Brit in Berlin: A slightly over-stereotyped tale of the end of lesbian hibernation

By Camilla Leathem, PQ Monthly


Berlin, Germany — It’s May 1, and supermarkets and banks are boarded up from floor to ceiling, and any remaning buildings that could still be accessed are empty. Everyone has taken to the streets, and when I say everyone, I mean everyone: punks, business men, children, parents, students, tourists.
On May 1 in Berlin, nobody goes to work, and everybody goes to party. It is Workers’ Day, traditionally a left-wing celebration. A “black bloc” of autonomists marches from Berlin’s central district, Mitte, to Berlin’s most alternative district, Kreuzberg 36, in the southeast of the city. Anybody can join in along the way, and many do.

Twenty years ago, any “terrorism tourist” (to quote a friend of mine) hoping to get a glimpse of a riot would not be disappointed. Fuelled by political dissatisfaction and anti-capitalist wrath, the autonomists are famous for catapulting sizeable stones into the crowds, and for setting fire to buildings.

The situation in 2012 is different; it is placated — reassuring for those who just want to enjoy a festive day in the sun, and disappointing for those who travel to Berlin to take in the sights and sounds of the riots, and promptly post the photographic evidence on Facebook. May 1 in Berlin is slowly losing political significance, and rapidly gaining social significance. This German public holiday is traditionally a day of political activism, but over the years it has become more of a day of street parties; a day to avoid the office, to enjoy the sun, and to consume copious amounts of beer and cocktails mixed for you on the streets.

It is also one of the first truly summery days of the year, ergo the perfect opportunity to people-watch. The sun is shining, the music is blaring, and the lesbians have finally come out of hibernation for the summer. My gay friends and I left our stones and our tear gas at home, and took the opportunity to survey the scene.

Without wanting to over-generalise too monstrously, Berlin lesbians tend to wear black the entire winter through. They may finally manage to emerge from the dark and dust of their winter abodes to celebrate May 1, but as of yet they haven’t lost the black. It’s a gradual process.

So, spotting women who love women on this day of the year is particuarly easy: clad in black t-shirts and long black shorts, they form their own mini “black blocs” throughout the parks, on the pavements, and in the middle of the street raves. Some are particularly adventurous, and have combined a black t-shirt with khaki shorts or grey trousers.

Colour politics aside, however, we like what we see. Having spent the freezing winter months indoors in the familiarity of our own company, we have forgotten what lesbians other than ourselves look like. Observations are made, the odd giggle flies, and we try to identify who’s hot and who’s not without pointing. Wearing black with a brave touch of khaki ourselves, we wonder if we too are the subjects of observations and giggles from other black blocs.

Our tour through the newly-emerged summer lesbian crowds takes us from the ever-popular Oranienstraße — where our feet encounter the hurdle of empty beer bottles with every step, our ears are blasted with techno music, and our nose is distracted by the smell of German sausages and Turkish kebabs — to Görlitzer Park, where a significant portion of the city’s population has collected to set up their BBQs, to watch teenagers dancing on the roofs, and to people-watch (behind dark sunglasses, of course). En route, we meet an old, bearded wizard blowing giant bubbles and wearing a screamingly multicoloured outfit. Definitely not a lesbian.

As the sun begins to set, we make our way back to the underground station, homeward bound. Although we’re heading in different directions, we all find ourselves having to walk at least a mile to find an U-Bahn station that hasn’t been blocked off by the police as a precautionary measure.

The policemen fix us with suspicious, steely glares as we walk past. Little do they know that our daily agenda did not involve throwing stones, nor setting fire to cars, nor even drinking over the recommended daily limit. We took to the streets of Kreuzberg to celebrate the end of lesbian hibernation.

Camilla Leathem was born in a miniscule seaside town in southwest England, studied English literature and German in London, and is now pursuing a German language PhD in Berlin. Likes: Germany, German, and the Germans, pigs, and secretly analysing people when they’re not looking. Hates: pasta, flat shoes, and techno music.