This past week was my core course’s trip to Berlin to study gender and sexuality history and activism throughout the city. I know Germany has a very unique history but I was really taken aback by how much I learned and also how different Berlin is from any place I have been before. It’s really hard to summarize this week in a single blog post so I am going to make a list of some of the most important/interesting things I learned on my trip, about LGBT history, German history, and also about myself!
1. Berlin is a QUEER city
And I mean this in the best of ways. Our first day in Berlin we did a “queer walking tour” around the neighborhood Schöneberg, which is most known as a meeting place for the gay community, with an incredibly rich history. I’ve never seen a city area so covered in pride flags. Berlin was one of the leaders of the LGBT movement through the 20th century, so this neighborhood was booming with gay bars and clubs and other spaces through the 1920s. However, the community had to rebuild after horrific persecution during World War II, and then during the Soviet era as well. Today there are various landmarks which memorialize the struggle of the LGBT citizens during this time, and there are still many clubs and events for the queer community in this area.
2. The escalation and aftermath of the Holocaust was more complex than I thought
One of the more sobering visits we took during our week was to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which is located just outside of Berlin. It’s one thing to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust in a classroom, but a totally different thing to see for yourself where these people were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. I hadn’t realized that many people who lived in the areas surrounding the camp and throughout Germany, and even people imprisoned there, had no idea of the atrocities being committed in the confines of the walls, and it was only after the war ended that it was discovered. I also was very surprised to realize that the Soviets actually kept the camp running throughout the 1950s for their own purposes. For example, being a gay man was still illegal under Soviet rule, so many of those people were re-imprisoned even after the war. I’ve learned about World War II a lot throughout my life, but this visit brought up a lot of emotional connection and opened my eyes to aspects of this time that I had never experienced.
3. Drag is a significant cultural influence in the queer community
One of my favorite workshops of the trip was a discussion with drag queen Olympia Bukkakis. This was a good addition to the discussions we had in class about drag and how it highlights some of the transphobia and exclusion that exists in the community. I had no experience before this course discussing drag through an academic lens, but it definitely takes up a huge space in queer representation and community and is worth discussing. Olympia showed us some performances of what she calls “alternative drag” and discussed how drag is an important part of gender exploration for non binary and trans people in particular. I learned that drag doesn’t have to be just what we see on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, but it can be political and weird and thought provoking. I came out of this workshop feeling her strength and empowerment having rubbed off on me a little.
4. It is important to have the courage to explore new places alone
I realized in Berlin that I have a huge problem with going to new places alone, especially in Berlin which is a little bit more chaotic than Stockholm since it’s such a bigger city. We had a lot of free time while we were there and I found myself wanting to do things that no one else in my class wanted to do so I was really nervous that I wouldn’t get a chance to do that if no one came with me. But I told myself that getting around really isn’t that hard! And that worst thing that could happen is I get a little lost and it takes me some extra time to get home. I’m so glad I did that because I saw some of the highlights of my trip while I was out alone. I think this is an issue that maybe a lot of people struggle with and I know I’ve had a lot of anxiety about since being here, but every time I push myself out of my comfort zone I’m so happy I did.
5. There is so much more to learn!
Despite all the incredibly interesting things I learned on this trip, I think the biggest take away was that I know SO little about world history and queer history in different cultures. This week has really highlighted for me a little bit of the failings of American education maybe, considering I didn’t even know what communism was until I was in college, and hardly realized the profound influence it has had on many European countries, specifically in relation to the LGBT rights movement. Of course to know that you know nothing is a good thing in a way, as I feel a renewed sense of curiosity and eagerness to revisit pieces of history which I thought I knew a lot about, like World War II.
This is not a definitive list of all the things I saw, did, and learned during my trip, but these are the major highlights and my favorite experiences.
Berlin is an incredibly unique and passionate city from what I gathered, and I can’t wait to return there some day! This was definitely the highlight of my time abroad so far.