It was 1992 when I first moved to San Francisco, but the late 80s were alive and (not so) well in the Castro and Mission Districts, where the Gay Stuff™ happened.
Bill Clinton would become president later that year, but the San Francisco queer community was trying to stay alive after eight years of Reagan. AIDS activism was fierce, and the Bay Area Reporter obits regularly reminded us why we needed the AIDS Quilt, ACT UP, Silence = Death slogans, and READ MY LIPS t-shirts to combat the other deadly disease we were fighting: the Christian Right.
Our anger was electric, as were our parties.
Funny, I don’t remember anyone feeling jaded. Burnt out and exhausted, certainly — and scared enough to lay our bodies on the streets — but not jaded. Battle lines from the Sex Wars had been drawn. Chances are, you either subscribed to On Our Backs or Off Our Backs magazine to mark which side of the anti-porn versus sex-positive debate you were on.
Either way, you probably read Deneuve (before Catherine Deneuve sued for trademark infringement and it renamed itself Curve). Maud’s and Amelia’s had recently closed by the time I arrived, but the city was teeming with lesbians.
I remember clandestine meetings to smuggle AZT to Cuba, dancing at The Café in the Castro District and El Rio in the Mission, cocktails at the Patio, a screening of a movie about female ejaculation, and “In Bed with Fairy Butch” cabarets featuring raunchy dating games at the Coco Club.
Meanwhile in Berlin, the Soviet regime had collapsed and the entire city was rapidly being transformed by the products, cultural norms, aesthetics, and politics and queers that were now freely crossing the East-West divide.
It would be another 20 years before Berlin would become my new queer home, but since moving here I’ve heard dozens of first-hand accounts of Berlin “back in the day.”
One friend, a black lesbian raised in the East, grew up selling posters of Angela Davis in her Soviet tenement building to raise money for the party and to help free Angela. She made me repeat, endlessly, that yes, Angela was released from prison, yes, she was a full professor in the graduate program I attended, and yes, she and her partner lived happily in the Oakland Hills.
K and her circle of lesbian friends — who managed to find one another under the strict Soviet repressive regime — spent the night the wall came down drinking vodka, lighting fires of celebration, and dancing on cars.
Another friend lived in Schöneberg (the legendary gay area of West Berlin) since the 1980s. A tough, loud bully of a dyke well into her 50s by the time I met her, she spent her hedonistic late 80s creating high concept hair salons. It was easier to get her hands upon luxuries than cash, she explained, so naturally she paid her makeup artists in cocaine and caviar.
The underground music and art scenes were fierce: abandoned formerly-Soviet buildings were reclaimed by squatters, musicians, political collectives, artists, punks, intellectuals, and addicts.
When people ask why I left San Francisco, I joke that when San Francisco is no longer queer enough, there’s no place left but Berlin.
The reality is that the tech-frenzied economics of SF made it increasingly impossible for more than a lucky and/or privileged few to stay. I watched my circle of academic and queer/feminist artist friends dwindle as the Google buses took over the once bohemian city.
Soon, it was my turn.
I was a queer theory professor watching queer become precisely that — a theory, unhinged from the very somatic presences that created it.
When the Lexington closed in 2014, it signaled the end of an era dating at least back to the opening of Maud’s in 1966. I never even liked the Lex — I felt too old, too bourgeois, too something in its hipster-grunge atmosphere. I was never cool enough to pull off wearing longer t-shirts under shorter ones, and I don’t have a single tattoo, but along with everyone else, I recognized that its death was symbolic.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that lesbian culture has entirely disappeared.
In fact, there’s still one bona fide lesbian bar — Wild Side West — in Bernal Heights, and there are other “mixed” spaces like El Rio.
Also The Stud — the first worker-owned cooperative nightclub in the USA — is now partially owned by lesbians.
And indeed, the annual Dyke March — where thousands of dykes and friends gather all day in Dolores Park before the actual march in the evening — is still a sight to behold. I highly recommend anyone to plan a vacation around the Dyke March in late June (and Frameline, the June LGBT film festival preceding it).
The lesbians who didn’t partner up and move to Oakland to raise chickens and throw vegetarian dinner parties, or leave California entirely, tend to be professional lesbian couples in Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. While the lesbian bar is a historical relic, visitors can do Gay Stuff™ now by joining Meetups and Facebook groups ahead of time to find events such as Mecca 2.0, Lipstick Lesbian Meetup, and Lesbian Happy Hour — as well as groups like the Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Sierrans.
Meanwhile in Berlin, it feels like mid-90s San Francisco to me, back when the 4 Non Blondes implored us to question, “What’s going on?”
