On a Friday evening in late July, I attended a Pride service at the Marienkirche, just off Alexanderplatz in central Berlin. The programme included blessings and hymns from Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions, and as we filed in we were given white wristbands stamped with ‘Liebe tut der Seele gut’ (‘love is good for the soul’) in gold letters. I sat on a pew at the side with three Berliners: a Black American and two white Germans. They told me they weren’t believers but were there because it was the last service of the church superintendent Bertold Höcker, who had done a lot for the queer community, and they wanted to show their gratitude before he retired.
We talked about the Pride celebrations – or Christopher Street Day (CSD), as it’s known in Germany – that would take place the following day. ‘Berlin has a reputation for being a gay Mecca,’ one of them said, ‘but the rise of AfD and the Christian far right is influencing the government and national culture.’
A few days later I went to see Höcker at his parish office. The windowsills were lined with solar-powered dancing sunflowers, some wearing sunglasses, and a solar-powered dancing Ken. ‘We ran out of Barbies,’ he told me.
The Marienkirche began blessing same-sex partnerships in 2002, nine years before they were approved by the General Synod, and fifteen years before same-sex marriages were legalised in Germany. I asked Höcker about reconciling Christianity with queerness. ‘After World War Two the Protestant church thought that queer sex was forbidden,’ he said. ‘But in the 1970s progress in theology changed that – when John Boswell discovered medieval blessings for gay couples. So as a church we declared our guilt for persecuting queer people and asked forgiveness. It’s the task of religion to strengthen diversity in a society because we teach that all human beings are equal. And we must honour diversity because it is created by God.’
Höcker had also provided practical support, in the form of meeting hall space, to Seyran Ateş, after reading about her intention to found the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Moschee in 2016.(She led some of the prayers at the Marienkirche CSD service.) The mosque had been celebrating CSD too: when I visited them in Moabit in south-west Berlin, their LGBTQ+ co-ordinator, Tugay Saraç, gave me some rainbow-bordered ‘Love is Halal’ stickers from the parade. He told me that the congregation included people from the Middle East, North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and Central and South Asia, and worship combined Sunni and Shia traditions.
‘We faced a lot of criticism from the international Muslim community for having mixed-gender prayers,’ he said, ‘for not requiring women to wear hijab in the mosque, and for being queer-positive. Being queer-positive was the most controversial. Our critics talk about queerness a lot, as if it’s the biggest sin in the world, though the Koran doesn’t even say that it is haram. But what they don’t want to talk about is how Islamic law favours men over women.’
When Saraç’s father died, his funeral was held at one of Germany’s nine hundred or so DİTİB mosques, whose imams are employed by the Turkish state. Men were free to mourn alongside the coffin, but women, including Saraç’s mother and sister, had to wait inside the mosque until after the coffin had been taken away. ‘Women come to Ibn Rushd-Goethe to be equals and to shape the community, and queers come here for safety,’ he said. I asked him why straight Muslim men might want to join the mosque. ‘Some straight men also reject patriarchy,’ he pointed out. ‘Maybe you don’t want to control your wife or your sister.’
GLADT, not far from the Schwules Museum on Lützowstraße, began as a community organisation for gay Turkish men in Berlin, but now supports all queer ethnic minority people in the city – influenced by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. ‘Queerness is expressed differently around the world,’ a team member told me, ‘and it can even be invisible. So if you’re a non-white person in Germany, being queer is not your golden ticket to white German society.’ A colleague added: ‘There were queer identities outside Europe before colonialism. And part of what Europe exported during colonialism was homophobia, rather than diversity.’
GLADT grew out of the 1990s nightclub scene after DJ Ipek visited the queer South Asian parties at Club Kali in London. She returned to Germany and became resident DJ at Gayhane – Turkish for ‘gay house’ – at the SO36 club in Kreuzberg in south-east Berlin. ‘They had a straight guy spinning Turkish pop music,’ she told me, ‘and a German guy spinning house music, but no house music from the Middle East or the Near East. I wanted to change that. And I wanted to DJ for lesbians, for feminists and for immigrants.’ As well as GLADT, DJ Ipek and other Gayhaners helped create groups for Berlin’s queer Greek, Cypriot and Russian communities. ‘Gayhane made us realise that we were not needles in a haystack,’ DJ Ipek said, ‘and we wanted to provide mental health support for others, and tackle racism and sexism within the queer community.’
One of the groups they collaborated with was the queer Jewish group Yachad, Hebrew for ‘together’, which began in Cologne. ‘After German reunification, Berlin was not a major city like other European capitals,’ Yachad’s founder Aaron Knappstein told me. But Cologne had been the home of the world’s first queer advocacy organisation, created in 1897, and had also been home, since the fourth century, to Germany’s oldest Jewish community. After the Second World War, the Jewish communities re-established in Cologne tended to be Orthodox. ‘There were so few Jews left in Germany that you couldn’t have difference because there weren’t enough of us,’ Knappstein said.
His experiences of establishing Yachad in the mid-1990s echoed DJ Ipek’s experiences with Gayhane. ‘After I set up Yachad it grew very quickly: people were waiting for it. They had kept a low profile because they were afraid of being identified as being Jewish or being queer. Some didn’t think they could be both.’ I asked why were they afraid. ‘In the 1990s you didn’t see much about Jewish life in Germany,’ Knappstein said. ‘We were afraid of “coming out” as Jewish, and then having boring and stressful interrogation such as “what are your views on Israeli politics?” If you had recently had your queer coming out, you didn’t want another one. The Russian, Yemeni, Turkish and Moroccan members of Yachad had ethnicity to consider as well and they said: “It’s too much. We have to focus on one thing at a time out here.”’
Now there’s a well-established queer Jewish community in Germany, Knappstein is developing Kölsche Kippa Köpp (‘Cologne kippah heads’), a Jewish carnival club. I asked about the acronym on their regalia. ‘During the Weimar era, Cologne’s Jewish carnival club was called Kleiner Kölner Klub – “little Cologne Club”. We couldn't take their name but we wanted continuity. And we wanted to give “KKK” a positive vibe.’
In Berlin the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque has recently moved to larger premises, and Saraç told me that around a hundred people had converted to Islam there – although since late October services have moved online, for safety, after German security services intercepted Islamic State attack plans which listed the mosque as a potential target. GLADT’s activities now range from support with housing and health insurance to workshops for artists and educators. And Höcker showed me models for House Of One, a new civic space near Humboldtforum, the site of the former East German parliament and a symbol of German reunification, that would combine a mosque, a synagogue and a church. To celebrate the similarities? I asked. ‘No,’ he said, ‘to highlight the differences, while showing that we can still work together.’
‘Culture is dynamic, not static,’ DJ Ipek said. ‘Even if you just move from Cologne to Berlin, moving changes you and you change Berlin. But as brown people, we are more visible here and more scrutinised.’ She shrugged. ‘We’ll know we’re free when we have options, so you don’t just have to take what is given to you.’