“Perhaps it is easiest to see things first where you don’t take them for granted.” –Jane Jacobs
Berlin’s Tiergarten curls along the Spree River, a natural wilderness within a paved one. I enter the park from the east, where the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe meets Ebertstraße, and a crosswalk takes me to the enigmatic cube I’ve been hoping to find: the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. A gunmetal day in April seems appropriate for a tryst with this monument to history that is mine, even though it is not mine . I wait for a straight couple to peer through the small window, look at one another, and wander away before approaching with my boyfriend, Nick.
I feel obvious, like passersby are nodding to themselves, taking pity on me, recognizing my aura of desperation as that of every faggot who has stood where I am now. It’s the same one that drives us to Bethesda Fountain in Central Park as soon as we’ve seen Angels in America . I am an orphan and Bethesda is where my parents reside. They were orphans, too, and Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen is where their parents reside: generations who faced annihilation.
The concrete sculpture is cold, severe, dark. It resists reminders of beauty. In May 1933, more than one hundred students raided the Institute for Sexual Science, a project near Tiergarten that was run by Magnus Hirschfeld, an early advocate for homosexuality. The Jewish researcher’s archives were confiscated and then burned publicly along with other “un-German” texts. Two years later, the Nazi Party expanded their Munich concentration camp, Dachau, to house Jehovah’s Witnesses, emigrants, and homosexuals. The lattermost were made to wear pink triangles, the scarlet letter of their crime.
It’s difficult for someone like me—a white, cisgender, and Christian American male—to imagine being locked up for simply being gay. Beaten, sure. Fired, excommunicated, kicked out of the house—absolutely. The laws in my country have been changing for the better, but queers are still unsafe on the street, at night, in the bathroom. Our society is what we call “evolving on the issue,” and taking our time at it. But it’s not a concentration camp, either. We don’t prosecute for a kiss, nor castrate after conviction. So when I stand at this historical peepshow, I don’t know what to expect. Nick inspects the monument’s exterior, but I have to look inside.
Few other landmarks have made my list to visit; I aspire to let the city carry me the way it did Christopher Isherwood and David Bowie. Theirs are the Berlins I wish to visit. Cabaret makes it feel warm, a gathering place set apart from the world, where strangers become lovers and lovers become friends. In reality I only manage to map out locations that Bowie ruminates over in his late-life single “Where Are We Now?”—Potsdamer Platz, Nürnberger Straße, KaDeWe—in hopes that by some geomancy, they will lead me to the artistic and homosocial Berlin I’ve envied. The ghosts could be everywhere; I wish I could see them.
The closest I come are the hazy figures in the viewing slot: two young men in nylon jackets. The film’s aesthetic is peak nineties. Their eyes are closed and they are kissing in the park. With tongue.
Always having known that I am gay does nothing to undo the conditioning I’ve experienced in a straight world, the homophobia that I have internalized. When I see these men, their mouths pressed together, locked in a moment of passion, my immediate sense is of how foreign it looks. Though I have enjoyed this very act numerous times, I don’t recognize myself in it. Instead, I’m reminded of the scared, closeted boy I was in the nineties, and feel the shame well up inside me again. That shame for who I am, though, twists into shame for how long it’s taken me to embrace it. How calculating I was in coming out. How hesitant I am to publicly display my affection. How ignorant I am of what these men share aside from a libido.
Almost thirty now, I am plagued by doubt as to if I am gay enough. Sure, we’re all born this way—or at least have been since Germans like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs said so in the 1860s—but lately I have been yearning to discover how, as David Halperin denotes in How to Be Gay , “men who already are gay acquire a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a shared sense of self, an awareness of belonging to a specific social group, and a distinctive sensibility or subjectivity.” We’re not raised in this milieu. We have to find it. Halperin calls this the paradox of how “you become who you are.”
Moreover, I feel starved for examples of how men shape their lives together. My straight friends have built-in role models amongst their families and their churches and their offices and everywhere in media, for how to carry themselves in the world, for what they may face in years ahead. I know how fags fuck, but if there is more to a satisfying life than coming, you certainly wouldn’t know it from that subgenre of horror, the gay-interest film, in which all plots pivot on tragedy.
