Monday, February 2, 2015


subway station at Nollendorfplatz
My friend Barbara in Berlin just sent me a photo of the subway station at Nollendorfplatz all decked out in rainbow colors.  It was a little fuzzy since she snapped it on her iPhone as she was driving by, but I quickly found this one online.

It always brings a smile to the lips when gay people decide to make themselves known.  Some say all this gay chauvinism is overdone; others, including me, insist it’s anything but.  After all those years of having to put up with being slammed as “deviant” or,  to use the last pope’s words, “inherently disordered,” I think we get to do a little flag waving now and again.

I googled this Nollendorf event, since I knew nothing about it, and learned that it was put on by a group of gay activists known as Pink Schöneberg – Schöneberg is the downtown West Berlin neighborhood where Nollendorf Plaza is located.  They hired the artist Moritz Wermelskirch to do one of his lighting installations on the cupola of the Nollendorfplatz subway station.  Calling it Lichter im Regenbogenkiez (Lights in the Rainbow Neighborhood, i.e., a gay part of town), one news source claims it will stay up till sometime till 2019.  Another claims they decided a week ago to make it permanent.  In any case, I’m totally taken with the idea of rainbow lights in the night sky, reminding people we have a place in the world.

And a history.

I lived for several years in Berlin in the 60s and went back for many years to spend Christmas with a favorite aunt.  All my Berlin relatives have now passed on, and many of my friends, but some important ones remain.  And Berlin still remains.

I’ve written about this before.  It’s a major theme in my life.  In 1965, when I left the army, where I was listening in on Communist Party officials at the spy station on Teufelsberg, I was so caught up with the excitement of the Cold War and the feeling that Berlin was at the center of the universe that I determined to emigrate, and live in Berlin for good.  That plan got waylaid, and each trip to Berlin is a visit to my history-that-never-happened.  When the wall came down, the excitement was overwhelming, even though it brought home to me how much my knowledge of the city was outdated – and was never as extensive as I thought it was at the time.

Even though I came out during those army years in Berlin, I was never a part of the city’s gay scene. I knew Nollendorfplatz as just another transfer station in downtown (West) Berlin, one stop beyond Wittenbergplatz and the KaDeWe, Berlin's largest department store.  (If you want to put these in American terms, Nollendorf is Berlin's Castro and KaDeWe is Berlin's Macy's - but I blush to even suggest those claims because that’s really pushing the analogies.)

Going into that part of town, it wasn’t the fact that I was in a gay neighborhood that struck me.  Wittenbergplatz, the next station over, reminded me of a subway station on the Ginza line in Tokyo where I lived for many years.  Old, with original steel beams, low ceilings and wooden handrails.  Straight out of 1920, or so it seemed to me.  I looked back to the old Berlin and the schmalzy old songs I learned from my grandmother, like "Es war in Schöneberg, im Monat Mai"...  (It was in Schöneberg in the month of May...)"   (Or, you may prefer the less scratchy, more updated version by Marlene Dietrich).   I had no capacity to imagine a day when gays would be out and the rainbow symbol would show up everywhere.  It didn't even register with me that Christopher Isherwood, who would come to write A Single Man in 1964, one of the best novels ever about the terror of the gay closet, lived at Nollendorfstrasse 17, back in his Berlin years.  It's the source of his Berlin Diaries and of Cabaret.

But here we are in 2015, and it feels like a slap in the face that I should not have known this history.   In fact, I do remember years ago, maybe twenty, maybe even longer now, hearing about Nollendorfplatz as a pick-up place.  A seedy gay tearoom center, not at all something to associate with gay liberation.  Today, whatever it may have been in the past, it has a prouder face.  In 1989, a memorial was placed on the south side of the façade of the station to the gay victims of National Socialism, the first of its kind in Germany.

This event comes on the heels of a book review by Alex Ross in the January 26 issue of The New Yorker of Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Knopf).  Figuring large in this history are the contributions of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs  and Magnus Hirschfeld, the men who deserve pride of place as the first modern advocates of LGBT rights – and yes, the rights of transgender people as well as gays and lesbians.  

Reading the review left me feeling sad.  What comes through is what I've always felt when reading about Hirschfeld or Ulrichs, and what I felt when viewing those old German movies about gay men made in the 20s and 30s, that what ought to be claimed by all gay people as the first giant steps in the gay liberation movement are largely known outside Germany only to academics and others who have made the effort to read gay history.   We all know Harvey Milk, who has now reached hero status, and when we move beyond him, it is generally only to acknowledge that the “real” gay rights movement began with Stonewall in New York City in 1969.  

The review brings home the fact that the history was cut off at the knees when the Nazis took over, and now we look to Stonewall as the "beginning" rather than as a place where the torch was handed over.  What a tremendous loss.  Ironically, even the Germans of today celebrate "Christopher Street Day" - their word for "Gay Pride Day" because the connection with Hirschfeld was broken.  (For those of you unfamiliar with Stonewall, Stonewall Inn is the bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, where drag queens refused to be rounded up by the police one June night in 1979 and brought the fight out into the street, a cry of resistance heard around the world.)

We had to go through an incredible amount of shit, being treated first as sinners, then as mentally ill before eventually discovering, largely on our own, what Hirschfeld discovered as a man of science who was not saddled with religious bigotry.  Hirschfeld was making the point that sexuality is both natural and diverse and innate.  There should have been a direct transfer of that idea to the United States and the rest of the world.  Instead, we had to start from scratch and are only now beginning to recognize that what happened in Germany during the Weimar Period actually might have laid the ground for us, if we had let it.   One history, begun in Berlin and carried on in New York and then in San Francisco and other places around the world.  It should be seen as a single phenomenon.

I cannot speak to the quality of Gay Berlin and cannot add yet to what Alex Ross has said, since I don’t have a copy yet.  When I get one, I’m concerned, frankly, that it may sit on my shelf the way my two copies of Gay New York have done since I bought them.  I actually bought the book a second time because I had forgotten I bought it the first time.  Which is a sure sign it’s a book I felt I "ought" to own rather than one I wanted to read, necessarily. So much for complaining about how “they” kept our history hidden from “us”!

I know the outlines, and when I visited the Schwules Museum (the Gay Museum in Berlin) years ago I actually spent an entire day there reading intensively - and continued reading afterwards.  It's no longer a current driving interest, no doubt due to the fact that I see the struggle as virtually won, at least in the West.  There’s a little voice in my head telling me I no longer need to beat the drums about every last injustice from Egypt and Uganda to Russia to Malaysia and Brunei, that the younger generation is on it, and they’re doing mighty fine carrying on the struggle these days.  I can direct my attention to some of the victories.  

Like knowing that the cupola over the U-Bahn Station on Nollendorfplatz is all lit up in the colors of the rainbow.

photo of Nollendorfplatz Station from Moritz Wermelskirch's website

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