Back when folks still formed lesbian-feminist reading groups, and low-budget impromptu lesbian-queer porn screened in some basement where it took ages to get the projector going and truly awful wine was served out of a plastic cup for a dollar.
Compared to any major US city or European capital, Berlin is ridiculously affordable (although that is rapidly changing). Airbnb is illegal, but far be it from Berliners to obey the law. You’ll find lots of affordable housing in lesbian-populated neighborhoods of Neukölln, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauer Berg — loosely in that order according to age, hipster factor, and price range (with Prenzlauer Berg more known for its upscale boutiques and adorably pretentious eateries than the grit and graffiti that makes Berlin famously “poor but sexy”).
Schöneberg is the most famous gay (read: male) district. It’s home to Christopher Isherwood’s Cabaret as well as Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. The streets around Nollendorfplatz host the annual pre-Pride street festival Lesbisch-Schwules Stadtfest in July, which — to me — is even better than actual Pride (also known as CSD, Christopher Street Day). If you go, take the U-Bahn to Nollendorfplatz station and emerge to the sight of a huge rainbow made of balloons and the sound of something gay blasting from one of the six music stages. Surrounding streets are filled with festival-goers, concerts, drag performances, and booths disseminating and selling information, stickers, buttons, sex toys, fashion, food, drinks, and whipping experiences.
If you can’t make it in June, Schöneberg is gay (90% male) all year round, akin to what SF’s Castro used to be: rainbow flags on every other café, salon, boutique, and fetish clothing store in sight. No gay explorations would be complete without a visit to Romeo and Romeo café with its rainbow cakes, Prinz Eisenherz gay bookstore, and the Schwules Museum.
Lesbians frequently aggregate in Kreuzberg, formerly a predominantly Turkish area of East Berlin. The Dyke March starts here, where some of the most beloved lesbian hangouts exist.
Südblock functions as a kind of ground zero for Berlin’s FLTI* (women (Frauen)-lesbian (Lesben)-trans(Trans)-inter(Intergeniale) and beyond(*)) community. It is an urban beer garden, has a popular Sunday brunch, and hosts regular queer readings, concerts, karaoke, and quiz nights. It’s also one of the main hosts of the Xposed Queer Film Festival in May.
Nearby is Möbel-Olfe (Möbel = furniture…think sofas glued to the ceiling and other whimsical design nods to the fact that the space was formerly a furniture store). Tuesday nights are a lesbian trans* disco party.
Also do not miss SO36’s Café Fatale on Sunday, where you will see fierce queer ballroom dancing. This historical venue hosts 80s parties, roller disco, old school hip-hop, and — on Fridays — a hilarious party called My Ugly X: EuroDance, Bad Taste & Trash. In coordination with the Dyke March, SO36 sponsors a women and trans live concert and DJ line-up called “Music is My Gender.”
There’s also the Girls Town party at Gretchen Club on the second Saturday every other month.
Kreuzberg’s Other Nature Alternativer Sexladen is well worth checking out. Akin to Good Vibes in SF, they describe themselves as “a feminist, queer-oriented, eco-friendly, vegan sex shop.” Their regular workshops include topics like navigating poly, rope play, butt toys for beginners, and a whirlwind tour of their top 10 dildos. Don’t be intimidated if none of that is your thing — the staff is super friendly and makes no assumptions.
Another Country bookshop, also in Kreuzberg, once a month hosts Queer Stories, an incredibly creative and supportive community that offers a space for poets, authors, musicians, and appreciators to gather, eat, and perform (in English). Find them and RSVP on Facebook as space can be limited.
Before I go on to the next cool district, a few observations about gender in Berlin.
(Disclaimer: I’m sure some would vehemently disagree — but that could be said of anything in Germany, as vehemently disagreeing is practically a national sport.)
To help foreigners understand German women, there used to be an online game called “Lesbian or German Lady?” Viewers would look at different photos and guess whether the woman in the picture was a lesbian or a (straight) German. No matter how good you thought your gaydar was, you were bound to score low.
Even though I used to be a gender/sexuality professor and consider myself quite the expert in the nuances and subtleties of gender presentation, I regularly confuse hardcore dykes with German “ladies.” Just when I think I spot a super hot butch, (here I’m using “butch” as an aesthetic-style-attitude-walk-demeanor), she turns to her husband for an affectionate kiss.
You won’t find the kind of performative pleasure in butch that you see in the USA (even in Miami and LA now!), and good luck finding a stud, diesel dyke, or an old-school butch who opens doors for her date and takes pride in her suspenders, neck ties, and men’s shoes. Especially among the 20-something crowd, butch is outdated or shunned (unless you define butch as the absence of femme, which I do not).
