Berlin – Gay Unification
By Roy Heale
When American President Ronald Reagan uttered the now famous words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” in June 1987, it’s highly unlikely that he anticipated the impact he would have on Berlin’s GLBT communities. He was, of course, referring to the wall which separated the east and west sectors of the city of Berlin. Coincidentally, for decades this wall also divided the GLBT community into two separate groups, each of which grew and thrived despite the wall’s overall suffocating effect on Berliners.
However, when the wall finally came down in 1989, instantly the size of Berlin’s gay community doubled and in the new unified city the total gay population was integrated over a much larger area. This also encouraged gays and lesbians from other parts of Germany to relocate to Berlin, where there was a comfortable acceptance of their lifestyle and the feeling of safety in numbers. In turn, this led to tourists from other countries visiting Berlin to enjoy the lively, diversified and liberated gay scene, which had developed in the city.
Twenty years after Reagan’s famous speech, Berlin today is one of the most popular European GLBT vacation destinations. When you visit Berlin it’s easy to understand this newfound reputation based on freedom rather than oppression. Thank you, Mr. President!
The first openly gay Mayor in Germany is Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who undoubtedly created a positive influence on the acceptance of gays and lesbians in his city.
Berlin still has several clusters of GLBT communities, each with its own unique flair and style. Each district has its own centre for shopping and nightlife. A very colourful and diverse gay and lesbian scene primarily developed over the years in the districts of Schoneberg, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. In Schoneberg, one finds the largest and most popular gay area of Berlin. The gay scene in Kreuzberg is more alternative, while the nightlife in Prenzlauer Berg is influenced by the many students who reside in the neighbourhood. Several discos and clubs in the districts of Mitte and Friedrichshain are popular with the gay and lesbian community. Before arriving in Berlin there is a wealth of GLBT information to be found athttp://www.visitberlin.de and Berlin Tourism also publishes a gay guide to the city, Out in Berlin.
True night owls know that Berlin has the longest nights to be found anywhere in Europe as there are no regulated closing times for bars in this city. This is also probably the most sexually liberated city in Europe and most bars and sex clubs have dark rooms or play rooms where anything goes. However, you need to exercise caution with your valuables in these areas and always play safe, as Berlin has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS cases in Europe-along with its reputation as the gay sex capital. Having said these words of caution, Berlin boasts the most vibrant gay nightlife scene likely to be found anywhere in the world, with a multitude of choices for your nights on the town.
During the day walking tours or cycling tours of gay Berlin provide a wealth of GLBT history and enjoyable sights. The Eldorado-Marlene Dietrich’s favorite place to hang out-was built in the twenties and the original Art Deco interior can still be enjoyed today. Perhaps the nostalgia of the famous Kit Kat Club would be perfect at cocktail hour. The Neues Ufer bar was the favorite neighbourhood pub for David Bowie and Iggy Pop when they spent time in Berlin recording albums together and today you can still enjoy the relaxing atmosphere that appealed to them so much. The Rainbow Monument at Nollendorfplatz underground station is a tribute to the approximately 10,000 “pink triangle” prisoners who were held captive in concentration camps. The Nazi regime forced these individuals to wear pink felt triangles so that their sexual preference would be publicly displayed. The Gay Schwules Museum is unique in the world and it contains two centuries of artwork and memorabilia from everyday gay life. Since its establishment in 1985, a mostly volunteer staff has assembled an amazing collection of gay historic items for all visitors to enjoy and perhaps learn from. This city is full of fascinating and unique activities to enjoy on any gay vacation.
But Berlin has also played a major role in Europe’s history and many reminders of the past are still standing today. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie are perhaps the most well known memories from Berlin’s past. Today there is a permanent reminder of Checkpoint Charlie at the museum of the same name, displaying remnants of the original crossing station between East and West Berlin. The museum contains original objects and artifacts from successful escapes both over and under the wall plus the history of the wall and the border it created. Just a couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie is the Topography of Terror where a substantial remnant of the wall itself is accompanied by a pictorial history and stories from a time past that could easily be forgotten by future generations.
