By Loann Halden
Originally published on Advocate.com August 20 2009 12:00 AM ET
Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, a.k.a. "Wowi," could easily pose as the Euro-pol poster child for coming out on the job. The public statement he made six days before his 2001 election, "Ich bin schwul und das ist auch gut so" -- "I'm gay and that's a good thing" -- has become a catchphrase for Germans emerging from the closet; and the Social Democrat's approval ratings remain high, currently an 8.9 out of 10 on the site of international think tank City Mayors . Paparazzi have no trouble snagging shots of him with his partner, neurosurgeon Jörn Kubicki, with whom he's lived for four years; the couple met at Bar Centrale on Yorckstrasse in 1993.
As the city celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall tumbling down with a series of events and exhibitions, Advocate.com checks in with the mayor on the state of his LGBT nation and collects travel tips for the Wowi-branded "poor but sexy" capital where life is still a queer cabaret.
Advocate.com:Germany, which established domestic-partnership legislation for same-sex couples in 2001, has some of Europe's most progressive laws for LGBT people, but there are still more steps to full equality. How would you assess the current situation for gays in Berlin? What areas of law still need work?Klaus Wowereit: The climate in Berlin is one of tolerance and openness, as well as liberality and internationality. That is what makes our city so attractive to gays and lesbians from all over the world. At the same time, however, we have to recognize that there are still occasional attacks, like the vandalism of the memorial to gays and lesbians persecuted under National Socialism. Both I and the general public condemned these attacks. Unfortunately, there are still some die-hard fanatics out there. That is one reason why I also support the initiative of Germany's Lesben- und Schwulenverband (Gay and Lesbian Association) for an addition to the constitutional article that makes equality a basic right in Germany; no one should be disadvantaged or privileged because of his or her sexual identity, either.
This is a milestone year for Berlin. What were you doing on November 9, 1989, when you heard that the Wall had fallen?I remember it very well. A retired relative was visiting us from the GDR (the German Democratic Republic/East Germany) on that historic Thursday. We lived in Lichtenrade, in the southern part of West Berlin. We had eaten dinner at a Chinese restaurant that night, and my mother and our visitor were already asleep when one of our neighbors called. He was almost beside himself and said that I should put away my files -- I was a city councilor at the time -- and turn on the TV. He said, "You won't believe your eyes, Klaus" -- and it was true, it was hard to believe what I was seeing. The Wall was open. Over the next few weeks and months, the fall of the Wall governed my work too, as I focused on the first steps towards bringing our two cities together. It was a marvelous time, one that I enjoy looking back on. That's why I'm especially looking forward to the commemorative event being held at the former Lichtenrade-Mahlow border crossing in November, which I plan to attend.
You famously outed yourself in 2001. How has that decision impacted your career?My personal and political friends had known for a long time that I was gay, but [as] I was about to take on a major political office, I didn't want to risk a forced outing by the mass media. I wanted to take the offensive, not least in order to maintain some control with regard to the media and to protect my own privacy. This decision was part of an efficient strategy to strengthen my credibility as a politician and it was the right decision; that is my experience.
When visiting Berlin, where are the best neighborhoods to meet LGBT locals? The Nollendorf area in Schöneberg and, in the eastern part of the city, Prenzlauer Berg. My suggestion would be that you go to one of these areas and just wander around and let yourself discover the city and its people.
What are your top three recommendations for LGBT visitors to the city -- the places that you would take your gay or lesbian friends. I would think in terms of three categories: culture, shopping, and nightlife. You could start out with a visit to the Schwules Museum (Gay and Lesbian Museum) in Kreuzberg, then head off to Berlin's shopping streets -- department store KaDeWe is an absolute must! -- and, finally, make your way to Schöneberg, as mentioned above. Around Nollendorfplatz there are lots of bars and restaurants where the gay community also likes to get together. But Berlin has a lot more to offer too. Great places to browse and shop include the trendy shops on and around Münzstrasse in Mitte and, of course, Kollwitzplatz.
Where is your favorite place to unwind in the city? I like to relax by playing golf just outside the city. The surrounding countryside is one of the things that makes Berlin so fascinating. On the weekend, Berliners like to go by car or [the S-Bahn ] to the countryside, where they have lots of relaxing options along lakes and rivers, in the woods, and on day trips offering nature and culture alike. And in the summer, some are willing to make an even longer drive to, for instance, the beaches on the Baltic Sea islands of Rügen and Usedom.
When in Berlin, don't miss
- Mingling in Kreuzberg , where punk rock once ruled and a gritty alt-gay scene has bubbled beneath the surface ever since. An eclectic mix of Berliners and expats rub elbows at Roses (Oranienstrasse 187; 30-615-65-70), a comfortable and affordable gay watering hole where a surreal brand of Germanized kitsch runs rampant, right up the plush, pink walls.
- Hitting Schöneberg , the oldest gayborhood in the city, with a strong queer presence dating back to the Weimar-era 1920s. Here you'll find Tom's Bar (Motzstrasse 19), a divey joint with a long history of catering to gay men on the prowl. The further you plunge into its depths, the cruisier it gets. Those with tastes ranging from theme parties and quiz shows (in English on the first Monday of the month) to dark rooms and leather veer next door to trendier Hafen (Motzstrasse 19), which caters to men and women -- with a fair number of tourists in the mix.
- Taking Berlin's gay mayor up on his suggestion (see Q&A) to visit the city's LGBT museum. Located in Kreuzberg, the Schwules Museum combines archives, a library, and exhibitions -- it's far more moving than you might think.
- Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the city's reunification . Events kicked off in May and run through the November 9 anniversary, which will feature a staging of the fall of the Berlin Wall, concerts, and a street festival at the Brandenburg Gate. Summer travelers take note: On August 29 museums remain open late for concerts, readings, theater, and special exhibitions to commemorate the 1989 merging of East and West ( brochure opens as a PDF).
Also, check Out Traveler's Unconventional Travel: Berlin to plan a perfect gay weekend or read about a more extensive trip-planning guide to the German capital.