Mapping out the queer cultural roots of Berlin through the voices of those who contribute to Europe’s queer-capital, then and now.
Berlin’s Cultural Home for Queer Art and History
“Queer spaces in a heteronormative society are important for all queers, especially queer youth.”
Our journey starts at Berlin’s Schwules Museum (Gay Museum). Founded in 1984, it has been an institution in the queer community, not only for art and culture, but also for education and awareness.
“Queer spaces in a heteronormative society are important for all queers, especially queer youth. We provide a physical and digital space (on social media) where queers can learn about their histories, enjoy art, get to know other folks from the community,” said spokesperson L* Reiter, who has worked at the press office for three years now.
Many queer spaces have closed since the Covid-19 pandemic, and the surge in rent prices has made it harder for queer artists to stay in Berlin. Institutions like the Schwules Museum act as a beacon of hope, pushing for more visibility within Berlin and around the world, working closely with other museums like the German History Museum, as well as universities and organizations.
“The museum still gets a lot of hate. We have people who leave us hate comments and threats on social media, and right wing parties paying us a visit with sexist posters. We stand our ground by doing our work and voicing the perspectives of queer communities,” added Reiter.
“The Schwules Museum wants to become a space for all queers. We currently work hard on reducing barriers and enable people with disabilities to feel welcome at our house… Also, we want to provide more space for trans and inter people as well as queer and trans people of color.”
Visit the Schwules Museum to see its permanent and current exhibitions.
Berlin’s legendary queer and underground nightlife
“The crowds have transformed at least five times, as in, fully cycled out…Berlin is also a city that constantly changes compared to other cities.”
“We are well known by those who come here already, worldwide,” said Frank, the owner of Ficken 3000. Although it is one of many gay nightlife venues in Berlin, it has a unique hole-in-the-wall location and has been around since the late 1990’s. Sitting between Kreuzberg and Neuköln, away from other clubs, it stays true to its reputation: “The main thing is that we are underground,” said Frank.
“We [Ficken 3000] have no competition with the other clubs. They are all my friends….The laws are so that clubs are protected [as cultural institutions], so we also never had problems with the police.”
Regarding the commercialization of the Berlin queer nightlife which has quickly picked up, he said that he sometimes has to turn people down at the door – the regulars, however, are always welcome. Frank had some practice in the nightlife industry when he was a student in New York where he opened a bar with some friends, and said that he was frequenting Studio 54 and knew people like Andy Warhol at the time.
“It is hard to say what our future looks like, no one knows. The question is how long will people get along with me, and the other question is rent,” he said, in relation to the increasing prices. He is looking to open a larger club, and keeping Ficken 3000 as a 24-hour spot.
“The crowds have transformed at least five times, as in, fully cycled out,” said Frank about his clientele. “At first it was mostly gays and lesbians, barely any ‘heten’ (heterosexuals). But 24 years is a lot for a gastronomy, and many who go out [to bars], at some point don’t go out anymore. The borough of Kreuzberg-Neuköln has also changed a lot, so in that way, the crowd changes with the people who live here. Berlin is also a city that constantly changes compared to other cities.”
A Queer Renaissance in Berlin’s Rainbow District
“For me, Berlin attracts the whole aspect of queer art related to human beings, and it is so prevalent here. It’s not always like that, but the potential exists for self expression. I couldn’t do it anywhere else.”
“I had a dream to open a gallery to show queer art,” said the owner of Berlin’s emerging art gallery P6, Ian Jones. Originally from England, he has kept an apartment in Berlin for about 20 years before fully moving back and opening a gallery in 2019. “For me, Berlin attracts the whole aspect of queer art related to human beings, and it is so prevalent here. It’s not always like that, but the potential exists for self expression. I couldn’t do it anywhere else. I needed somewhere that still had a bit of acceptability of the unusual.”
Jones teamed up with Sadie Weis and Erling Viktor, both queer artists in their own rights, to pursue his Berlin-dream. “I do believe that queer attracts queer, and I really think it’s more than a sexuality, it’s a mentality. It’s a way of understanding and viewing the world, and I think that the pieces come together in this way,” said Weis, who helps with marketing and consulting. “The amazing thing about Berlin and the mentality of people here, is that it gives a lot of room for creative expression,” she added.
Located in Schöneberg, what has historically been referred to as the gay ‘rainbow’ district, Jones said that the neighborhood has garnered a more suburban-feel in recent years and has lost a bit of its alternative and queer identity. He hopes that P6 can bring something new to spice up one of Berlin’s quieter boroughs:
“I’m championing this whole concept of queer art here. I’m trying to bring vibrancy back,” he said. “The challenge I face as a gallerist in Schöneberg, is trying to constantly break new barriers with the people. Now you’d think they’d be very open to it but it’s a tough job to make people in this area recognize that it is a gallery where there is queer art which is very very relevant to today,” said Jones. “It’s time for a renaissance…you do like to rile people’s feathers,” added Weis with a smile. Nevertheless, Weis said that in Berlin as a whole, the queer community is only getting stronger.
Berlin as an artist’s capital as well, works in their favor, said Jones: “The one thing that I have as an advantage for my gallery is that Berlin attracts artists and will nurture artists. Compared to many cities Berlin outstrips other cities, so I’m getting lots of talent that I can use in my gallery, it’s wonderful.”
Visit the gallery or check out their 3D viewing room.
Performing while Protesting in Berlin and abroad
“I fell in love with Berlin because it is reflecting my perfect world. A world that is not identified with any particular country.”
A picturesque party capturing essences of electro-pop, punk, drag and cabaret mixing the political, the ironic, and the sexual – the Berlin-based queer band SADO OPERA uses a raunchy and performative approach in their social critique of everything from homophobia to Vladimir Putin. “I always use this possibility when I make sure people are entertained with a show, to spread some ideas and I hope that it can play some positive role,” said Boris Day or Colonel, the front-man of SADO OPERA in an interview with IMAGO.
Originally born in Russia, SADO OPERA started as a protest against Putin and the different political and social issues in their country. “We had a mission to show people that they are not alone,” he said, adding that the difficult situation in Russia brought them to find a new home-base; Berlin being a haven for expatriated queer artists, made it the obvious choice. “We started to perform [in Berlin] more and more and really started to feel more at home than in St. Petersburg,” said Colonel. “I fell in love with Berlin because it is reflecting my perfect world. A world that is not identified with any particular country. I didn’t want to move to Germany or any other country, I wanted to move to Berlin, as a symbol of freedom,” he said.
They have performed in big international festivals such as Sziget in Budapest and Lila Queer Festival in Zürich and have also done shows for Pop-Kultur Berlin and the German national radio RBB, to name a few. They have been featured in The Guardian, Billboard and BBC Music, but they also remain loyal to their rebellious-persona performing in smaller underground queer clubs such as Ficken 3000. “We have a lot of queer people around us and we all support each other and we all fight for visibility. We support a lot of queer people from Russia and other Eastern European countries that still have a lot of homophobia,” said Colonel, including those from Ukraine. Colonel added that the longstanding Russian aggression and imperialism towards Ukraine was another reason they moved to Berlin, and SADO OPERA proudly waves the Ukrainian flag alongside the rainbow flag.
Even in a queer-capital like Berlin, their mission is not over – not only in supporting queer communities, but also in showing a different, more flamboyant, eccentric and open-minded side to Russian and Eastern European realities: “I’m kind of spreading the word and I’m giving information, and because I am a performer and because of our genre, I try to give it in an entertaining way…because that way someone is listening.”