapter IX, Part 24)

Which all sounds eminently reasonable.

When I see him later that night, though, I begin to wonder if there isn't something to the 'self-loathing' tag that he resents so much.

Armed with the gay guide that Gad had a hand in, Lena and I have hit the gay clubs, including a joint with a tranny DJ and pictures of the German pope holding the host over the bar.

Around three a.m., we meet up with Gad at Rose's Bar, a smoky nook that's like walking into the belly of a debauched Muppet.

The walls and ceiling are coated with hot-pink, shag-pile carpeting that's so thick, the cilia-like hairs actually billow from the fan overhead.

The usual mock-religious bric-a-brac is scattered throughout the club, including a big painting of the Virgin Mary on the supply-room door and a portrait of Jesus surrounded by swirly lights.

Maybe it's the spiritual imagery—or a far stronger substance—but Gad has a confession of his own to make.

'I once had sex with a dog,' he announces to Lena.

She laughs.

'It was an Irish setter that belonged to a friend. I woke up and it was licking me. I was so drunk at first I pushed it away. But then I thought, this feels rather nice.'

Gad gabbles on like this until Lena and I take our leave to head to another club.

While we wait for a cab, he points to four small brass plaques capping the cobblestones in front of the bar.

They're Stolpersteine—'stumbling blocks'—and they're memorials to victims of the Holocaust.

In this case, the plaques are reminders that a family of four lived here until they were deported in 1943.

'Because the Nazis sent them to AUSCHWITZ!!!' Gad cackles, kicking at the blocks.

And then he turns and goes back to the party.

* * *

The History of Sex: Berlin -- Gay-Bashing and Class Warfare -- (Chapter IX, Part 23)

Another thing that's very zeitgeisty is the fear of Europe's Other Semites—its growing Muslim population.

One gay man I spoke to said he felt tolerated 'only in certain areas' of Berlin, and mentioned that a gang of Turkish kids had recently assaulted a couple in Schöneberg.

Well, this is controversial:
Some Muslims in Europe have adopted the yellow star from the Holocaust
to protest against perceived discrimination

I reckon if anyone should be worried about Muslim homophobes, it should be a gay Israeli.

'Do you ever feel threatened?' I ask Gad.

'Certainly not,' he snaps, noting that he has gay Palestinian and Lebanese friends.

'I really don't like those liberal homosexuals… People just don't think in class terms anymore. Everybody thinks in identity terms. What we have is a phenomenon that in the center of towns, you have a working class—always intolerant of homosexuals—and an urban, quite rich, gay community. Now, where these two groups are together, you have a conflict. And there always will be a conflict. Where you have unemployed youths—doesn't matter what color—and you have upper-class, urban homos running around the place with money and looking like prey, whaddaya think is gonna happen?'

'But surely there's also a cultural element to it,' I venture.

'No,' he shakes his head. 'That is a big, fat lie. It's thuggery, that's all.'

'Don't you think it's probably reinforced by the local imam?'

'It's reinforced by all kinds of things. And I'm sure one of these things is the imam. But he's also usually the one trying to keep these youths out of trouble and out of gangs. Again, people are building up self-righteous little cultural constructs. Culturalism is racism. It is the decent way to be a racist, I think.'

The History of Sex: Berlin -- 'This Righteous Little Jew' -- (Chapter IX, Part 22)

Bizarrely, there's even a burgeoning subgenre of memoirs by the descendants of Nazis trying to atone for their families' sins.

The great-niece of Heinrich 'Holocaust' Himmler, for instance, wound up marrying an Israeli, claiming in her book that 'it was as if we were predestined to meet.' 

Imagine the pillow talk.

Meanwhile, a distant relative of Hermann 'Jew-Looter' Göring, a physiotherapist who grew up bullied by his classmates with his parents complaining that 'all our money's gone to the Jews,' has said he's thinking of converting to Judaism.

Matthias Göring already keeps kosher, wears a kippah, a Star of David necklace and even an orange 'anti-disengagement bracelet' in sympathy with Jewish 'settlers' in the West Bank.

