Settling In, Coming Out

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Your October Break was the first week of classes at the Free University of Berlin for 31,000 students, 415 professors, and one Lauren Stokes. It was also my first week selling tickets at the Gay Museum of Berlin.

Sometimes the most culture shock comes from the places you think you should know the best. (Like your subway stop—that’s where I live! At least it was from 1961-1989.)

When she sent in her Fulbright application, your correspondent, ever hoping to find a more practical direction for her life, said that she wanted her home department at the university to be the Education department.

A full year later, I’m here, I’ve actually had a chance to look at the course catalogues, and I get excited about a historiography seminar and a political science seminar. On the first day of online registration, though, I log on and discover that I am limited to registering for Education classes. I write the professors (who turn out not to be professors, and beg me to call them by their first names from now on) and say “I would like to register for your classes, how do I do this?”

They reply “Of course you can be in our classes, but what’s your department? You do know that you can only receive credit for classes in your department.”

“My department is Education, but I’m an American.”

Throwing up the star-spangled banner means that yes, of course I am welcome to take their classes, and even to register for them, although I’ll have to go plead my case to the departmental secretary, and even to receive credit, if my strange American university thinks that an Education major should be allowed to take political science classes.

But it leaves me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth, as do my conversations with the students I meet at orientation. A girl from Norway tells me (in German and English both—but my inadequacy in the face of Scandinavians is not the topic of this column) that she wants to learn Italian, but it has nothing to do with her studies, so she doesn’t think she can make it a priority.

“What do you study?”

“European Studies.”

“…I thought Italy was in Europe?”

“Haha, that’s true, but I wouldn’t be able to get credit for it. It’s not part of my program.”

I shake my head and return to my attempt to find a Turkish course in Berlin, the city with the most Turkish speakers outside of Turkey. I send an e-mail to a professor (also not a professor, also tells me that we should dutzen, which gives me an idea for a comedy show where I went around being overly informal with Germans—”Dutzen with the Deutschen“) and tell her about my Turkish background.

She suggests a second-semester course, I show up on the first day and find out that they have one tense so far, and I have five and the modal verbs.

I ask her what else I can do, and she explains to me that the course that’s at my level—second-year Turkish, if I was at Swarthmore it would be Turkish 3B, all very simple—is only open to Turkologists, and she thought I said I was a historian. I get flustered, but manage to say “You know I’m an American…”

And so now I’m taking Turkish for Turkologists. Today we learned about how to report second-hand statements and statements the truth of which you doubt. So if I were going to say, for example, “The Germans told me this was a good idea,” I would say “Almanyalar bana dedi bu güzel firkirmiÅŸ.”

When I’m talking, I need to add that “mIÅŸ” suffix (Turks change the vowels in their suffixes to make them sound better) to the end of anything somebody has told me—“My teacher says Turkish is funmuÅŸ,” “My friend John says he’s sickmiÅŸ,” and when I doubt something, I can add two of them—“The guy who proposed to me said he was richmiÅŸmiÅŸ,” “The Turks say they didn’t do anything to the Armeniansmışmış,” and putting them all together: “If you want to take second-year Turkish here, you’re going to have to switch your major to TurkologymiÅŸ. There aren’t any other reasons somebody would want to learn TurkishmiÅŸmiÅŸ.”

A Turk once told me that “gossip” in Turkish is, for this reason, called “miÅŸmiÅŸ,” and I can’t find any independent verification of this in my Turkish dictionary, but that’s okay—I can distance myself of any responsibility for having taught you something incorrect by saying “Gossip ne demek? Gossip miÅŸmiÅŸmiÅŸmiÅŸ.” I think that’s what I’d say, anyway. Best to couch it in English until I know.

Another thing I did this past week was contact the Gay Museum of Berlin to ask if they needed volunteers, which as it so happened they did.

They asked me a few easy questions about why I was there. I could tell that my short hair went a longer way towards convincing them I wanted to be there than my assertion that I took a class about sex and sexuality in Europe or that I thought Magnus Hirschfeld was pretty neat.

“Do you realize that this is volunteer work? There’s no money.”

I am tempted to respond “ ‘Museum’ is the international word for unpaid labor,” but instead I say “Ich habe nach ehrenamtlicher Arbeit gefragt, oder?“ and give my best smile.

