November’s all about identity politics and with that comes a series of shitstorms, homegrown right here in Berlin. Each week we’ll look at a new controversy over race, gender, sexuality or other identity matters from over the past year. This week: Racism at Schwuz? How rejection from a Beyoncé party turned into an anti-racist protest against the famous queer nightclub.
In 2017, the LGBTQ club Schwuz turned 40. But anniversary celebrations for Berlin’s oldest and best-known queer institution were marred by the last thing supporters of the club would expect: accusations of racism.
The night of the “Beyoncélicious” party on June 4, 2017, the queue wound an hour from the door of the club, through the darkened courtyard in the heart of Neukölln. Standing in it was a group of six black women from the US, Denmark and Cape Verde, friends who lived in Berlin and who were on the guestlist for the party. They had been sent to the back after attempting to cut the line, a no-no at Schwuz even for those on the list. To pass the time, they began a game of charades with two white German men on one of the men’s phones. One of the white bouncers shouted at the group to be quiet. When they reached the front of the line, the men they had been playing the game with were let in, while the six women were asked to step aside.
Rather than leave, they stayed outside the door, chanting and singing Beyoncé songs. They were soon joined by others who’d been rejected, both white people and people of colour, as well as many still waiting to gain entrance. The protest concluded with Schwuz barring entry to everyone from the club for the next two hours.
All six women had been living in Berlin for at least a year and were familiar with the club scene and its notorious selectivity. So what made this rejection so different from others?
According to the women, the first trigger was the tone of the bouncer’s response to their noise level. “We were all a little taken aback by how aggressive he was when he yelled at us, especially since it didn’t sound like we were any louder than anyone else,” says Adrian, one of the six friends, who moved to Berlin from San Diego in 2016. The second trigger was when they noticed that another group who had been turned away was predominantly people of colour. “This wasn’t a normal club rejection,” affirms fellow Schwuz cast-out Cienna, founder of Berlin-based black women’s empowerment group Soul Sisters. When asked to explain this claim further, she continues, “When you are a minority, you understand when you are being treated a certain way because it is culture or normal behavior and another way when it is racism.”
But what about Schwuz’s long-standing commitment towards inclusivity, the fact that it hosts some of the queer scene’s most diverse parties like Berries, Tasty and Techno Türken, offers half-price discounts for refugees and has hired Arabic translators to iron out misunderstandings? Ironically, the club’s reputation played against it. “Schwuz is not Berghain,” the women agree. “At Berghain it’s okay to be exclusive; they’re not claiming anything else.” Another hot button the women brought up was the conflict between the featuring of Beyoncé, one of the most iconic black female empowerment figures, and not letting in a group of six black women as guests.
News of the incident spread quickly – first on Facebook, then in an online “open letter” written by the offended parties in which they laid out 10 demands for the club, including a formal apology “with no gaslighting, victim- blaming or excuses” and “compensation for those who have experienced racial, gender [or] identity discrimination”. An English-language article in Missy (tagline: “Schwuz wants black money but they don’t want black bodies”) added fuel to the fire.
As the discussion gained traction, many people who did not witness the event were quick to take sides. A mixture of people pledged solidarity to the protestors and came forward with similar stories of alleged racism. Others supporting Schwuz blamed the protestors for causing drama unnecessarily and outlined how the women’s behaviour (trying to enter as a group of six, being noisy in the queue) followed a “totally normal” chain of events leading to rejection.
Five months later, the online discussion has died down but tensions still remain high. The second Reclaim the Beats festival, which promotes queer and POC musicians, was slated to hold its closing party at Schwuz this year, but its organiser, Berlin-based DJ and producer Sky Deep, decided to move the event to Burg Schnabel “based on the response and needs of the community Reclaim the Beats pledges to serve”. She stresses that she herself still has “good relations” with the club.
Reclaim the Beats addressed the Schwuz events with a panel discussion on racism and door policy at Werkstatt der Kulturen. One of the panelists was “Smiley” Baldwin, a Berlin-based black American who has headed his own security team for over 17 years and is known to many as one of the friendliest bouncers on the clubscape. Murmurs of discontent rippled through the crowd as Baldwin explained that the incident at Schwuz sounded similar to the accusations he has to deal with on a nightly basis. “I’ve been called a racist, I’ve been called anti-Semitic,” he said, adding that he and his team – whom, he emphasised, undergoes strict screening and gets especially trained on discrimination issues – don’t have time to explain the reasoning for every single person’s rejection. “People take it so personally, when sometimes it’s just a matter of, ‘Well, you’re a big group and the club is too full…’” This didn’t go down well among an audience that came to hear about measures to counter racism, not about the hardships of bouncing in Berlin.
For its part, Schwuz issued an apology on its Facebook page, saying their staff was “well aware that we stand on the privileged side of an inherently racist society and we understand that those power structures are unfortunately effective in Schwuz as well”; they also hired the activist organisation White Guilt Clean-Up to help them develop additional training programmes and workshops in addition to their existing anti-racist initiatives. Marcel Weber, CEO of Schwuz, says that the event has “shaken him and all of Schwuz” and caused all involved to “reflect on the mechanism of racism in society”. Still, the women who were rejected feel Schwuz’s response was inadequate, pointing out that the club never reached out to them personally.
The question remains: in Berlin’s club scene, where bouncers must engage in some level of discrimination to foster the right atmosphere, how do you differentiate acceptable door policy from racism? There may never be a satisfactory answer.