According to Gad, many German converts to Judaism actually turn out to be homosexual (though not Matthias Göring, apparently: he's been married.)


'A problem with coming out is that your conflict with society is based on sexuality,' he says. 'Now, that is… not… pleasant. It's disgusting. You can't build self-esteem on sexuality—especially people who come from villages. So I think they shift their identity from homosexuality and turn it in their minds into a conflict (with society)—"I was always a bit different". It's something righteous; it's not dirty sexuality. It's "As a matter of fact, I'm Jewish. I'm different because somehow in my inner self I'm this righteous little Jew. That is why they hate the beauty in me."'

He laughs—and oddly switches pronouns. 'You can't accept the beauty in you because you're homosexual, because there you really have to go very far to think that being homosexual is beautiful. So they try to find an identity that will explain their conflict and make it—dignified—that's the word. It's very dignified to be Jewish, especially in Germany now. Whereas if it's just your dick moving the wrong way, and you start lickin' somebody's ass and fisting—it's disgusting! That's not dignified! Are you fighting with your parents, who love you and raised you and sent you to school, just because you wanna fist?'

He cackles. 'And it's very funny, because these German converts—these awful, lower middle-class people, these Christian homos with their Aryan noses and their blonde hair—aagh!—and their glasses, to make them look like intellectuals—sit in the front rows of the synagogues.'

'Do they get circumcised, too?'

'If they want to become Jewish, yes, they have to. But quite a lot of homosexuals get circumcised nowadays. It's a sort of fashion now to get themselves cut—which is quite an operation, by the way.'

I don't doubt it.

The History of Sex: Berlin -- Jew-Loving Germans -- (Chapter IX, Part 21)

What with all the stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah, though, Judaism isn't the most gay-friendly religion.

Before coming here, then, it was a surprise to me to find an online network of Jews in Germany trying to square their spiritual beliefs with their homosexuality.

Gad rolls his eyes and tells me about a run-in he had one year during Berlin's Christopher Street Parade.

'These people from Yachad Deutschland were walking there with the Israeli flag. And this was the middle of the intifada, and I just thought to myself we're having a nice, tolerant thing over here. We don't want an Israeli flag. We didn't have a German flag, we don't want any national flags.'

'So I went over and said, "Fuckin' Jews"—I was drunk—as a joke. And they were hysterical! They were waiting for it—they were waiting for somebody to do something—and nobody cared! So they jumped at me. And thank God I still had an Israeli passport—I took it out and said, "Sorry girls".'

He laughs devilishly. 'They were furious!'

He pauses to stub out a cigarette. 'Identity politics sucks.'

'Didn't you encounter any anti-Semitism when you came here?'

'Of course, I did. There's quite a bit of anti-Semitism here, but then there's quite a bit of anti-Semitism everywhere.'

But if anything, he adds, that's not the problem for Jews in Germany, particularly not in artsy circles.

'Nowadays I find the problem is also philo-Semitism—the love for Jews. It's disturbing. You don't know how popular you can get without having done anything. I lived in a flat, and my flatmate would clean the dishes all the time. And I was wondering, Is he in love with me? And then I found out—you know what? I'm a VIP! And that's a problem if you're sincere, in the sense that you really don't want people to like you just because, "Oh, he's Jewish, let's have a Jew around, that's exotic." Because German identity is based on guilt toward the Jews.'

The History of Sex: Berlin -- 'The Hottest City for Israelis' -- (Chapter IX, Part 20)

Gad's family already knew he was gay when he told them he planned to study in Berlin in 1986.

His grandfather was fine about the move; it was the Middle Eastern side of the family that was the problem.

'It was more about being afraid of the unknown. It wasn't Germany itself. They had the idea that Western Christians were against Jews; not that the Muslims were against Jews.'

'But of all the cities in the world, why here?' I ask.

