Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Rainbow in Berlin

Last weekend I woke up in the very middle-class Schoeneberg district of Berlin to find I was in the middle of Europe’s largest gay and lesbian street-party.

Schoeneberg has in fact been the gay centre of Berlin since the 1920s and outside the local metro station there’s a plaque commemorating the thousands of homosexuals who were persecuted under the third Reich: one reason why the gay scene in Berlin is pretty politicised. The rainbow monument has just been re-erected - this is also a reminder of the pink triangle used to stigmatise homosexuals in the concentration camps.

Now in its 15th year, the festival was founded by Schoeneberg’s former mayor - Dr Elizabeth Ziemer, who’s gay, and this year, Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit received the Rainbow Award. However, walking through the one mile of back streets where the festival takes place, I was handed a number of leaflets by support groups and services – from counselling for young lesbians to gay parenting - which indicate that even in Berlin being gay is still not easy. And the local Green Party newsletter highlights the fact that the Berlin Senate will be closing the AIDS and STD advice centre in north Schoeneberg which is recognised as a model of integrated practice and success in prevention, particularly with young migrant women working as prostitutes.

The party finished with a concert by Berlin’s favourite women’s group Die Kusinen. A nice touch here was the little old couple (man and woman) sitting out on the balcony of their second floor apartment with a great view of the main stage while the fabulous blonde foursome played heavy metal to a backcloth of ‘Sexual Democracy’.

The rainbow theme continued for the whole of last week. I passed on the Gay Night at the Zoo “singing and swinging among elephants, tigers and penguins with Danny van Blond” and the boat trip on the river Spree, which culminated in the finals of the Durex gay top-model model contest - part of its better and safer sex campaign. But I caught up with the annual CSD parade on Saturday 23rd June - which involved thousands of people in a 5 kilometer-long loud colourful movement across the city, from the memorial church at Kurfuerstendamm to the Victory statue.

The motto this year was “diversity seeks work” with the parade constituting a massive demonstration of Berlin’s gay and lesbian community against discrimination in employment.

In fact, one of Berlin’s larger employers, the combined public transport service BVG has had an equal opportunities policy since before European law was implemented in Germany and they are one of the main sponsors of rainbow events.
These actually started on the 9th June with the Berlin Respect Gaymes – an initiative championed by prominent gay sportsmen and women, aimed at promoting tolerance and sexual democracy among school-children through friendly competitions open to all. Because unfortunately, according to the BVG magazine, the word “gay” is still the worst taunt in the playground. *

Things don’t seem to change. But at least there was a very low-key police presence, unlike at the anti-G8 demonstrations in May – and during the actual G8 summit. I’m afraid to say the Berlin police force are tied up in trying to prevent self-styled “autonomists” from senselessly setting fire to cars in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts. Meanwhile I read that the Telecom workers, after five weeks of strike action, have had to concede defeat, returning to work with longer hours for lower pay.

We had a heat-wave in April and giant hailstones in June. It even rained on the CSD parade. The environmental lobby have yet to see any concrete steps taken by Angela Merkel’s government to address the problem of carbon emissions - despite G8 statements.

I love Berlin, but Germany’s political climate is such that you only get to see a rainbow once a year.

* My landlord tells me that, unbelievably, the other common taunt is ‘Opfer’. This means ‘victim’ and is the word used in the many memorials in Berlin to the millions who died in the holocaust.

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