Gay Berlin: schwule Lebenslust

In short, the gay-sexiest of all cities.

It took 80 or so years, but the sexual liberation and so-called decadence and depravity that define the mythology surrounding Berlin in the 1920s returned 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.

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). Berlin has become quite aware of itself and somewhat institutionalised, with prices to match – triggering a media fixation like no other trendy urban mecca – but it nevertheless remains a compulsory, one-off destination, bolstered by a certain resistance to corporate forces.

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. 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. Neukölln's Volkspark Hasenheide, on the border with Kreuzberg, is known to offer similar possibilities.

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, since 1972 (with its demimonde-like SNAX party started in the 1990s), and in September (Folsom Europe, started in 2004). Plus the more local-feeling but massive two-day Stadtfest (aka Motzstraßenfest) and Christopher Street Day, both now in July. And while dance-and-sex mecca Berghain has played host to hundreds of thousands of straight international clubbers, it remains first and foremost a gay institution.

As it stands this still 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 passé or jaded (watch this space). In a city lacking the tension of greater and grander cities, the compensations are delectable.

In December 2016 a GayCities poll revealed Berlin and London as tied for the top place to be LGBT and single.

2019: Next Big Things: the 16th annual Folsom Europe (Wednesday 11 to Sunday 15 September).

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