‘Goodbye to Berlin’: Sexuality, Modernity and Exile

‘Goodbye to Berlin’: Sexuality, Modernity and Exile

What can history tell us about sexuality and asylum seeking? At a time when LGBTQI refugees have become an increasingly prominent feature of public and political debates about the ‘Refugee Crisis’, we might be left to conclude that ‘sexual refugees’ are a comparatively ‘modern’ phenomenon. However, the history of sexual exile, of displacement and of being out-of-place because of sexuality, has a long history, particularly in Germany: Weimar Berlin became home to thousands of people seeking sanctuary and sexual liberation from the prudish and homophobic values of their home countries. How has this history been remembered and called upon in attempts to understand present day sexual minority displacement?

Berlin, home to some 3,500 sexual minority refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria today, has revived its role as a haven for displaced queers. Almost a century ago, the city became home to a large number of homosexual exiles in search of sanctuary and sexual liberation. Most famously, Weimar Berlin welcomed Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, whose writing reflects a perpetual sense of homelessness, of feeling out-of-place, only to find brief refuge in the city, in defiance of the coming Nazi storm. These figures are cast as ‘homosexual warriors’, the vanguards for today’s sexual freedoms in Europe and North America. Their writing is celebrated and their stories popularised by films like Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and the BBC’s Christopher and His Kind (2011), which present Berlin as a queer haven in defiance of the rise of fascism.  

"The Eldorado club in Berlin was one of the many popular clubs for 'homosexuals and transvestites’ visiting the city in the 1920s and early 30s. (c) Germany Federal Republic Archives” 

"The Eldorado club in Berlin was one of the many popular clubs for 'homosexuals and transvestites’ visiting the city in the 1920s and early 30s. (c) Germany Federal Republic Archives” 

Despite the reflectivity with which these authors wrote about their time in Berlin, the ways in which they have been valorised in popular histories of LGBTQI rights obscures a messier reality: one of perpetual insecurity, exclusion, exploitation and Otherness not accounted for in simple narratives of liberal progress. For example, figures like Isherwood and Auden all enjoyed a degree of economic and social capital in their experience of Berlin. Whilst they often reflected on their sexual exile in their writing, their prolific status as the vanguards of LGBTQI rights is a reflection of their relative privilege. For example, whilst these writers were drawn to Berlin for its opportunities of sexual subversion (for Isherwood, ‘Berlin meant boys'), others, particularly young German and Eastern European men, were drawn to the city for illegal sex work. Many of these individuals displaced by economic downturn were ‘virtually penniless, […] working solely for food, cigarettes, or lodging’. Their estimated number in 1930 stands at 2,000-3,000. Isherwood later recalled hearing ‘a boy who told a psychiatrist quite seriously that he was homosexual – for economic reasons’. It is despite this historically invisible reality that the narrative of Weimar Berlin is formed and played out as a seemingly more utopian but nevertheless precarious one, of hedonism, happiness and sexual freedom.

There is also a need to distinguish between the voluntary and involuntary nature of queer migration to Weimar Berlin. Whilst discrimination and homophobia made Isherwood and Auden feel forever out-of-place, exiles owing to their sexual Otherness, the involuntary nature of much of the industry that pulled them to the city disturbs any idealisation of their travels. Djunas Barnes wrote how Berlin was ‘full of buggers from America who bought boys on the cheap’, constituting for Auden a ‘buggers daydream’ (archival source) that was nevertheless premised on an exploitation of the economic and political dislocation of Germany in the inter-war period. Tourist pamphlets distributed in New York and London drew in the crowds, giving details of what one might expect from the different types of male prostitutes on hand, from the ‘line boys’ to the ‘trick boys’ and ‘game boys’.

Echoes of this complex interaction between sexual freedom and exploitation are found in the context facing many sexual minority refugees from Syria and Iraq today. Beneath the idealised media narratives that tell a story of liberation in the North, many individuals face extended precarity, stuck in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey because of the increased securitisation of borders in Europe. In this context, and in light of the homophobia and persecution that often stems from employers and service providers, sex work has become a reliable livelihood for some. In Istanbul, one individual told me how a small but notable influx of European and Gulf State tourists had come to seize the sexual opportunity thrown up by this situation, seeking out Syrian sex workers in clubs, bars and saunas.

Isherwood himself, reflecting on the ways in which his own experiences had been co-opted into a liberal narrative of progress, criticised an ‘amnesia’ on the part of post-World War Two historiographies. These tied the defeat of Nazism into an argument for the inevitability of liberal modernity. We see the obscuring lure of modernity pervade sexual refuge today: fleeing to Europe and North America, sexual minority asylum seekers are seen as coming into secular modernity and of rejecting a ‘backward’ culture/religion. At its most extreme, this puts ‘credible’ sexual minority refugees (i.e. those who dress and speak in line with a number of gendered, Northern stereotypes) on the frontline of an ‘ideological battle’ between the North/West and the rest, between secular liberal modernity and a ‘barbaric’ South. In the context of the ‘refugee crisis’, this has seen right wing nationalist groups and newspapers lend support to credible sexual minority refugees in opposition to the ‘barbarism of ISIS’ and Islam more generally.

There is a need to understand the history of this narrative, that simplifies sexual minority asylum as an act of coming into liberal modernity, so that, firstly, a more nuanced engagement with sexual minority refugees by states and practitioners is made possible and, secondly, the history of homophobia is left complicated, rather than reduced into Islamophobic or liberal meta-narratives and tropes. As with the histories of Weimar Berlin, the idealised narratives of sexual minority asylum in Europe today rely on a misreading of reality, one that obscures economic inequality, persecution and the interlacing histories of colonialism and homophobia in favour of a more simplistic binary of liberalism versus oppression, or tolerance versus fascism and so on.

In reflecting on the history of queer migration to Weimar Berlin, with their dual realities of liberation and exploitation, we can begin to dissect and disturb the assumptions of modernity that frame sexual minority asylum today. This is to borrow from Isherwood’s own restless critique of modernity in his own time. For displaced sexual minority refugees, this is to both interrogate the political co-option of their suffering by narratives of liberal progress, but also to challenge the politics and histories that makes their persecution possible.

Bibliography

Carr, Joseph (2013) Queer Times: Christopher Iserhwood’s Modernity London: Routledge

M. Gordon Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (2006) pg. 80.

P. Herring Djuna: The Life and Work of Djunas Barnes (1995)

C. Isherwood Exhumations (1966)

Millbank, Jenni and Berg, Laurie, Constructing the Personal Narratives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asylum Claimants (February 8, 2009). Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1339581

Ainsley Jenicek, Alan D. Wong, Edward Ou Jin Lee

(2009) Dangerous Shortcuts: Representations of Sexual Minority Refugees in the Post-9/11 Canadian Press” Canadian Journal of Communication 34 (4)

G. L. Mosse The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996)

Archives Consulted:

W. H. Auden W. H. Auden in a letter to Patience McElwee 31 December 1928 (British Library Add 59618).

Suggested Reading

Millbank, Jenni and Berg, Laurie, Constructing the Personal Narratives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asylum Claimants (February 8, 2009). Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1339581

Ainsley Jenicek, Alan D. Wong, Edward Ou Jin Lee

(2009) Dangerous Shortcuts: Representations of Sexual Minority Refugees in the Post-9/11 Canadian Press” Canadian Journal of Communication 34 (4)

 

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