Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Gay Day in Berlin

"You have to make a decision to come out every day. You can't just do it once and be done with it."

So my friend, Dan, had said in a discussion we'd had at lunch on Thursday as I told him about the day trips I had taken out of Paris earlier in the week. The topic of conversation had invariably come around, as I and my fellow tour-mates chatted, to my profession, my family, the fact that I'm retired and why, etc. This led to me talking about Mark, how we had both retired when he was diagnosed, and of course, implicit in those statements is the fact that I'm gay. 

I thought about this conversation throughout the day yesterday as I contemplated a couple of experiences I had as I set out on my walk of discovery across Berlin ...

A canal I passed on the way to the Tiergarten

I was so surprised to see them that my first instincts kicked in. I had set out on my own walking tour of Berlin and was approaching the Tiergarten - Berlin's version of Central Park - when two young men in white shirts approached me with big smiles and black name tags on their shirt pockets, speaking in German and arm extended, offering me some sort of brochure. Mormon missionaries.

I simply smiled and waved and shook my head and walked on. 

Then, a block further on, it happened again. I heard the sound of an electronic piano playing "I Need Thee Every Hour," a Mormon hymn; then before I knew it, I was approached by another set of young smiling faces, speaking in German. Behind them, I could see I was in front of a Mormon church. A young sister missionary was seated at the piano, set up at the end of the sidewalk leading to the church entrance. Again, I was so surprised to find myself in this tableau that I once again just waved my hand, smiled, shook my head and walked on.

The LDS (Mormon) Church that I passed

The Victoria statue atop the Siegessäule

I thought about these encounters as I walked on into the Tiergarten toward the Siegessäule - a large column in the middle of the park. My reaction had been the same as it has been ever since leaving the LDS Church, i.e., to avoid contact, to avoid interaction. What would I say to them? "I'm from Salt Lake City, but I'm not Mormon," or, "I'm from Salt Lake City but I'm no longer Mormon," or, "I used to be Mormon but I came out and left the Church"? It seemed easier just to avoid the conversation. 

After all, I'd never come out to a couple of Mormon missionaries in Berlin. But these young men hadn't done anything to me. I was once one of them, 30 years ago in France. What would have been the harm in talking to them, being friendly toward them? What was I afraid of?

Plaque on the building where Christopher Isherwood lived.

Speaking of being gay, my day had started out by having breakfast with Dan in a cafe near his new apartment in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin - which also happens to be the city's "gayborhood." There are many gay bars, cafes, shops and bookstores in the area, and it was here that Christopher Isherwood - whose writings were the source of the musical "Cabaret" - lived for four years from 1929-1933.

Cool mirror in the lobby of the Isherwood building. It reminded me of a sealing room in an LDS temple.

A "stolperstein" in the pavement in front of a building just down the street from the Isherwood building, commemorating a victim of the Holocaust who had lived there.

From the Siegessäule  I turned and walked up the Strasse des 17 Juni toward the iconic Brandenburg Gate, in front of which the Berlin Wall used to run. 

Strasse des 17 Juni

Workmen had blocked off the area immediately in front of the gate, making preparations for Unification Day celebrations in the next few days. I turned and headed for the old Reichstag, now the Bundestag, or national parliament building. It had been the burning of this building in 1933 that gave Hitler the pretext he needed to assume absolute power in Germany. 

A picture of the Reichstag at the end of World War II

From the Bundestag, I walked a few blocks south to visit two memorials to victims of National Socialist Germany - one to homosexuals persecuted by the regime and one to the millions who perished in the Holocaust. 

As I stepped up to look through the "window" in the memorial to see the film clip of the "kiss" (as mentioned in the previous photograph), I saw that someone had left a single yellow rose in memory. Then as I stepped back, I was startled by my own reflection in the window. It was a poignant and almost jolting moment when I realized that had I lived in Germany during those times, I might very well have been one of those victims. It was also a grim reminder of the disgusting homophobia that still exists - especially in high places of our government - in our own nation.

I then crossed the street to visit the memorial to victims of the Holocaust ...

After visiting these memorials, I walked further east along Unter den Linden. My destination was Museum Island. I had heard about the Greco-Roman collection in the Pergamon Museum and was looking forward to my visit. Unfortunately, when I got there, I learned that this wing of the museum is currently closed for renovation. Super bummer. But I felt better upon touring the nearby Altes Museum.

Statue outside the entrance to the Altes Museum

Berlin Television Tower as seen from the courtyard of the Pergamon Museum

I first learned about Antinous, the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, three years ago when Mark and I took a private tour of the Vatican Museum. A beautiful young man from what is now northwestern Turkey, Antinous became Hadrian's lover - one might even say husband in all but name. Homosexuality or bisexuality was not unknown, I learned, among Rome's emperors; but Hadrian took things to a whole new level, treating Antinous very much like a consort.

When Antinous, still a very young man, died under mysterious circumstances in the River Nile, Hadrian was grief-stricken and deified his lover. Statues and coins were commissioned throughout the empire, and a number of these are now found in museums across Europe and Britain. If anyone is interested in learning more about this story, I recommend the novel, "The Hadrian Enigma," by George Gardiner.

Two different statues of Antinous standing a few feet from each other in the Altes Museum

A bust of Antinous in the Altes Museum

I was also interested to see references on Greek cups in the Altes Museum to another "gay" couple - Achilles and Patroklos of Iliad fame. 

Detail on a cup: Achilles bandaging his lover, Patroklos

Detail: Soldiers fighting over Patroklos' body outside the walls of Troy

Several years ago, I read a beautiful book by a classicist that dramatizes in a sensitive, tasteful and loving way this legendary relationship between the demigod Achilles and his Patroklos. I would highly recommend it: "The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller.

So much to learn and appreciate!

Now, back to the Mormon missionaries. I had thought throughout the day about my morning encounters, and I decided that, if they were still there as I returned to Dan's, I would talk to them. I wasn't sure exactly what I'd say or how far I'd go; but I decided it was silly not to at least say hello. Alas, they had left; no sign of them, but I felt I had made a small amount of progress by at least being willing to open up a vulnerable part of myself and grow through doing so.

The day ended with a fun evening with Dan and Russ. Dan had found the premiere episode online of the new "Will and Grace" show, and we all three sat out the couch in their living room, surrounded by boxes from their recent move, Dan's laptop open on one of them, sipping wine and laughing. It felt so good to me to be with gay friends as I watched this episode. When the series ran 10+ years ago and I was closeted, it was one of those shows that I didn't permit myself to watch: it was too gay. I had watched the first few seasons later on DVD, but it was by myself. So it felt good to be with good, gay friends to see this first episode of the new show. It was one of those special experiences from this trip that I'll long savor.

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