Thomas B., 53, is a freelance photographer in Berlin. He hails from Saarbrücken, where the convergence of his coming out and the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s led him into a life of political engagement.
Newly single after a 25 year relationship, Thomas now finds it difficult to establish worthwhile relationships in a queer community radically different from the one he experienced in Saarbrücken.
Can you tell me a bit about your life in Saarbrücken?
It’s where I had my coming out, when I was 19 in 1984. I founded a coming out group through the Saarbrücken AIDS Help Center and everything sort of started there…Between ’87 and ’89, we lost a lot of people to the disease, and I just really felt a need to help.
If you were already so active in the community at such a young age, is it safe to say that your parents accepted you being gay?
My father had already passed away at that point, but it was a total shock at first for my mother because she’s of a completely different generation. But through this coming out group, she really became a sort of gay mom…She was really a woman with a lot of heart. The boys would come to our house and, regardless of the kinds of problems that they had, they’d always ask if my mom had some time for them.
She became a mother figure to the entire group. Unfortunately, she died three years later, but even though she had a really conservative group of friends, I’d guess that 80 percent of the people at her funeral were gay.
The gay community became very politically active with the onset of the AIDS crisis. I’d imagine that being so active in the community yourself at the time, you were also pretty involved in the political movement?
We were always trying to get in touch with political parties…we held conferences and seminars and invited all the prominent people to take part in the discussions…Many said that they’d do something, but they never came [to the events].
It was really a movement that constantly tried to prove itself and remain authentic…It was difficult at times to do so, but I think that not a single person in our group of 20 people threw in the towel. We grew really close to one another as a result.
When you and your group weren’t taking to the streets, what were you up to? What was the gay scene like back then?
The gay scene was at its core a lot better than it is today because it was a lot more familiar, a lot more personable. Even the owners of the gay bars worked really closely with our coming out group. They would swing by and hear about our problems and who we were, and would ask how they could help.
That really doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps it’s still like that in rural communities, but that’s definitely not the case anymore in Berlin…At my first Pride here in 2001, the scene was already pseudo political. It was nothing like what I’d experienced in Saarbrücken because it lacked solidarity. Somehow I had the feeling that one had to be better, more beautiful, more attractive–everyone’s only paying attention to themselves and solidarity is only secondary.
You were almost 40 when you moved to Berlin. Were older men accepted in gay circles, and if not, why so?
Not in Saarbrücken, and even less in Berlin. I haven’t a clue as to why. I think it might be the fact that so many are so self-absorbed. Everything on the outside has to be perfect and amazing, which is strange because in Berlin you have an innumerable amount of gay men here.
One would say “Okay, he’s got a zit on his nose, that doesn’t bother me.” But when you have 10 others lined up behind him, then it changes to “Actually, the zit does bother me, and there’s others who don’t have any zits.” That’s a very good example for the gay scene in Berlin: Totally self-absorbed, egotistical, superficial and cold.
So where did you go out here in Berlin to meet people when you first moved here?
There were bars in Schöneberg that were maybe a bit old-fashioned but nice, and there were a lot of great people and bar owners, like Die Kleine Philharmonie…It was similar to what we had in Saarbrücken, where it was easy to strike up a conversation with people.
But that [atmosphere] really changed, the same way that it did with CSD…It’s no longer about the emancipation of the gay community, but rather about self-promotion.
And you founded your Facebook group to combat that?
Gay Berlin has existed for about 10 years now, and I founded it to try and build back up that which had been lost in the community, something more interpersonal…If there’s beautiful weather, for example, someone could post about meeting up in Tiergarten and grilling for the evening. But I learned that I tried to do it in vain because it just doesn’t work like that nowadays. There’s absolutely no interest.
It sounds as if you’ve lost hope in gay community. Would you say that’s the case?
I definitely have…I often hear in circles of friends that they’re always pushing against their limits because there’s no longer any empathy in their relationships; that they’re constantly doing things for others and nobody’s there in situations when they actually need help. But relationships shouldn’t be a one-way street – there has to be a give and a take. But when there’s only a take, as is now often the case, it doesn’t work.
Have you ever tried to acclimate yourself to modern times, for example, but using any of the dating apps that are available?
Of course I’ve tried the apps, but I’ve never been the type of guy that enjoys when a stranger sends me a photo of his penis. That’s not my world and it shouldn’t have to be…I was with the same man for 25 years. My mother was with friends in Hannover at a hotel, got to know him and introduced us…He flew to Saarbrücken and two days later we decided to move in together.
Naturally, I didn’t meet all my boyfriends like that. The gay scene used to be quite different…If I were to walk into a bar in ’88 or ’89, there was a different atmosphere. There was always an openness that guaranteed that a conversation would occur, regardless of whether it was Berlin, Munich or Hamburg.
Today, it being okay to be gay in all spaces in Berlin has become the norm, and I find that to be overwhelmingly positive. It’s really important and it’s amazing that it’s become that way over the course of time. But I think it’s really disappointing that exactly for that reason, solidarity and empathy in our community has been pushed aside.
What do you think could be done today to bring the identity of the gay community back to its roots?
I honestly don’t have much hope for that, especially when I hear from friends the arguments that go on within the CSD organizing committees. They’re just scratching each other’s eyes out [over parade concepts]…and it makes you see just how unimportant change is to them. It’s all about ego nowadays, and I don’t even want to be a part of it any more. CSD is very colorful, but it has nothing to do anymore with gay life. It’s all about presentation.