Spotting a femme is equally rare, unless you define femme as the absence of butch, or as the mere presence of long hair (which I decidedly do not). Unless looking into a mirror counts, I have never seen a well-manicured woman wearing lipstick, cute shoes, a dress or skirt, and jewelry at a lesbian venue in all of my years here .
German lesbian couples often resemble one another. Much of the younger generation sees itself as “beyond” gender. Germans are sensible, and German lesbians especially so. Their feminist principles are sensible. Their clothes are sensible. Their haircuts are sensible. Their shoes are extremely sensible, as are their backpacks, rain gear, and bicycle helmets. The jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers they wore that day will do that night.
As a high femme, I’ve found far more camaraderie with trans women, gay men, Scandinavians, and punks who also enjoy cultivating their presentation than I have with Berlin lesbians. Whichever district you are in — whether it is day or night, a picnic or a club — you will even stand out if you match.
A friend recently attended a GLBT gala in the German Parliament building the night gay marriage was legalized. Momentarily assuming “gala” meant formal, I asked what she wore. I shouldn’t have asked. Jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, and probably some rain gear and a backpack.
Apart from the fetish scene, Berliner lesbians don’t “get ready” for an evening out.
Speaking of fetish: if you have the nerve to follow the dress code, KitKatClub — while not specifically lesbian or gay — is a queer must, as is Easter Fetish Week and Folsom Europe in September.
Leather, latex and nudity rule in the BDSM/fetish/kink scene. If this is your thing, check out Femme Fatalities, which throws play parties for women-trans-genderqueer-intersex throughout the year as well as FoK (Festival of Kink) in October.
The first time I went to KitKat (on a dare), I wore a Catholic schoolgirl outfit that I felt certain would pass the door test. I was instructed to remove my bra, unbutton my white shirt, and tie it at the waist if I wanted entrance.
My date, dressed in fetish military attire, was required to remove her tank top so that all she had on above her waist were army dog tags. At KitKat, like other Berlin sex clubs, any sex, age, size, and solitary-coupled-or-group sex act goes, so consider yourself forewarned.
Back in paraphilia-free world, in Friedrichshain, Himmelreich is a great mixed lesbigay bar.
Friedrichshain also has an annual LesBiSchwules park festival in August.
Further south is the Bezirk (neighborhood) of Neukölln, where the cool kids live in Berlin’s historically immigrant, current hipster ghetto. Here you’ll find another kind of venue almost non-existent in America: leftist, alternative, queer political bars.
Tristeza is a FLTI* space that defines itself as “a leftist, unparliamentary infrastructure.” Tips are donated to emancipatory projects and the staff is committed to fighting discrimination everywhere.
Similar is SilverFuture, “For Kings and Queens and Criminal Queers.” The sign above the bar tells you to leave your heteronormativity at the doo.
And there’s B-Lage, a typical leftist cozy neighborhood pub that supports anti-capitalist organizations and whose policy states, “We do not tolerate sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic or other discriminatory or transnational behavior.”
For a less political gay spot in Neukölln there is Schwuz, a huge gay nightclub that sometimes hosts the monthly L-Tunes party (a must!), but the party roams so check their website for details.
And finally: before you visit, join L-night Berlin.
It’s a group of English-speaking lesbian-identified FLTI* queers who gather at a different bar every Tuesday. It’s a friendly, non-intimidating group. And, if you let me know in advance, I can meet you there.
Peruse L-MAG and consider booking an afternoon with the brilliant and charming Finn Ballard, a curator at the gay museum who also offers queer walking tours focusing on Berlin’s history of gender variance and sexual liberation.
The queer journey I made from Smith College to San Francisco in the early 90s is no longer possible for most young lesbians, and even the price of a vacation surpasses many budgets. The San Francisco that I loved so dearly and so queerly disappears more with each passing year.
When I visited last year, the buildings were the same, but the faces were different and the energy was gone. Its residents pay some of the highest rent in the nation (easily over $3,000 USD for a 1-bedroom apartment), but it’s the city itself that has paid the ultimate price of replacing its queer, artistic, intellectual, and multi-ethnic makeup with Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, and Tesla.
Meanwhile in Berlin, where you can still find 1-bedrooms for under $650 and a night out can easily be had for $20, queer life thrives because queers — of multiple age groups, income levels, nationalities, and educational levels — can thrive.
Berlin is known as Europe’s queerest city, and if you haven’t discovered it yet, now might be the perfect time to start planning next year’s vacation.