'Berlin was very free, in all sorts of ways. It was punk, it was hip, it was dangerous—not real danger; I mean, I came from danger—but there was squatting and you could have sex whenever you wanted to. There was freedom.'

A new 'Fatherland' or 'Time Bomb'?
A street mural of an Israeli flag superimposed
on a German flag

He points out that Germany now has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, though admittedly off a very small base.

'There are almost 200,000 Jews in Germany now—200,000! England has 300,000, and it's falling.'

Most of the newcomers are Russian Jews, who receive social benefits the minute they arrive. In fact, the number of Jews immigrating to Germany rivals that of those going to Israel.

'Berlin is the hottest city in Europe now for Israelis,' he says. 'There are two or three thousand Israelis here; there used to be only two or three hundred. It's an enormous community.'

'Why is that?'

'Time heals all wounds,' he says grandly.

Then he snaps back into his camp Irish persona. 'It's true. I wouldn't have thought so. I would've thought the way you're thinking. But things are changing, and they're changing quite quickly. Like, you hear Hebrew here. I'm amazed! But they love it here! You can go out all night, fuck all night and have drugs all night. The drinks are cheap, and the livin' is easy.'

The History of Sex: Berlin -- Home of the Gay Israeli -- (Chapter IX, Part 19)

One of the more unlikely revelers in this new freedom was a gay Israeli who'd moved to Germany a few years earlier.

Since then, he's been portrayed back home as a self-loathing Jew, so he's reluctant to let me use his real name. Instead, I'll call him 'Gad'—as in '-fly' and the gay Jew who survived Nazi Berlin.

Given that I've already met a Bavarian Berliner who talks like a Jewish New Yorker, I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised to find a gay Israeli who sounds like a camp Irishman.

But Gad's best friend is from Cork, so he's managed to pick up the accent, even though he's visited Ireland only once 15 years ago.

It's this omnivorous intelligence that makes a talk with Gad so entertaining: he's like Graham Norton with a brain.

Cocking his HB cigarette at a catty, inquisitive angle—'The Brits called them Hitler's Best; I call them Huns' Best'—he outlines his background for me.

On his father's side, he comes from Iraqi Jews, while his mother's family hailed from Galicia. Fortunately for Gad, his maternal grandfather was a Communist.

'He ran away from the Nazis—the only one from his family. That saved him from Auschwitz, which the rest of the family went to. Because he believed the Communist propaganda against the Nazis (about the camps), which of course was the truth.'

After the war, his grandparents tried to return to Galicia, 'but the Yiddish world they'd known had disappeared.'

They spent some time in Sweden, where Gad's mother was born, and then Brazil, before finally settling in Israel in 1951.

Gad's parents met as teenagers in the Israeli Communist movement, so it's probably inevitable that their son should view the world's ills in terms of class struggle.

'I remember the famous, eternal sentence of my grandfather. It was in a café in Israel, and he said: "The Germans are a very bad people. But you know, the Lithuanians are bad people. The Ukrainians are worse. But the worst"—and he stood up, I'll never forget the shame I felt—"are these damn Zionists!"'

Gad bashes his fist on the table, mimicking his granddad, then leans back and shrugs.

'He lived in Israel—very happily.'

The History of Sex: Berlin -- The Wall Comes Down -- (Chapter IX, Part 18)

Homosexuality wasn't legalized in West Germany until 1969 (once again, East Germany's Communists one-upped their democratic counterparts, having repealed Paragraph 175 the previous year).

By then, though, the main battleground for gay rights had shifted across the Atlantic.

In June that year—just days after West Germany abolished its Nazi statute on sodomy (and the same day as Judy Garland's funeral)—gay men in New York fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, inspiring 'Friends of Dorothy' around the world.

West Berlin held its first Christopher Street Day festival a decade later and, by the time the AIDS epidemic took off in 1983, the gay scene was well established.

On the other side of the Berlin Wall, though, the scene was more subdued.

The first East German film about homosexuality, Coming Out, didn't come out until November 9, 1989—the same night the Wall fell.


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