Schöneberg is not a part of Berlin I have spent much time in. Indeed, it feels different from the neighbourhoods I know and hang out in on a regular basis. It doesn’t have the edge of Neukölln, the big name sites of Mitte or the party scene of Friedrichshain. It’s clean and pleasant with lots of shopping opportunities and mostly white people.
In some ways, it feels more like the rest of Germany than much of Berlin.
When I went with a friend recently to take part in the Queer Berlin Tour, I almost felt like we were in a different city than the one I know. Indeed, Schöneberg used to be in a different country; this was West Berlin, a world away from the brutalist architecture and grand boulevards of the former East where I more often am in Berlin.
Finn, the affable and extremely knowledgeable guide originally from Northern Ireland took us on an in depth tour of the queer history of the city, focusing particularly on this neighbourhood.
I was surprised to learn that Berlin was perhaps the very first queer capital of the modern world and far ahead of its time when it came to LGBT rights and acceptance.
For example, the very first openly gay film was produced in Berlin and released in 1919, the Institute for Sex Research also opened that same year and campaigned for gay and trans rights and acceptance, and Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code (which made homosexual acts between men a criminal offence) was very nearly repealed in 1929, though blocked by the rise of the Nazi party.
Nowadays, Schöneberg is one of the gay centres of Berlin, and this was immediately obvious from the very start of the tour. Rainbow flags abounded, male couples walking hand in hand were at every turn and much of our route took us down pleasant residential streets full of antique shops, sex shops and cafés frequented entirely by middle aged men.
At first, my friend and I decided to try playing spot the rainbow flag. We gave up once we got to twenty in the first five minutes.
As we walked around, Finn talked not only about the good and bad times in Berlin’s queer history, but also about things as they stand today. He talked about how the scene nowadays is quite starkly divided and not nearly as inclusive as it was almost 100 years ago. He mentioned that while indeed Schöneberg is a gay centre of the city, it’s really just for “a certain kind of gay man”. He also talked about the surprising struggles trans* people face living in the German capital, a city which has the impression of being so accepting and open to everyone.
As far as Berlin (and Germany, indeed Europe and the world), has come with regards to tolerance, acceptance and equality, there’s still plenty of work to do. Being a white, thin, privileged, cisgendered gay man, it’s easy to forget that, but Finn’s tour reminded me that I’m part of a larger community of marginalised people, and that there really is no equality until we are all equal.
The tour takes places every Saturday at 4pm during the summer of 2015 in conjunction with the Homosexualities exhibition at the Schwules Museum and lasts 3 hours. It costs €12. For more information about Finn and his tours, see his website and Facebook page.