Stepping back from the glass, I glance around to find Nick, who has wandered to the back of the memorial. After five years together, he is my foil—analytical where I am emotional, reserved where I rush ahead. “What’s in there?” he asks.
“Two men kissing.” In retrospect, it reminds me of a German movie I watched on Netflix a year before. Free Fall spends a lot of time in the woods, police officers running through the rain as part of their training course. One man kisses another, they fool around, and it’s all downhill from there: violence, absence of consent, a broken family, isolation. It’s not as bad as others, in which suicide and overdoses prevail, but the message is clear—from Brokeback Mountain to The Birdcage —queerness is a point of distress. For our whole lives, we may only ever address the tension of (realizing) identity. (Unless we’re on Modern Family , and then sexless suburban consumerism becomes the particular circle of hell we’re subjected to.) But that’s Hollywood, not real life.
Of course, if I’d known an out person before I was twenty, maybe those narratives wouldn’t feel so significant to my mind. In the kultur360 essay “Is Love All You Need?” Annika Orich, associate editor for the German culture site, criticized Free Fall for its failure to achieve director Stephan Lacant’s aim of transcending issues of homosexuality and homophobia. “Because,” she writes, “these two motifs remain the constant catalysts for conflicts and topics of arguments throughout.” Again and again we are served up the same slice of life in art purporting to be for us: a week of bliss and a lifetime of agony; chronic illness and death; incarceration and chemical castration. I want more art like Matthew Griffin’s novel Hide , in which men are allowed to love each other for decades without dying. In many ways I think of it as a direct descendant of Isherwood's A Single Man , but instead of focusing on the fallout of a tragic death, Griffin homes in on the many years of partnership.
And so I pine for the two men kissing. At the core of my shame and frustration lies a potent desire to be them. They get to live on in a passionate loop, while the rest of us must figure out how to survive in an increasingly unaffordable city without succumbing to the blandness of gentrification. I recognize that the stakes of annihilation are weightier than those of assimilation, but both threaten to stamp out nuance. When even gay artists can only imagine agony and isolation as they tell our stories, sex becomes the only part of the gay lifestyle with any life left in it.
Foot traffic in the park is increasing in spite of the drizzle. As Nick returns to the front of the concrete block to peer inside, I watch people go about their Saturday and imagine duskier hours, when the surrounding groves and underbrush might become clandestine spaces for public sex. Cruising, like so much of gay culture, is a known unknown in the deposition of my desires. I recall reading Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You and feeling regret that for all the times that I’ve shot meaningful glances across the men’s room, my experiences hooking up have been prearranged through an app. Perhaps the end result is the same, but I can't be sure. For every technological advancement, there is a corresponding and often immeasurable forfeiture.
Clearly it hasn’t taken Tiergarten to stir up my insecurities—they roil constantly just below the surface. I’m torn between the present and the past; I want to preserve the experiences of others in order to maintain a robust understanding of gay idiosyncrasies. So I dig. I network. And listen. And snoop. And read read read read read. But the more I read, the less I feel satiated. Converging on the personal, the salacious, and the academic, every history and memoir and documentary and novel leaves me wishing I could have met this incredible person and seen the world through their eyes. Wishing I could have been them just for a day. Been with them just for a night.
It is a desperation that intensifies when those people have walked the same streets that I am now, like I am chasing down someone who has just turned the corner. In the Seattle of the forties, gays could be found among the disreputable scurf along First Avenue, and especially in the Garden of Allah, a female-impersonator cabaret catty-corner to the Seattle Art Museum—and mere steps from my office now. It was “the hot spot and gay people always know where the hot spots are,” Bill Parkin, an active member of the city’s gay scene until he died in 2014, says in an interview for An Evening at the Garden of Allah . “It was daring and romantic and a place where you expected to have fun . . . it was ‘our place.’”
The Garden closed in the fifties. Evening author Don Paulson never saw it, even though he had been in the right places at the right times to have stumbled inside—he had just overlooked it. People regaled him with tales that made him jealous. “I began to feel I had missed out on something very special,” he says in the book’s introduction. Citing the “mystical quality” that the Garden had developed in his mind, he dove into research. “It took me years to discover the diversity among gay and lesbian people; I could have learned about that in one evening at the Garden of Allah.”
