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Michael Lyons
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Sin city

The lost world of booze and boys in Weimar-era Berlin

02.16.2013

For many young gay people, cities are sacred places of discovery: of self, culture and community. I migrated to Toronto from a small town in New Brunswick after high school. Having grown up in a simple, functional family, I had a basic grasp of my sexuality and my interest in art but very little life experience. Riding the subway was a thrill, and I would literally gawk up at the skyscrapers. Likewise, I couldn’t take my eyes off gay couples who held hands walking down the street. My first forays into gay clubs enchanted and terrified me, though I found the drag queens irresistibly glamorous. I still remember my first drag show, at Crews & Tangos. The beautiful Amanda Roberts locked eyes with me for a few breathtaking seconds as she performed “Downtown,” a movie moment lost on me at the time.

In our fantasies the city is a place of romance, and there are few that compare to Weimar-era Berlin: the world of booze and boys Christopher Isherwood wrote about; the birthplace of smoky-eyed, deep-voiced, bisexual songstress Marlene Dietrich — and eventually the seat of power for Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Funny to think that a metropolis of decadence, art and perversity was fostered by between-the-wars turbulence and economic catastrophe. A wildly unstable economy, rampant overpopulation, substandard housing, a huge youth population, more freedom of all sorts for women: the old traditions of Berlin eroded into something discontented, sensual and bawdy.

Cabaret, gay clubs and prostitution went hand-in-hand in those days. Berlin’s population was almost four and a half million people, and there were an estimated 25,000 full-time sex workers, plus many more who did it casually to get by. Boys (gay and straight) would sell services to older men and tourists to earn money for food and entertainment. At the beginning of the 1900s, it’s estimated that homosexual male prostitutes made up about 20 percent of the prostitute population in Berlin. 

At the same time, kabarett spaces, which combined musical theatre with alcohol and food, were wildly popular; they offered cheap entertainment and distraction from the city’s grim reality. These clubs, many concentrated in the Schöneberg quarter, were popular haunts for adventurous tourists, slumming upper classers and other colourful characters. Authors Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden attended a venue where young men in lederhosen displayed their thighs (and more) for generous patrons. Marlene Dietrich performed regularly at the Eldorado, where customers could exchange coins for dances with the club’s famous tranvestites. (With the Nazi crackdown on the gay community, beginning in 1933, the Eldorado was transformed into a propaganda centre.)

Despite a popular contemporary belief, the usual cabaret performance was more satirical bawdy show than overt political critique, although gender-bending and blatant homosexuality were staples. Wilhelm Bendow, a stage actor turned cabaret star, was described in Laurence Senelick’s The Good Gay Comic of Weimar Cabaret as employing “exaggeratedly ‘faggoty’ intonations” that “turned everything into a double-entendre, and yet his pudgy, prissy exterior played down any sexual threat by suggesting an hermaphroditic neutrality.” Bendow, a favourite of both gay and straight audiences, performed (in a bright purple suit) what is commonly thought to be one of the first gay anthems, “Das Lila Lied” or “The Lavender Song.” It addresses the struggles of those who are punished for acting on their urges but who maintain their pride because they know these desires are completely natural. The song ends with this line: “But soon, take heed, it’ll change overnight/Our sun will shine/We’ve fought for our right/We’ve suffered, but won’t suffer any more/ We’re on a different path than those before.”

What Berlin represented then is what Toronto means to me now. These days I find clubs overstimulating, public transit exhausting, and I know behind every queen there’s a person as human as I am. Even though I find the city less romantic since moving here, I grew with Toronto and am as much a part of it as it is part of me. My experiences here have formed my sexual, political and emotional identities. For young gay people, cities have been, and always will be, enlightening, dangerous and exciting worlds in which to get lost. — Michael Lyons 


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