What did the gay scene look like in GDR Berlin? Our columnist Walter Crasshole chats to Ossis to find out.
“So… are you East German or West German?” I asked him, rolling over after a round of post-party shagging at my flat. I instantly grimaced as I imagined being one of those people who stands on a street corner and loudly queries: “Are we in East Berlin or West Berlin?” Thorsten just looked over and said, “Walter, we have been in the new Germany for quite a while now. I was born into the GDR, yes, but I was two when the Wall fell.” If the whole thing sounds clumsy, it’s because this was 10 years ago. I would never ask that question today.
But aside from Jochen Hick’s 2013 documentary Out in Ost-Berlin, getting insight into the gay scene in East Berlin isn’t easy. People like fetish photographer Andreas Fux, whom I’ve been seeing around the more hedonistic parts of Berlin’s art scene for years now, and Frank Schäfer, that punk hairdresser I’d read about in nearly all the local culture rags in the city, had me fantasizing about a wild scene with, of all places, Prenzlauer Berg at its centre. “The bars weren’t really all that exciting. They were all pretty middle-class, too,” says Fux when I ask him about it. Bald head and piercings aside, his extreme images of naked men with needles in their faces would have you think he sprang from the edgiest of scenes imaginable. “There were only maybe four official gay Kneipen in East Berlin in the 1980s: Schoppenstube, Café Senefelder, Burgfrieden and Café Prenzlau. And there was maybe a little fooling around or kissing, but that was it. There wasn’t any drag and sex clubs did not exist,” says Fux. “There weren’t even any pornos in the GDR…” Schäfer adds. Both agree that most of the scene happened at private house parties. “And they were huge,” Schäfer remembers. “All sorts of creative people would be there as well and we would drink the night away and have sex in the bathrooms.” Schäfer loved the excitement of going to the bathroom for a shag – so much so that when he finally got to West Berlin and visited the legendary disco Dschungel, he was disappointed to find out people were going to the toilets to do drugs.
When the country decriminalised homosexuality in 1968 – rendering Germany’s infamous anti-homosexuality law, Paragraph 175, useless (West Germany didn’t repeal 175 until after reunification) – the GDR did seem light years ahead. But then, as the West was experiencing Gay Liberation, the movement didn’t get much sway in the prudish East. “There was no law against it, so you could do it. We couldn’t lose our jobs or apartments for being gay,” says Schäfer. “I never ever had to hide my sexuality, but the GDR was certainly conservative.” Another difference is that Ossi gays were spared the traumatic experience of HIV and AIDS that was politically mobilising LGBT people in the West and sparked the awakening of the 1980s. “The chances of getting infected were just smaller, simply thanks to fewer physical contacts. And there were no clubs, no saunas. But after the Wende it evened out,” says Fux. Ironically, in the East it was the church giving these topics a venue for discussion. “The churches actually helped us put on events. They allowed us to talk about our lives, about HIV,” Schäfer said.
The state itself was pretty quiet in regards to homosexuality. However, when DEFA (the state-owned film studio) finally gave the green light to the GDR’s first (and only) feature dealing with homosexuality – Heiner Carow’s beautiful Coming Out – it premiered on the evening of November 9, 1989 at Kino International – the same night the Berlin Wall fell. Twelve years later, when the DVD release exposed international audiences to the film, Coming Out was my first introduction to gay life in Germany as a whole – a testament to it not just as a great gay film, but great film in general. After the Wall came down, East Berlin’s gays had a whole new world to deal with. Was there anything to miss? “I only had six years ‘as a gay’ in the GDR,” Fux reflects. “Honestly, a lot of the time I was just bored. And I’m not even talking about a lack of orgies or anything that spectacular. That didn’t even happen for me until after the Wende.” Indeed, he says the world really opened up for him in the 1990s. “We had techno, Tresor and the precursors to Berghain. I never had the feeling that we lost anything, only won. But this is Berlin. It’s very different if you talk to any people outside of the city.”