The Seattle Public Library has only one copy of Paulson’s book on hand, and it is not allowed into circulation. When asked why so few and why so strict, a queer librarian explained that it is because the rest were likely vandalized or destroyed. As he spoke, he choked up. He described archives—including smut—that have been lost or never entered at all. My heart grew heavy as those known unknowns gave way into the abyss of unknown unknowns. The desecration of our history threatens to leave us with only the broadest brushstrokes of Holocaust and Stonewall and AIDS, with little room for the nuance of a thriving interbellum gay culture at the Garden of Allah and in Isherwood’s Berlin. How many ebullient pockets don’t we remember at all?
As I prepared to visit Germany, a friend and colleague urged me to read Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity , in which I would learn about the “first public coming-out in modern history” that Ulrichs staged in 1867. Much like Evening , Beachy’s history would serve to educate me on a booming gay scene and activism before Nazi persecution. (Disappointingly and rather ironically, significant members expressed staunch nationalism and vehement anti-Semitism. Even more disappointing is to recognize their reflection in the gays of my day, who cite LGBTQ safety and wellbeing as an excuse for their naked Islamophobia and American exceptionalism.) Beachy challenges the common oral tradition of my generation: Before Stonewall, we had nothing.
At this point I hear the cries of Rabih Alameddine’s aging gay poet in The Angel of History . “How can you not know your history . . . ? You with your righteous apathy, how can you allow the world to forget us, to delete our existence, the grand elision of queer history?” I am rebuked, even as I channel that rage at my peers for their continued prejudices and their elisions. For every tragic film about homophobia, I should be able to name hundreds that reflect the ways queer people have related to one another for centuries.
But the knowledge of such representation doesn't get passed in classrooms, or from parents to children; it is piecemeal, scattered and hidden. Any pleasure in discovery is diminished when I consider what we might lose as yet another generation turns, as the memories of our grandparents are lost within the deaths of our parents. When David Rakoff passed, I felt like I’d lost a member of my family. I read his sardonic essays when I first moved to Seattle. His humor soothed me through the coming-out process. He visited town on tour for Half Empty , and several months later I watched him dance for a live performance of This American Life —both on dates with Nick—Rakoff looking reedier as his lymphoma spread. The news of his death devastated me. He’d taught me so much about being a contrary gay man (I think often of our shared disdain for that singing telegram from AIDS, Rent ), and then he was gone.
This is why I come to sites like Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen . Amidst my shame and regret grows the sober resolve to make the future a gayer place. I want to be a librarian, caring for my elders’ ecstasy as much as their agony, passing their stories along to those who will come after me. I want to be part of this record, not just passively watch it fade or stolen from us by time, negligence, malice.
The tide of history crashes over my head as Nick and I wander out of Tiergarten and into the bustle of city streets, but my newfound resolve is settling in strong. We are headed to Bebelplatz, where the most famous Nazi book burning took place. We cross Friedrichstraße near Unter den Linden, and I get pick-pocketed.
I sense it immediately. For fifteen minutes I spit rage. I forget every broken word of German that I learned in the past two months as I shout at a man my age to give me back my phone. Nick is by my side, calmer but still bristled, repeating my demands. It becomes ridiculously circular. I wonder if we should be capable of compounding our efforts instead of reduplicating what has already been said.
The altercation is brief and yet it seems to take all afternoon. I eventually get my phone back, but I don’t feel my dignity return. For the rest of the trip I will be paranoid about my possessions. Walking onward, we recite what just happened. What we’d each done. What we’d do differently in the future. We repeat this again and again until we reach Bebelplatz, a pavilion between an opera house and a university hall.
At first, we miss the memorial; it doesn’t exactly announce itself. A glass square lies in the pavement near one end of the plaza, and we only notice because a small gathering of people have been staring at the ground for several minutes now. When it’s our turn to look down, I see. My heart sinks. Through the glass, there is a small room of bookshelves. All empty. Another wave crashes. I feel the pull of loss and must cling to the little I have amassed to remain standing. There is a protective urge to recede when the world robs you, but giving up forfeits more than even the clumsiest archivist might. Though my library may never be complete, it offers a working knowledge far more accessible than bare shelves behind glass.