“Then do you want to sell tickets this Friday?”

“Aber… ich kann aber kein Deutsch…”

“Your German is good enough.” I listen very hard, but there is no -miÅŸ at the end of that sentence. There is not even a -muÅŸ. There is not even the sort of raised eyebrows I am accustomed to receiving when I fumble my way through a sentence. They’re just desperate for their unpaid labor, and I have a basic level of competency in German. I have finally found my level.

My training consists of going to each of the floors of the museum, saying hello to the older man who sits there, and chatting for a little while as they show me where they keep the cash box and inform me “Na ja, die Dienst is doch learning-by-doing.“ Each floor has a lesson for me.

On the first floor, I learn about the art of Travestie.

…eine Transvestit?

“No, it’s different. Transvestites walk around their every day life looking like women. Travesties only do it on the stage. Well, sometimes I do it during the day. It really depends. Also, can you get me some coffee? I like it Bambi-brown.”

On the second floor, I learn that the museum is as a whole very sorry that there aren’t more lesbians on the walls. “Lesbians have to deal with sexism and homophobia. It’s very difficult for them. Have you seen our pamphlet about lesbians?”

“Yes. It was a very nice pamphlet. Do you give all of the women who walk in that pamphlet?”

“Did you see that married couple who walked in? They were Scottish, I think. Did you overhear them? Why do you think they were here? We don’t get very many of their kind.”

On the third floor, I learn that the reunification of Germany was the worst thing that ever happened to East German gays. My only previous knowledge about gays from East Germany is from the 1989 East German film Coming Out, which played on the night that the Berlin Wall came down. More importantly, the film features the most intense game of misery poker ever played on the big screen, between an East-Germany-era gay man and a Nazi-era gay man.

For this reason I am inclined to -miÅŸ my way through my new friend’s claims. I know that East Germany stopped enforcing the law against homosexual behavior in 1957 and formally legalized it in 1968, but West Germany followed their lead in 1969. Can it really have been that different?

My friend says that it was—while East Germany was failing to enforce the law, West Germany was busy railing against Nazi and Communist decadence and pleasing the conservative religious forces that were a non-factor in the East. West Germany was locking up gay men between the early 1950s and the late 1960s, while East Germany was leaving them alone and focusing on different priorities.

“Alone?” I ask. I thought the East Germans were never alone. My friend explains that he was actually part of an underground society of gay men for a long time, but then in 1974 that society was outlawed. I am fully expecting a horror story. But no—at least not the kind I’m expecting. It’s just that East Germany doesn’t like independent organizations, and it thinks that every organization should be controlled by the state. “But so you still got to have a gay organization?”

They did, he says. They did, and it was great, and his employer found out in the early 1980s that he was gay, and it was no big deal, and there were state-owned gay bars, and then the state opened up a gay disco in 1987, and the Supreme Court of East Germany said they weren’t sick, that it was a normal part of human sexuality, and West Germany’s government was still indifferent or worse. It wasn’t a big deal at all—_at all_—where he lived until ten years later, when his West German employer put him back in the closet.

He goes on to complain about the Church—evidently the East German Evangelical Church hosted groups of gay pastors and congregations to talk about their situation, and evidently the Church passed a statute in 1991 saying that it wasn’t a disease to be gay, but that it was a normal part of human sexual variation. He has a newspaper article about this statute and shows it to me.

And what about the West German Church? Evidently when the two churches merged again, the West Germans got to call all the shots (since they were the ones who had been in a Godly country for the past forty years), and the West Germans didn’t like the idea of having gay pastors, or gay anything, really, so all the East German pastors went back in the closet.

My new friend is getting somewhat emotional at this point, so we’re both glad, I think, when a visitor comes, and I get to listen to that spiel again, and we fall back into our quiet museal rhythm of staring at everyday objects as if they unlock some sort of key to the past. In this case it’s an East German porn collection.

I have a lot more questions, certainly, but I’m not inclined to -muÅŸmuÅŸ anybody’s story today. I’m just very glad that I’ve decided to be a Sexologist this semester in addition to a Turkologist.

Bis nächstes Mal,

Lauren Stokes

P.S. There’s sometimes more happening at my travel blog, some of which is neurotic, some of which is cynical, and some of which is photographic. But all of which gets updated during breaks.

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