Celebrations in front of Berlin's Siegessäule at Pride. Omer Messinger/PA Images. All rights reserved.
A group of activists took to the Siegessäule, the Prussian war monument in the heart of Berlin, one late July afternoon. As the city celebrated Pride in the streets below, the trio scaled the 285-step spiral stairwell, making the case, as they saw it, for Palestinian freedom. “It doesn’t feel right that while Palestinians are living under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, people are being encouraged to celebrate Israeli progressiveness here,” says Belal.
A monument dedicated to German militarism might seem an unusual site of protest, but the Siegessäule marks a particular moment in the city’s history of queer struggle. Situated in the centre of Tiergarten, the 220ft-high statue was a cruising spot for gay men in the 80s and 90s. It also serves as a reminder of Berlin’s very first Pride in 1979 when LGBT activists defiantly marched past the statue, marking the 10th anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall riots. It is in many ways a symbol of gay visibility.
Pride, or Christopher Street Day (CSD) as it’s known, still passes by almost four decades later and the city’s flagship queer magazine, named after the monument, is a testament to the Siegessäule’s enduring symbolic status. Saturday’s CSD seemed somehow a world away from the early Pride years. Defiant chants of liberation and open condemnation of the state have given way to political party blocs and a barrage of corporate floats, vying for the pink pound.
Once atop the victory column the group, drenched by the incessant downpour, unveiled a patchwork column of flags: one Palestinian, one rainbow and a white banner reading “No Pride in Israeli Apartheid”. A larger group directly below could be heard chanting alongside a banner reading “50 Years of Occupation, You Can’t Pinkwash This” and handing out flyers to slightly bemused passersby. ‘Berlin Against Pinkwashing’ (BAP) was at it again. “We try to do something every Berlin Pride season,” BAP activist Alice tells me. “I was so shocked when I came to my first Pride in Berlin, I just had to do something.”
BAP has been a vocal part of Pride events in recent years. Last year the group staged a peaceful die-in at the lesbian and gay Motzstrfest festival. “After we finished and left the area we were physically attacked by security officers in plain clothes who destroyed the group’s banners and threatened us with legal action,” says Alice. “We were also physically attacked by Oliver Höfinghoff, a member of the Berlin Senate, during the main CSD parade last year”. The group was similarly accosted this year.
Conversations around pinkwashing have gained real traction in various areas of LGBT activism, especially in relation to Palestine and Israel, but BAP claims that there hasn’t been much space for discussion in Berlin. “As the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust refugees from Berlin, it is ironic and frustrating that speaking out against Israeli oppression, and for justice and freedom of Palestinians, is seen as taboo and anti-Jewish” explains Margot. “I'm tired of Zionism being conflated with being Jewish, and that critiquing Israel means you are anti-Jewish."
Protestors at the Siegessäule. Photo: Berlin Against Pinkwashing. All rights reserved.
Pinkwashing – a term used to describe a company or state’s attempt to promote itself as gay-friendly in order to downplay its less palatable activities – is no more unique to states like Israel, than the corporatisation of Pride is to a cosmopolis like Berlin. The high presence of Israeli-sponsored events at Pride parades in Europe’s gay mecca is, however, noteworthy. A permanent Israel stand is yearly spotted at Motzstrfest and CSD Pride events. It has also become tradition for the Israeli Ambassador to join other state representatives in opening the CSD march, at which a high number of Israeli flags painted in the colour of the rainbow are handed out.
BAP claims that this development belies the treatment of queers in Israel and Palestine. “The fact remains that Palestinians are daily subjected to discriminatory and racist policies and this undermines any notion that Israel is LGBT-friendly” says Alice. This claim is difficult to ignore when considered alongside recent policy initiatives.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry-led initiative Brand Israel was launched in 2007. It’s aim was to counter the prevailing militaristic and religious associations of the country ushering in new global imagery: Israel would be the modern, vibrant and democratic haven of the Middle East.
The campaign has, however, sustained a high level of criticism from various parts of civil society, at home and abroad, particularly in the area of minority rights. The Palestinian LGBT organisation al-Qaws claims that such nation branding is an attempt to divert attention away from the state’s violation of Palestinian human rights, in and outside of the country. Indeed, attempts by the Israeli state to promote its gay-friendly culture abroad whilst denying rights to LGBT citizens at home is revealing.
In 2016, the Israeli Tourism Ministry decided to launch a multi-million-dollar promotional plane to bring international LGBT travellers to Tel Aviv Pride, an event expecting around 30,000 foreign tourists. LGBT activists responded in protest, highlighting the difference between government-allocated funding for LGBT organisations in general and the one-off cost of the plane and threatening to cancel pride. The plane idea was finally dropped.
Late last month the Israeli Social Affairs and Justice Ministries made a statement to the High Court affirming their opposition to same-sex couples adopting children. Their reasoning was that gay parents would bring “additional baggage” to a child’s life. Add to this the well-documented targeting of queer Palestinians by Israeli secret services as potential informants and difficulties of organising Pride events outside of Tel Aviv and one begins to form a different picture of LGBT life as lived in the democratic haven.
The fight for LGBT rights here in Germany, and indeed the world over, remains an uphill one. But it’s striking that a country which still allows for state-level discrimination against queers would be afforded the level of exposure it currently receives at Berlin Pride. “We must not allow Pride to be hijacked in this way. Pride was and must continue to be a place of protest,” says Belal.
Despite the rain and a few unfriendly interactions, the small group of activists seemed in high spirits. One can’t help but wonder how pride-goers of yesteryear would have felt about the modest Siegessäle stunt. Proud, perhaps.