Berlin's sex history is so queer!
A city tour through Berlin's queer sex history!
As early as the 1920s, Berlin was Europe's queer capital. City guide, Jeff Mannes, reveals why.
Berlin is often said to be the most sexually charged city in the world. The Germans are "Europe's kinkiest nation" and Berlin is the undisputed queer capital of Europe. Berlin thus boasts a long tradition of sexual liberation. As early as the 1920s, Berlin was queer-friendly and sex-positive and was therefore far ahead of many other cities. Signs of these times can be rediscovered everywhere in the city, including in Schöneberg, one of the queer centres. On the city tour, "Berlin's History of Sex", this incredible, exciting, and sometimes tragic part of Berlin's history comes to life once more. Author and guide, Jeff Mannes, reveals a few highlights here, in the form of a literary city tour.
Claire Waldoff in the lesbian bar, Toppkeller
The first stop on the tour is 13 Schwerinstraße, not far from the underground stations Nollendorfplatz and Bülowstraße in the Schöneberg district. Today, an inconspicuous, residential building stands there. It's hard to believe that the most infamous lesbian bar of the 1920s, the Toppkeller, once stood right there. The building that once housed it was destroyed in the Second World War.
The Toppkeller was only one of a total of around 85 bars for lesbian and bisexual women in Berlin in the 1920s. In addition to ‘Bubis’ (butch lesbians in masculine clothing), ‘Garçonnes’ (young lesbians in elegant French fashion for men), ‘Gauner’ (sexually adventurous and dominant women), and ‘dominas’ for the male visitors, Claire Waldoff also regularly frequented the place. Germany's most famous lesbian of that time was a popular singer, until the Nazis tried to end her career. Rumour has it that she even had an affair with Marlene Dietrich, who was consequently also a frequent guest at the Toppkeller. Marlene Dietrich, for her part, was one of the most influential fashion influencers of the 20th century. She was responsible for popularising the typical Berlin lesbian fashion - women in suits, ties, trousers, and top hats!
Christopher Isherwood's gay freedom
Just a few steps away from the former Toppkeller, Schwerinstraße becomes Nollendorfstraße - and thus another setting for queer urban history.
With the introduction of the infamous Paragraph 175 in 1872, sex between men became illegal throughout Germany. In Berlin in the 1920s, however, this law was largely ignored. As a result, countless queer men moved to the German capital as early as a century ago. Among them was the young Christopher Isherwood, who would later become one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His novels were set in Berlin shortly before the Nazis came to power. In 1929, he moved into a flat at 17 Nollendorfstraße.
Isherwood deliberately left behind his sheltered life in Britain to live a free, gay life in wild Berlin. He certainly had enough choice: there are said to have been up to 120 bars for gay and bisexual men between 1919 and 1933. They were frequented by a wide variety of men who were assigned to different categories: ‘Tree stumps’ were middle-aged men who watched hustlers pick up customers in working-class bars; ‘society gentlemen’ were what we now call ‘bears’ or ‘otters, namely very hairy men; and ‘Breslauers’ were men with larger-than-average penises.
This vanished world still comes alive today in Isherwood's novels, as well as in city tours. In the streets themselves, however, there is hardly any evidence of this historical period. There is a sign next to the entrance of Isherwood's former flat in Nollendorfstraße that commemorates him. But it does not reveal with whom he shared this flat. His flat mate was Jean Ross, a cabaret singer who became the inspiration for the character of Sally Bowles in Isherwood's books. Years later, she was impersonated by Liza Minnelli in the musical "Cabaret". In 1933, Isherwood fled Germany to escape the Nazis with his then partner, Heinz Neddermeyer, moving around Europe and eventually settling in California. However, his partner was caught by the Nazis and ended up in prison.
Gender diversity in the Berghain of the 1920s
Not far from Isherwood's apartment building, a sign above the entrance to an organic food shop at 24 Motzstraße proclaims: ‘Speisekammer im Eldorado’. Motzstraße is arguably the gay main street of Berlin. But what the Eldorado was remains unclear. In a way it was the ‘Berghain of its time’, that is, a world-famous club. The philosophy of the Eldorado was conveyed by a sign that ran the entire length of the façade. It first showed a heterosexual couple dancing, then a gay couple followed by a lesbian couple, a ‘transvestite’ couple, a three-way dance and then, at the very end, a man dancing with the ‘perverted poodle’ - the name of the animal depicted on the sign.
‘Transvestite’ was a collective term at the time for people who we would describe more precisely today as trans* people, drag queens, drag kings, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people and cross-dressers, among others. The Eldorado was one of the most popular venues among the queer community and world-famous for what we call drag shows today. The Eldorado attracted onlookers from all corners of the world and from all political camps. Even the head of the National Socialist SA and Adolf Hitler's close and allegedly gay friend, Ernst Röhm, frequented the club regularly.
There are countless legends surrounding the club. The US Vogue magazine is reputed to have once sent a journalist to Berlin to find Berlin's most beautiful woman. But he couldn't find one anywhere that met his standards. He was advised to try the Eldorado. And indeed, there he discovered an extraordinarily beautiful woman. He wrote about her and had Vogue print the article, without ever revealing that Berlin's most beautiful woman was a drag queen! Unfortunately, the Eldorado had already been closed in 1932. A short time later, the Nazis moved in. A place of sexual and gender freedom became a building covered with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
The Birth of Sex and Gender studies and the Modern LGBTIQ Movement
North of the neighbourhood around Nollendorfplatz, the Tiergarten Park stretches all the way to the Spree River. On a section of the riverbank named after Magnus Hirschfeld, a monument commemorating the world's first emancipation movement of queer people can be found. It stands precisely on the site of the first sex education centre founded in 1919, which was also the birthplace of the LGBTIQ movement. This is the original site of the Institute for Sexual Science, founded in 1919, the first one of its kind. Both the institute and the emancipation movement were shaped by Hirschfeld. He became internationally known for his theory of the sexual states of being 'in between'. About 100 years ago, he already then regarded gender as a continuum, not as an exclusive binary consisting only of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’. He referred to people who fell between these polar opposites as ‘sexual intermediates.
At his institute, Lili Elbe, who was intersex and assigned the male gender at birth, was one of the first people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Persecuted people of the LGBTIQ community found refuge in Hirschfeld's institute, where he also issued so-called ‘transvestite certificates’, that allowed people in Berlin to appear in public in the clothes in which they felt comfortable, even if they did not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth. Without a certificate, they could otherwise be arrested by the police for ‘causing a public nuisance’.
The Institute was also progressive in other respects. There was a ‘sex museum’ where visitors could admire exhibits such as masturbation machines, sex dolls, or BDSM drawings. Early forms of Viagra could also be purchased at the Institute.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a Jew and therefore a target of National Socialist propaganda from the start. In 1933, he evaded arrest and fled with his two partners to France, where he died two years later. The Institute was attacked by the Nazis immediately after they came to power and all papers, books, and research studies were destroyed in the Nazi book burnings. Two years later, the Nazis tightened Paragraph 175 and began to persecute not only gay and bisexual men, but all queer and trans* people, murdering many of them. After the end of the war, it would take more than two decades before hitherto West Berlin slowly transformed itself into a centre of queer life again, as we know it today.