Savage behind the Wall

Before Dr. Dot, before Dr. Schlong (remember him?), Exberliner's resident sexpert was none other than gay crusader Dan Savage. But we're not Savage's only Berlin connection: he spent his mid-twenties here, when West Berlin became just Berlin.

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Photo by Christophe Gruny

International sex advice columnist Dan Savage on German men, “sex and supermarket” German and straight boys getting gay-bashed by East Berliners in the time of die Wende.

Dan Savage has been savaging the ignorance in the sex and relationship world with his “Savage Love” column since 1991, rising to national stardom with his gay take on a straight world (with plenty of gays asking for advice as well), through its syndication – including a short a stint in Exberliner some 10 years ago. But before Dan Savage was a sex-columnist and author, he lived in West Berlin for a year. The year? It was 1989. He’s back here now, presenting his new book “American Savage” at the Shakespeare & Sons bookstore, and sharing his experiences of Berlin with us.

You were in Berlin from late 1988 to 1990. What do you think of German men?

As an observer… and a participant… I love German men. I lived here for that year and change and I wanted to stay. When my boyfriend and I moved back to the States, he was going to finish his degree and then we were going to move back to Berlin. We already had an apartment and residency permits set up… but then we accidentally broke up.

Suddenly, straight boys who had waltzed around West Berlin with a million earrings and pink hair and shredded shirts and jeans that showed off a lot were getting gay-bashed by East Berlin boys who had never seen a straight boy look like that.

I love German men. I like cold people – I know that sounds horrible – but I like a little more distance. The instant intimacy of Americans – the ability to bump into someone at an airport and two hours later at the airport bar before your flight being best of friends, exchanging phone numbers and making plans to see each other again – is something I’ve never been able to do.

I really liked meeting Germans who held you at arms’ length until you were a friend and were suspicious of Americans who would glom onto you in an instant. The expat community, in desperation, would cement bonds immediately to create a web of mutual support. But the Germans I made friends with – that felt like an earned and true friendship as opposed to the casually offered friendship of Americans.

What do I think about German men in particular? They’re really good in bed – at least the ones I went to bed with [laughs]. Maybe that’s selection bias at work because I didn’t have a representative sample. West Berlin is also where I got used to uncircumcised men.

Did you learn German when you were here?

We called it “Sex and Supermarket German” because we could get groceries and we could get laid, but that’s all. We couldn’t get jobs, we couldn’t get into deep philosophical conversations, we couldn’t get into school.

So what can you say in Sex German?

Oh my God [laughs], I don’t remember it. It was almost 25 years ago! I’ve lost my Sex and Supermarket German.

Then say it in English. What’s a good late-1980s West Berlin gay pick-up line?

My “Sex German” was very different than other people’s because I had to determine that people didn’t smoke. I can’t sleep with smokers.

So your pickup line was: “Are you a smoker?”

Yeah, that was one of the questions, but usually you would see that in a bar.

But I had a boyfriend then. I wasn’t out hunting that much. The expats I ran with, for example a theater company I did a show with, we all talked about “Sex and Supermarket German”.

I had a German boyfriend too though. I was a very bad person.

Can’t remember any pick-up lines?

None that I would care to share because it would be too revealing about my sex life. Those are [my husband] Terry’s rules.

But this was before you even met him. Does that rule still apply?

It applies if it could possibly reveal things about Terry. And what I was looking for then, I was looking for when I met Terry. So no comment.

Did you have any experiences with a gay movement in East Germany?

We went to a few gay bars in East Berlin and that was a very bizarre experience. If West Berlin was 10 years behind the US in terms of what it was like to be a gay person, then East Berlin was 25 years behind.

East Berlin felt like 1955 and the bars were very strange. There were fussy queens sitting in a bar with a few hooker types bouncing around (i.e. guys who were 20 years younger than everyone else). Everyone was smoking and being arch.

We were coming from West Berlin where the gay scene was more leathery, grungy and rough. But queer people in East Berlin were beautifully turned out, just making an appearance in the bar. And there we were in our dirty jeans, combat boots and leather jackets – we felt like we had been blasted in from Mars!

What did West Berlin feel like?

Well it was the tail end of the 1980s, so there were fussy gay bars with guys with blond frosted hair and teal and pink tank tops looking a bit like George Michael.

But West Berlin was rough. The city was full of straight boys who were avoiding military service and were counterculture-identified, and also gay boys in the same situation.

This is going to sound weird but West Berlin reminded me of nothing so much as Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland or Detroit – a big city that had collapsed in on itself. There was so much space to create things. You could find an apartment, an empty warehouse, a storefront to do anything. There was so much opportunity – not to make a million dollars but to make art, meet people and create things.

And this was even before the Wall came down. People talk about how it became the center of the youth culture after the Wall came down. But even before there was an artistic scene that was exciting and existentially tormented.

You walked in any direction in the city and eventually you reached this Wall. There was something about feeling penned in and knowing we would be the first to die if it came to blows in the Cold War (even though I wasn’t really here long enough to own that). There was a sense of existential opportunism that infused every moment of every day with a desire to exploit every moment.

Then when the Wall came down in a single day, and it was like the city exploded. It couldn’t have been two months later that you started seeing people in Kreuzberg with t-shirts saying “I want my Wall back.”

Suddenly, straight boys who had waltzed around West Berlin with a million earrings and pink hair and shredded shirts and jeans that showed off a lot were getting gay-bashed by East Berlin boys who had never seen a straight boy look like that.

Can you remember a typical space in West Berlin?

There was this weird basement bar called “Café Anal” in Kreuzberg that my German boyfriend’s friend owned. The floor, the ceiling and the walls were all covered with this weird print of two ovals and a little dot between them – it was the owner’s ass and balls. He would sit in paint and push his ass against the wall. I wouldn’t even know where to look for it now. It was only open late at night and it was this wonderful louche scene. I remember going to parties with someone – I couldn’t tell you where they were because I don’t remember – in big warehouses in East Berlin.

What seems different in Berlin 23 years later?

When I left in 1990, Potsdamer Platz was a mud field with a tiny little dirt road running through it. You could still sneak into sections of the death strip and sneak into East German guard towers to have sex – as I did with my boyfriend. It’s amazing that all of this is gone. Now you cross back and forth and it’s imperceptible what’s East and what’s West.