Gay Berlin: schwule Lebenslust
In short, the gay-sexiest of all cities.
It's taken 80 or so years, but the sexual liberation and so-called decadence and depravity that define the mythology surrounding Berlin in the 1920s appears to be back with a vengeance, and no more so than in the city's vast, diverse and all-embracing gay world. West Berlin in the 1970s and 80s was marked by undeniable gay riches, struggles and advances, but the fall of the Wall in 1989 has seen the two halves of the city reunited in what has evolved into one very excited whole. Inspired and off-the-grid ventures pump life into the German capital, co-existing and overlapping with a modern mainstream culture whose institutions include myriad mixed bars and clubs, a gay museum and archive, and a memorial to homosexuals who died in the Holocaust. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the city's renewed emergence as a gay mecca coincided with the sustained office term of openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit between 2001 and 2014.
As of 2015 at least five of the city's 12 boroughs qualify as gay havens, but none defines Berlin's gay past and present more than the conveniently central and leafy Schöneberg. The area around Nollendorfplatz is the stuff of pink legend, given world-class status by a history of luminaries such as English writer Christopher Isherwood (1904–86) and Schöneberg-born screen icon Marlene Dietrich (1901–92) and more than a century's worth of same-sex pleasure-seekers, many partaking in the more adventurous and 'dark' side of sexual offerings (i.e. leather bars and the like). The Motzstraße serves as Schöneberg's catwalk, with cruisy tributaries pouring out in every direction and the nearby Fuggerstraße likewise proving a magnet for mostly male consumers, though noticeably less so on bitterly cold winter days and nights. The area is effortlessly gay and assured, with palpable remnants of an olde-worlde European sensibility, and it sustains a wealth of both newer and established bars, cafés and shops. There's a local village feel that is sexy-provincial but never dull. Ingredients for the perfect weekend.
As for the rest of the city, nearly everywhere feels gay-safe or gay-friendly. Pockets of lesbian and gay inspiration and party spirit can be found in several particular quarters such as gentrified and green-pretty Prenzlauer Berg, tourist hotspot Mitte and studenty, alternative and partly disused Friedrichshain (all ex-East Berlin). Plus bohemian, Turkish, trendy and graffiti-splattered über-mecca Kreuzberg and the hyper-hip, arty, near-rough and part-beautiful Neukölln (both ex-West Berlin).
In terms of nightlife, the breadth and diversity is staggering, with every age group, fetish, extreme, trend, gender alignment and variation on vanilla accommodated for, sometimes round the clock and rarely if ever as a token gesture. It's a city with serious bar and club options any night of the week, from the buzzy, left-field, genre-defying and fabulous to the filthy, edgy, dodgy and dinosaurian. Most bars operate an open-end policy, closing their doors when the last customer leaves. And depending on one's hangover, the daytime (and evening) cultural and artistic pursuits are overloaded with potential, including the vast and beautiful Tiergarten, which offers not only a bucolic setting in which to shut down, but also an often frisky and distracting scene of men in repose (and cruising), clothed or otherwise.
However, locals do confess that the city's gay scene does have its quiet, off-peak moments — especially during the long winter stretches — and occasionally fails benignly to live up to expectations. But disappointments are few and far between, and the regular annual events trump nearly all others on the international scene, including compelling leather/fetish extended weekends at Easter (with its demimonde-like SNAX party) and in September (Folsom Europe), plus the more local-feeling but massive two-day Stadtfest (aka Motzstraßenfest) and Christopher Street Day, both in June.
As it stands this relatively recent reinvention of Berlin remains streetwise, restless, vital, inexpensive (watch this space) and Disney-resistant, with as of yet no discernible indication of its becoming institutionalised or passé (watch this space). In a city lacking the tension of greater and grander cities, the compensations are delectable.
Upcoming 2015 events include Folsom Europe (12–13 September).