The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, is over 200 years old. Until 1989, it symbolized the division of Berlin and Germany-today it is a national symbol of unity. The structure is the only remaining city gate in Berlin. Built in 1789-91, designer Carl Gotthard Langhans modeled it after the Propylaeum in Athens, making it the first significant example of Berlin classicism. When the Berlin Wall still stood, the Gate stood alone and isolated. Today it is once again integrated into the recently designed Pariser Platz, a pedestrian area.
Close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Bundestag, the German seat of Parliament, in the Reichstag Building that was built in the 1890s. This imposing building with monumental facades has a powerful effect on the beholder. Surrounded by a beautiful park and other federal government buildings this complex is the very heart of German democracy as it is in today’s Federal Republic of Germany. Today the building houses some six thousand public servants and tours of the Bundestag reveal the interior renovations and the spectacular glass dome ceiling.
The Victory Column at Grosser Stern is-after the Brandenburg Gate and the Television Tower-one of the most well known landmarks of Berlin. The sixty-nine meter high cylinder has partially the Love Parade to thank for its popularity. For many years the parade’s end party was celebrated at the plaza around the Victory Column. The Victory Column was originally dedicated to acts of war. The monument, built by Johann Heinrich Strack, recalls Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France in 1864, 1866 and 1870/71.This is the reason it is decorated with gilded gun barrels. Even the 8.32 meter high golden figure on the top of the column does not conceal her military background. Located in the Volkspark it is situated beside one of the most well-known gay cruising areas in the park. Here on weekends you can see same-sex couples and their children enjoying a picnic or possibly just enjoying each other.
The Berlin Gay Map lists one hundred and eighty gay and gay-friendly businesses, so finding suitable accommodation is easy with choices in every price range and for every style of home-away-from-home. Several places offer playrooms or slings in the rooms but many are simple gay hotels and Bed & Breakfasts. Staying in Schoneburg is probably the most central for everything Berlin has to offer, but with an excellent and inexpensive public transit system, anywhere in Berlin is close to some of the GLBT community. Two convenient hotel choices in Schoneburg are the Hotel Berlin, Berlin and The ArtHotel Connection. The first is a modern, recently renovated large hotel with all amenities and gay-friendly staff. The ArtHotel Connection is a smaller gay boutique hotel with old world charm, luxurious rooms and very helpful gay staff. Both are located close to subway stops and buses making it easy to travel to all the gay quarters of Berlin.
There are many ways to enjoy tours of Berlin either by yourself or as a part of an organised group. Tours on bicycles include biking the Berlin Wall, Potsdam by Bike or an Insider tour. Walking tours include Reich Berlin, a concentration camp memorial tour, Cold War Berlin or perhaps a refreshing pub crawl. The unique “Berlin From Below” tour will take you down into Cold War Bunkers and underground tunnels in the dark world beneath the city. Boat tours along the River Spree and Landwehrkanal allow visitors to experience the old and new city either by day or night. For those with more ambition sightseeing flights are available by helicopter, flying boat or in the classic airlift “candy bomber” .Whichever way you choose to tour this city you can be sure its many wonders will entertain and educate every vacationer searching for the real Berlin.
Of course, Berlin is a shopper’s paradise with everything from small boutiques to the renowned KaDeWe department store. The Galeries Lafayette, Potsdamer Platz Mall and stores along Kurfurstendamm offer every major designer label and probably some names that will be new to even the most accomplished shoppers. Bruno’s gay emporium has two very large locations stocked with everything gay under the rainbow. Be prepared for European prices and a day of shopping that will leave you with some great memories-even if you can’t afford to buy everything you see.
Berlin is the setting for the movie Cabaret (Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey). With its stunning modern buildings blended with the historic architecture, urban parkland and wide-open streetscapes, enticing nightlife and liberal-minded citizens, it seems as though some of that cabaret mystique still exists today. No wonder gays and lesbians from all over the world are journeying to Berlin to experience the sexual liberation and a unique holiday experience.