Pride 2018, Story

Perspectives on Pride: The Berlin transplant who remembers when Pride was political

Interview by Austin Chandler Davis
Illustration by Annelisa Leinbach

Peter Cichorius, 64, grew up in Austria and Stuttgart, and eventually ended up in Munich after coming out to his parents at age 17. Arriving in the Bavarian capital in 1977, Peter encountered a city radically different from the conservative stronghold it’s known as today—although this atmosphere changed as the AIDS crisis took hold in the 1980s.

Peter settled in Berlin at the turn of the millennium after two and a half decades in Munich, and discovered a gay community still geographically and ideologically divided between East and West—a dichotomy, he says, that was bridged as time passed by a growing apathy for political involvement among younger generations of gay men.

When did you come out to your family and how did they react?
I outed myself at 17 and they [my parents] had a classic reaction: I became the eyesore of the family. I was an only child, and my mother wanted to take her own life. My father ignored it all together and said that it was just a whim of adolescence, that it would go away as soon as I met the right woman…It was a really, really difficult time and it led to me moving out as fast as I could.

How was the gay scene in Munich when you arrived? It was still a rather conservative city, correct?
When I came to Munich in ’77, it was a really open and gay-friendly city. There was a huge [gay] scene—there were a lot of bars and so much life there. You could walk with your boyfriend arm in arm without issue.

The real turning point was in the 80s when AIDS took hold. The state of Bavaria started issuing all these ordinances…there were no longer any gay saunas, everything had to be lit up and all the doors had to be taken off the [bathroom] stalls. There were constant raids and people were regularly harassed on the street.

What were your feelings at the time as the atmosphere turned conservative and gays began being persecuted? Was there an atmosphere of protest, for example, at your first Pride?
There were a lot more people who walked around with banners and made political statements, in addition to gay initiatives and groups. Everything became a lot more political.

Naturally, we all thought that that was really amazing because we realized from our experiences with our own families that there were a lot of people who were completely against us and that we had to mobilize and do something.

What differences did you notice in the gay community in Berlin as compared to that in Munich?
Munich really changed as time went by, that’s the reason I left. Munich became a very fashionable and rich city…and the gay scene really changed in line with that. It became really important to be beautiful and young, and to have the most fashionable clothing that money could buy. And just forget about being older than 35.

Whenever I went to a bar, nobody could be bothered with me. If you wanted a beer, the bartender would serve everyone else until you said, “Hey, I’d also like a beer,” and even then nothing would happen because they only wanted beautiful, young people.

Where did you go out in Berlin at the beginning of the 2000s when you first moved here?
We were mostly at Tom’s and in that area. There was Schöneberg of course, but there was also a super exciting gay scene in Prenzlauer Berg. Everything was still really separated, with the West Berliners all going to Schöneberg and those from the East going to Prenzlauer Berg.

Which group did you belong to and why?
I found myself gravitating really quickly to the group of East Berliners because they were a lot more human. In the West, it’s true that there was a lot more going on, but it was also more anonymous. If you wanted to have sex with someone in Prenzlauer Berg, it was understood that you would maybe have a beer, shoot the shit and see what could happen once you came out [of the darkroom]. In Schöneberg, it was and still is the case that sometimes you’d have sex in the darkroom and after the fact the guy would act as if he had no clue who you were.

Did that type of atmosphere influence the first Pride you experienced in Berlin in 2001, or was it more along the lines of the protest movement that’d shaped your first Pride in Munich?
At that time, it was already the case that I only looked on from the sidelines at what they were doing—you had the typical naked people, the same arrangements that you always see [at Pride]. It’s all really boring because you already know what’s going to happen. It was already the case that I wasn’t interested [in Pride] in Munich since the political engagement was already gone. At first, it was much different in Berlin, but it’s changed drastically over the course of the last 15 years.

How so? Was there a turning point that you can point to?
It’s really a gradual process. It was even a gradual process in Munich away from this formerly gay-friendly and open city. There comes a point when you realize that there are no longer any bars, or that the different corners that you always used to go to no longer exist. Instead, everyone’s just doing their own thing by themselves.

You stand there trying to defend [the changes] because it’s your city. But at some point you realise that you’re standing there alone and a lot of things have disappeared and you no longer feel comfortable.

It’s similar to what’s occurred in Berlin, that this type of life that existed in the 2000s has slowly disappeared.

Do you have the feeling that you belong to the current gay scene in Berlin?
No, because nowadays I believe that for a lot of people, their sexual orientation isn’t enough of a requirement for community…solidarity within the community is increasingly disappearing.

In Schöneberg, for example, the darkrooms in three bars have been closed. They said that there are new fire safety regulations and that there has to be an emergency exit. All of the bars produced an emergency exit, but then they made new fire codes that effectively meant that the darkrooms had to be completely renovated. Although these bars submitted plans for the necessary changes, they were rejected due to the fact that “gays are now in the mainstream of society and darkrooms are no longer necessary.”

It’s a scandal that such a dictate can come from a building authority. But the larger scandal is that within the gay scene, within the larger community, there wasn’t a peep about it. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, people would have been outraged.

In this sense, is the gay community in Berlin losing its identity?
I believe so. For me, being gay is a completely different way of life. We have completely different relationships, and our own morals that can be set or relaxed with which I’m satisfied and can live a happy and fulfilling life. I think it’s terrible that nowadays we’re constantly trying to conform to the straight community.

For example, I’ve been with my partner for 32 years now. But I’m constantly berated by other gays about why we’re still not married. I think it’s all a bit sad.

Do you have a pessimistic outlook for the future of Berlin’s gay community?
Yes, I’d say it’s more pessimistic. I wish that there was more solidarity and that we’d maintain everything we’ve achieved, because we’re currently experiencing another rollback of our rights. Things are being discussed that that truly frighten me. I thought we’d closed these discussions 30 or 40 years ago.