by John Grube
Anyone really interested in gay history has to know German. After all, most of what Magnus Hirschfeld, Kurt Hiller and other movement founders wrote remains untranslated. That's what led me to spend eight weeks in Bremen, Germany, last summer at the government-connected Goethe Institute's intensive language school. It was quite a shock going back to being a student, studying grammar and vocabulary five hours a day and adjusting to a different culture.
Apart from talking to the other foreigners in class, how I was to practise my German conversation? Luckily I had brought along the Spartacus gay guide.
Bremen had a Rat und Tat Zentrum (advice and action centre), apparently a gay community centre with groups meeting regularly and dealing with coming out, athletics, AA, AIDS-related problems and other gay concerns. Of course Bremen also has cruise bars and saunas. I read that Rat und Tat had a Café Homolulu, so I popped over one day to drink coffee and read Die Zeit.
That first visit, I didn't have the courage to approach anyone, my conversational German seemed to me so schrecklich (awful). Then I noticed in a flyer that the Homolulu held a Sunday afternoon Kaffeeklatsch. I was hesitating in the street outside next Sunday when a member came out, chatted with me and invited me to sit at his table with his friends. They survived my conversational German (Germans are more tolerant than the French in these matters) and I began to make acquaintances.
At this point I decided to join the Monday night group whose slogan was: So you're out, now what? The group leader explained the rules. The two-hour session start with a short silence, then each member of the circle introduces himself and talks about the past week. The group then decides on a topic for the evening. All discussions must remain confidential.
I must say the discussions were frank and therapeutic: large areas of gay fife were explored, from relationships (Beziehungen) to oppression in the workplace. We came to grips with the real problems of real people. There was an extraordinary and accepting mix of age groups, from men in their 60s to men in their early 20s, and a wide spectrum of occupation and social status. Towards the end of my stay I persuaded them to discuss hustlers (Strichjungen) and the role they play in the gay community. Again, there was a remarkable openness to new approaches.
Bremen is a rather reserved and conservative North German city, although it has a long and honourable Social Democratic (NDP-like) tradition. The Rat und Tat Zentrum's existence is due to hard and intelligent lobbying of all parties in the city government, which, together with some wealthy gay individuals, kicked in enough money to buy a modest building and keep the centre funded. The real triumphs, though, are that the gay leaders with strong egos were able to pull together, for once, and that the Zentrum really has become an important and healthy focal point in the lives of many individual men and women.
For example, the group travelled to the Auschwitz concentration camp in the company of an elderly man from Bremerhaven (a suburb of Bremen) who was sent there during Word War II because he was gay. He had survived only because authorities needed his medical expertise. It was a deeply moving experience for all involved, including the Catholic Polish hosts. With the help of Jörg Hutter, a gay studies researcher at the University of Bremen, relevant archives of the camp were opened up for this, the first visit of a gay group.
I also learned that the Bremen group had given a good deal of moral support and encouragement to the Rat und Tat Zentrum of Bremen's partner city, Rostock, in the former East Germany, as the repressive regime began to crumble. And the Lutheran Church in East Germany gave shelter to budding gay liberation groups, rather as Toronto's Anglican Holy Trinity church was the only venue available for gay dances and meetings in the early '70s.
In a way, my summer trip was a new kind of gay tourism. Sure. we've always been part of an international freemasonry and it's quite easy to build up an address list of contacts all over the place. And, God bless them, you can always meet people in the baths and cruise bars. But it's really only in recent years, with the growth of an aboveground gay community, that you can travel and plug into communities of men and women with whom you share a wider variety of interests. It's a kind of tourism I highly recommend.
John Grube lives and teaches in Toronto. His latest book, Une Amitié bien particulière, was published by Boréal in 1990.
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