The scene unseen

Our April queer issue is out! To give you a taste of our full-on LGBTQ coverage, we're leading off here with the L: Why do lesbians and queer women have to fight so hard for visibility? Read this here and more in the issue, on newsstands now!

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

Berlin’s one big gay paradise – if you’re a man. Why do lesbians and queer women have to fight so hard for visibility?

 It’s nearing midnight on a Tuesday, and Möbel Olfe, one of Kreuzberg’s most popular queer bars, is absolutely heaving with women: solo women smoking sullenly at the bar; big groups of women friends squealing with laughter; women scanning the smoky room, hungry for a hookup. Come back the next night, though, or any other night, and they’ll be gone, in their place a sweaty sea of muscle and testosterone. Women get Tuesdays, but men rule the rest of the week. That’s because Möbel Olfe, like most LGBTQ institutions in town, is dominated by gay males.

Take a random sampling of 10 (straight) people in Berlin, and ask them to name aspects of the city’s LGBTQ scene. They’ll almost certainly bring up the darkrooms at Berghain. They’ll mention the annual Christopher Street Day parade, that enormous spectacle of mostly men, gyrating half-naked through the city’s streets. They’ll know Berlin’s last mayor was gay, and will probably have heard of Christopher Isherwood and his well-documented love of Berlin’s Weimar Era rent boys.

“The queer community in Berlin is basically gay… The resources, the knowledge, the networks, are mainly male.”

But what about lesbians? Back in Isherwood’s day, Berlin was as much a lesbian hotspot as a gay one. The capital was home to no less than 14 lesbian clubs and bars, which hosted popular dances, drag king shows and S&M nights. And not long after the gay scene exploded in the 1970s, second-wave feminism led to a surge in female sexual empowerment, which lesbians let loose in places like the darkroom in the women-only Pelze bar, one of many strictly lesbian establishments in the city in the 1980s. Today, there are none left. And men not only monopolise the popular imagination of LGBTQ Berlin, but also its largest, most influential and most well-funded organisations, from the Berliner CSD e.V. to the Schwulenberatung to the Schwules Museum. “The queer community in Berlin is basically gay, in terms of visibility,” confirms Birgit Bosold (photo). “The resources, the knowledge, the networks, are mainly male.”

Bosold has served on the board of directors of the Schwules Museum since 2006, where she’s been advocating for the increased presence of women in exhibitions. As a critical voice pushing for change in a male-dominated institution, she doesn’t mince words: “The invisibility of lesbian women in the queer movement is really problematic,” she says.

“Lesbians are less represented than gay men in all areas,” agrees Manuela Kay, publisher of Berlin queer city magazine Siegessäule and German lesbian bimonthly L-Mag. Kay was also editor-in-chief of Siegessäule from 1996 to 2005, during which time she expanded the magazine to include lesbian and trans content. With her brush cut and Harley Davidson sweatshirt, she’s a self-described fighter and forthright in every way. “Kampflesbe” – a militant butch type – is often used as an insult in German, but Kay bears the label with pride. “When there are discussions in the media or academia about homosexuality, it’s just assumed we’re talking about gay men,” she says. “Even things described as ‘gay-lesbian’ are almost always made up of men. When it comes to jobs and power in the Berlin scene and the people making decisions, it’s always men.”

Patriarchal problems

Are there simply fewer lesbians? There are no reliable statistics on homosexual demographics, but the German Lesbian and Gay Federation references one study that concluded nearly twice as many men as women identified as exclusively homosexual. Other studies have found that women tend to identify as bisexual more often than men, which might explain why they are less likely to cleave to a singular gay identity. But many lesbian women, even outspoken activists, just never want to come out, says Bosold. It’s a tendency she’s hard-pressed to explain. She mentions Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most prominent feminist, who has yet to come out even though her long-term relationships with women are by now no secret. Schwarzer also refused the Schwules Museum’s request to hold an exhibition in honour of her 70th birthday in 2012.

