Bob Young, 56, grew up in the US but moved to Berlin at the end of the 80s—during the height of the AIDS crisis and just before the fall of the Berlin wall. It was here in Berlin that Bob came of age as a gay man and watched the “whole gambit of modern club development here since the 80s.” Today, Bob is a prominent event planner and founder of GMF Berlin, a popular Sunday night gay party near Alexanderplatz.
We spoke to Bob as part of a three-part interview series of gay men who’ve watched Berlin’s queer community transform over time. As Berlin Pride—called Christopher Street Day in Germany—quickly approaches, Bob shared with us how the importance of the day has changed over time.
Tell me a bit about those last couple years of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when you had first moved back to Berlin.
There was the Wall and it was a different world. [The gay spaces] were pretty developed…You still had that Schöneberg Kiez that was basically the epicenter with Hafen and Tom’s, and some little hooker bars. And then Metropol, formerly Goya, that big space at Nollendorfplatz, was a big, thriving gay club. I wasn’t super wild, really. And [it’s] one reason I’m still around…It was super easy to get infected, because if you had sex with somebody with astronomical viral loads, they just didn’t know.
Was there a level of nervousness that was sort of palpable in these gay spaces at the time?
Everyone had safe sex. If you didn’t, you were considered crazy, suicidal even. It wasn’t an option not to…It changed things, but you still had dark rooms, you still had cruising, it didn’t stop that. And I was already with the club, and we went through the hard times of all that – guests died, people we worked with died, and one of my boyfriends died. It touched everybody who was around in the early 90s.
How was that reflected in Pride at the time?
The people who were even interested in going to Pride parades were people who were willing to take a stand, and usually were involved and had an interest in the rights and the needs of the gay community. And then it also had to do with funding for HIV/AIDS [research]…and really big at that time was campaigning for safe sex and getting people to understand the threat. But I didn’t even go to Pride until ’89 or ’90.
Why weren’t you interested in attending with all this stuff happening around you?
I think traumatic situations affect different people differently. You have to realize, it wasn’t until ’86 or ’87 that everyone really knew what we were dealing with. It was kind of hopeless at the beginning. Until probably the end of the 80s, I wasn’t personally affected. As far as gay rights were concerned, coming from the South, I thought it was fantastic in Berlin. It’s not that there weren’t things to demonstrate for, but I still felt very comfortable being myself, being gay, being out, having a boyfriend—I didn’t feel immediately restricted. So I didn’t have this immediate reason or pressure.
Was there a didactic shift in 1990 that led you go to Pride after all of those years?
That was the first year after the Wall came down. Life changed here. A lot of people who had been completely repressed, who had lived lives in terrible, scary existences…had real issues to overcome.
That whole cultural change in Germany, coming together as one country, maybe just made me kind of grow up and realize, as I was approaching 27 or 28, that we’re all in this together and there are things to raise your voice for.
“Everyone had safe sex. If you didn’t, you were considered crazy, suicidal even.”
Can you set the scene for me in that first Pride parade with all of those converging factors? Were you feeling anything in particular?
At that point, AIDS was a huge topic, and, if anything, I was feeling in one way [the need] to be a part of that community. You realize that there are people like you who are either sad or are mourning like you are about people who are sick, or dying, or have died. And so to be part of that, that was some sort of relief.
I think, if anything, it just consolidated my will to maybe take a little bit more interest in things around me and not just myself. When you’re young, I think you tend to be very egocentric and pleasure-seeking. So I think I started reevaluating that.
How have those characteristics that you’ve just described–that solidarity, that community, the lack of egocentrism–how has that changed over the course of time with gay culture here in Berlin?
It’s always been a dilemma of Pride—not just in Berlin, but worldwide—to find the legitimacy of it. You have some people saying that, with all the rights we have now, do we really need this?
It’s almost like the so-called post-feminist or post-racism phenomena that people talk about…
Right, but it’s still very real, and these things [we’ve gained] can be taken away from you. That’s why we’ve been saying forever and ever: How do we get young people interested?
You’re lucky enough to have been born in a time when AIDS wasn’t killing everybody and there’s more acceptance. But don’t fool yourself: There’s still mobbing, there’s still hate, there’s still discrimination in every measurable form. I’m pushing people to understand that they still have to stand up for who they are, because history does repeat itself.
What are you seeing as the themes of this year’s Pride? Should it be more political in your opinion? There’s a lot of criticism, for example, that Pride has become too egocentric, too capitalistic…
Let’s face it: We still live in capitalistic societies, and in order for things to happen, there has to be some transfer of money and services and so forth…the money just doesn’t drop out of the gay heavens and fall onto us.
We have always maintained political stances, albeit with Russia, or with other neighboring countries. This year, we’re going to [do] something within the gay scene about the hating and shaming, about how the gay scene needs to be a little more tolerant of each other. You can’t really expect that much tolerance from the outside if you can’t even do it within your own community.
“I’m pushing people to understand that they still have to stand up for who they are, because history does repeat itself.”
Do you mean there’s not a lot of inclusivity within the gay community?
We’re singling out this whole idea that, especially within these whole gay chat sites…people are immediately screened out, filtered out, and the whole concept of “no this, no that”–”no Asians,” “no fems,” “no old,” “no fat.”
So we’re actually putting a slash through “no”…and saying that it’s the diversity within the gay scene that also makes us interesting and human.
This clone of perfection with everybody…it’s so petty and it’s so restrictive, and I think from the outside it also looks a little weird.
There’s a lot of people who don’t even participate in a lot of things because they realize, okay, I don’t belong. So it’s about restoring that fact that you do belong, and you have validity no matter what you are, or who you are.
Do you see us in the future as a gay community in Berlin moving toward more inclusivity for people all across the spectrum in the community?
I can’t say that I immediately see it. In the old days, you actually had to go out, you had to actually confront people and be around them, and you actually had places where certain people went. But now, you just turn on your phone and you’ve got your filters for 26 year-olds with beards who are passive, or whatever you’re looking for. It’s a different world.
For that to happen, a lot of people have to subscribe to thinking that that’s important, and I think a lot of young, gay people in general want to think that we’re at a point where that doesn’t matter anymore and we’re all integrated and assimilated, which just isn’t true. That’s a fantasy.
I’ve met a lot of authentic, cool people in Berlin who are inclusive and they do live their lives like that. The cool thing about Berlin is that a lot of people say that you can come here and be yourself. And I think that’s still there.
“You can’t really expect that much tolerance from the outside if you can’t even do it within your own community.”