Letters From Berlin

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02/03/2004: "Museum Piece"

I went through a program a couple of years ago called IRCL. The institute for renewal of community leadership. There I met Maureen Bruce. I came to admire that she got ideas, and manifested them. She seemed to just sort of look around, think about what needed doing, and then applied herself. This is an approach to life that I try to embrace, and I was encouraged to see someone who so clearly does what I aspire to do.
Last week I went to a lecture at the Berlin’s Schwules (Gay) Museum. One of the things I think I should do, when I return to Minneapolis, is to start a queer museum. I have often wondered about a queer community center for the Twin Cities, and thought: There is District 202 for youth, why not a center for queer adults?
Well, the night after the lecture night I did not sleep as soundly as I usually do, and it occurred to me, in the middle of the night, that a museum would be a geat way to approach a queer community center. Berlin’s Schwules Museum does a really wide range of stuff: they currently have an exhibit on lesbian and gay life in Berlin since 1945, they organized the exhibit on persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis that was at the Minneapolis YWCA last fall, and in February they open an art exhibit by 15 different queer contemporary local artists. This museum in Minnesota could function as a kind of queer cultural center, and take advantage of things like the Tretter Collection and Quatrefoil, without having to amass its own collection.
Anyhow, that is all for the future, near future, but it got my mind spinning. The impetus for it all was the lecture and discussion. The theme was the persecution of homosexuals in post-war Berlin.
In a nutshell, the persecution of homosexuals that the Nazi’s started did not end with the war. It continued for decades afterward, and was sanctioned by the post-war German government. Practically the only real improvement was that the penalty for the crime of being homosexual was no longer death. Gay men who had been persecuted continued to be. Homosexuals continued to be considered criminals, and were subjected to raids, intimidation, harassment and ultimately even prison. Further, they were not eligible for compensation paid to other victims, nor even for participation in official holocaust victim groups. It did not help that in post-war Germany the US had a huge influence in society and government. The McCarthy era’s homophobia had its impact in Berlin, too.
During the evening I heard men tell stories of how in the first years after the war they were too hungry to worry about reestablishing gay life, or even finding a boyfriend. They emphasized that circumstances of the times need to be remembered to understand gay life in that time. I was moved to hear of a man getting a job in a cabaret the year after the war, playing for Russian soldiers, helping a female friend get a job there as a singer, having a successful coworker in the cabaret who never spoke of his life in the concentration camps as a gay prisoner. Another told of how the revival of art after the war was so important to maintaining spirits for continuing on. And how mundane some of the first art exhibits were. Someone else explained why he thougt it was not logical for homosexuals to expect solidarity from other groups victimized by the Nazis.
This got me to wondering, the post-war era is when I came into the world. I was born in 1953. How has the reality of gay life in Minnesota during the time I was a child impacted me? One thing is clear, the repressive era of my youth has engrained itself in me in my internalized homophobia. And homoerotophobia. I notice that I have to consciously overcome feelings of shame when I talk about sex in front of a mixed audience. The more the group is like me, the easier it is. So, with a group of radical faeries, I feel no shame. With a group of all gay men, probably very little. Still, even then, I am aware that some gay men have very different norms when it comes to sex and relationships, but my presumptions in an all gay male group is that my perspective is ok. With a mixed group of queer and straight folks, the setting makes a big difference. As it does with a mixed gay and lesbian group. At Queer Boy'z Nite at Patrick’s Cabaret it was pretty easy to tell myself, “If not me, in a setting as safe as this, then what fag ever? and then when, if ever?” before a mixed group. With that I could get over my shame, and could tell stories about sex.
So, that makes these letters from Berlin complex for me to write, if I get personal about sex. Even if I looked at the list of everyone who has signed up to receive them, I would not necessarily recognize names from e-mail addresses. Even if I had a list of the names, what would I make of names I did not recognize? Such thoughts are the legacy of being born gay, during the Eisenhower era, the McCarthy era. I may never be free of the shame, but I think that by acknowledging it, I make progress.
In my head, I know that this is not just a gay issue. A BBC reporter interviewed me in 1997 in Belfast. She was interested in the myth of Adam and Eve, and in deconstructing how it manifests today. Her theory was that the vast majority of people come to see themselves as failures because they have not managed to duplicate this myth of one man and one woman for life.
I remember performing Queer Thinking at Illusion Theater about the same time. Just before the show started I saw two of my cousins, Janet and Gail, in the audience. I was mortified. I was about to tell all of these old secrets. Many of them family related. I took a deep breath, told myself that they were there because they wanted to hear these stories, and I headed out onto the stage.
Janet broke the ice at the Q and A after the show by saying she dreamed some day I would do this show for a family reunion. Dream on, Janet. For that, I would have to have been born forty years later. Or, maybe next year, in a program at the Queer Museum of Minnesota.

February 2004
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