Why do lesbians remain unseen here? The answer essentially boils down to one root cause: because they’re female. Women remain less visible in every context, from art to science to sports. Sexism exists both outside the LGBTQ scene and within it. “Gay men live in a men’s world, with the privileges of men,” says Bosold. Adds Kay: “As a woman, you are a second-class person and have to struggle much more, regardless of whether you’re homo or hetero.”

And yes, misogyny amongst gay male Berliners is still alive and well. “The huge mainstream gay scene in Berlin is still very sexist, very misogynist,” says Goodyn Green, a Danish photographer and queer porn filmmaker. A few years ago, she exhibited some of her portraits of queer women – undressing in their bedrooms, or mimicking the typically male poses seen in gay porn magazines – at a gay-lesbian café in Friedrichshain and was dismayed when male viewers insinuated that the androgynous, short-haired women in her photos “just want to be men”.

“Societal structures continue to be very much shaped by patriarchy, and lesbians and women are much more affected by these discriminatory hierarchies,” says Laura Méritt, a self-described “sexpert” who runs the Sexclusivitäten sex shop in Kreuzberg and gives frequent workshops on, amongst other things, female ejaculation. “We have to raise awareness of the inequalities and change the structures, especially through mixedgender endeavours.”

“It really all comes down to patriarchy,” says Lo Pecado, co-founder of Coven Berlin, an art collective of “Feminist Conqueerors” that organises local events and publishes an English-language online magazine. “Female sexuality is not taken seriously if it’s not under the male gaze.”

The next wave  

Pecado, who moved here six years ago from Spain to take gender studies at Humboldt, is an example of a major driving force in Berlin’s current scene: women in their twenties and  thirties, many of them expats, many of them involved in various creative endeavours. It’s within that subculture that women are most loudly and proudly asserting their identity – but not necessarily as lesbians. Unlike Kay and Bosold’s generation, they eschew the lesbisch label that 1970s and 1980s feminists fought hard to claim (before then, it was common to use the term schwul for both gay men and women). Instead, they identify simply as “queer”. While “gay” and “lesbian” define whom one sleeps with, queer is more of a political stance. “Queerness is all about erasing labels, working against established gender roles that regulate sexuality,” says Pecado. “Not wanting to adapt to the system, but living outside it.” Last year, during a nineday Coven art festival, she staged a performance in which she waxed the legs of male volunteers in a Kreuzberg storefront window.

Gradually, between newcomers like Green and Pecado and old-schoolers like Kay and Bosold, we are beginning to see some change. Last month, Siegessäule published an issue addressing lesbian visibility, while Schwuz held a series of events in relation to International Women’s Month called “Queer Women* and Feminities”. Though a few eyebrows were raised at the lack of the word “lesbian” in the title, the events did include a packed discussion called “The Invisible Lesbian” at a March 21 party labelled “Precious Pearls: Lesbians, Tunten and Gay Women Unite!” Out of the 380 attendees, roughly one-tenth were male.

“The scene is opening up, I think in part to more younger gay men who define themselves as queer,” says Pecado. When it comes to bridging the gap between the mainstream gays and the radical queers, perhaps nothing has been doing it better than porn. Green calls the Schwules Museum’s Porn That Way exhibition an “incredible” milestone for including porn from the queer community. This resulted in many queers visiting the museum for the first time, she says, which had long been considered the domain of older gay men.

Queer women have also been getting increasing play in the city’s annual PornFilmFestival. The festival’s founder used to hold typical gay male biases against lesbians, says Green: “That stereotype that lesbian porn is so boring, that nothing happens.” The daring work of Green and her feminist porn counterparts has changed their minds, and the festival has become a place that brings queer men and women together. Of the 22 feature films in last October’s festival, half were lesbian, amongst them explicit bondage, fetish and orgy flicks with titles like Girl Pile, The Black Widow and Green’s Shutter.

This increasing unity is a hopeful sign, Green says. “I do think things will change. For me, visibility is very important. Back in the 1980s, it was so divided between gays and lesbians. But because we are both part of the same minority, we should be buddies and cooperate.” 

Originally published in issue #137, April 2015