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Femmes, Freaks & Flux: seeking softness in Berlin

Brittany Newell discusses the discomfort of living on the edge without tipping over, K-holing and affirming her fluidity

I visited Berlin for five weeks last summer and fell in love. I decided this year to spend the entirety of my post-graduation summer in Berlin; I wanted to see if I could hack it long-term, build a life in weekend world. It didn’t take long for the psychic consequences of my actions, seemingly simple (buying a plane ticket with what felt like fake money, that cybergoth currency of Frequent Flier miles), to catch up to me, in the form of niggling guilt and anxiety. To choose to be mobile as whole populations slip and slide? While waiting in the line for customs at Amsterdam’s airport, I got a text from my mom about the Istanbul airport attack. Gripping my passport, my mobility felt, and still feels, inexcusably decadent in an eroding world.

Thus, my first week in Berlin was marked by public transit paranoia and a barrage of increasingly depressing headlines, such that jetlag, white guilt, and media-stoked fear, got jumbled together in weird shifts of sleep. Our flat is next to a construction site that keeps unholy hours. The concept of “settling in” (to what?) began to feel stupid; everything around me seemed to confirm that being unsettled was the dish of the day, unease written into the zeitgeist. But I can’t just blame the headlines. Like any queer person, I am no stranger to unease. More often than not, I seek, harness, and cultivate it in my own work, social circles, and allegedly non-normative life.

So why were my formerly impassive panties in a twist? It’s not like the decadence of my decision to Euro-trip (get it?) was wholly unexpected. I came to Berlin, in part, to be useless: my private goal, after four years of big books and brown rice in a sun-drenched California patch, was to sample sustained hedonism. I’d spent every other summer of my life working, making money at identical food-service jobs or attempting to research lofty things like THE GAZE. I fancied myself sick of healthfulness, of structure and productivity; I now wonder if my visions of a bleary-eyed ten weeks in Berlin were informed, at least in part, by an inchoate nihilism, something rotting in me that my pristine West Coast setting would not allow to ooze forth. In Berlin, it would be all the rage. Ugly is in vogue. At an outdoor party I remember blinking out of a K-hole to lock eyes with my partner Eric (alias Silk Worm): we were sitting on a pile of moist cinderblocks, facing a parking lot. It started to rain. Partygoers scrambled onto the dance floor, screaming in an international mix that the place would be flooded. We shivered together. I wouldn’t be the first person, and certainly not the last, to move to Berlin because of an unsavoury fantasy.

“It seemed suddenly obvious that to make it in this melting world, we must “lean in” to the discomfort, make use of the flux”

Another way to put it is that I wanted to live irresponsibly, to travel to an edge. So why my kneejerk dismay when the wider world got edgy too, when things felt increasingly tippy? That the intensity of my fear took me by surprise was hard evidence of my privilege; where before I’d done my best to roll with the discomfort, art direct the bad bits of my life under the #cisheteropatriarchy, now the trickle-down effect of a world at war had finally reached my level. Riding the U-Bahn in drag, I could find nothing productive about my bald panic. Privilege is, in part, the ability to construct your own narrative, rather than having it dictated for you; I’d assumed, in a typically heedless way, that it was also my right to write my own ending. I wanted to choose my edge carefully, after much Internet research, and choreograph my slow, fun destruction over the span of a summer.

I had last summer in mind: I wanted to take nasty drugs, never sleep, subsist on a diet of oatmeal and French fries, watch people have sex, feel like shit half the week, watch my body get knobby and gunky and sore — to make self-loathing social, a flashy group activity rather than a private pastime in the quiet of one’s room. Such is our queer prophecy (or so it sometimes seems): to flounder fabulously. One is tempted to ask: why? Part of the goal, as I’ve said, was to live precariously, but another (potentially less shameful?) aim was to live provocatively: to push others, in a subtle fashion, as I scooted towards my chosen cliff. I’ve quickly learned, though, that people have a funny way of setting limits, especially in a city with a party scene that professes to have none.

Every single time that I’ve gone out, a man has grabbed my arm, lifted it up, and gasped at my unshaven armpits. “Is that a fetish?” one asked, polite as can be. “Can you explain it to me?” This, in a club where an entire floor is dedicated once a month to piss-play.

Meanwhile, all Eric has to do is wear makeup to cause waves. “Are you crying?” someone in the kebab shop asks her, pointing to her pink-streaked lids. Cock-ringed men point in mute wonder to her knee-length skirt. “Are those real? Can I touch those?” a gay man asked before reverently probing my tits. Together, we get as many stares on the walk to the club (through sweetly tree-lined Friedrichshain) as we do on the dance floor, though the intentions presumably differ.

Ask any of my friends here: collars and harnesses, those go-to symbols of transgression, are like skinny jeans in 2009, ubiquitous and meaningless, S&M-lite. If I had a penny for every jockstrap I’ve seen, I’d be rolling in the deep. In any space, but especially spaces that flaunt sexual liberation or freedom of expression or any other tasty catchphrase, one must always ask: who is doing the necessary work of being different, and how different is it really? Walled in by hard bods, it would seem that the purest way to provoke is to be a femme in the club. Sometimes it’s fun to be the freak amongst those freaking out, the glitter clogging the machine; sometimes, though, when entering a gay bar feels indistinguishable from entering a U-Bahn car (evil eyes en masse), it’s the peak of alienation. “I don’t normally like feminine dudes…” a stranger whispered to my friend at a party. It was his way of flirting.


After just a few weekends here, I wised up to the fact that I didn’t have the stamina to party on the edge. I realized this fact, rather obvious to those who know me, when I took too hot a bath and had to lie down on the bedroom floor before I fainted. Hardcore, hardwood. I stayed in that night. My stomach is too weak for this lifestyle, these drugs. Fireworks or vomit? After a certain hour, it’s all the same.

Don’t get me wrong: there is special beauty in a shitshow, something that queers, in our fringey position, are apt to find especially moving. I came to Berlin at an unsteady point in my life, fresh from college, my future in flux, hoping to do morally shaky things and hang with an ever-fluctuating cast of queens; by chance or design, in their shimmery midst, instead of blotting out the world I was made piquantly aware of its similar shiftiness. At moments of peak anxiety (lying in bed reading up on Trump’s tyranny), it has seemed like everything is falling apart. Once I realized the link between a world in breakdown and the desire to break gender down, my anxiety, believe it or not, diminished. It seemed suddenly obvious that to make it in this melting world, we must “lean in” to the discomfort, make use of the flux. Of course this statement comes from a place of specific privilege, as a white American: I don’t mean to glamourize instability of the political, national, or spiritual sort. All I’m suggesting is that if the volatility of world has begun to feel unbearable, a queer mode might prove useful, rooted as it is in experiences of the airy-fairy and/or fucked.

“Another way to put it is that I wanted to live irresponsibly, to travel to an edge”

What I’ve begun to crave, to put it fancifully, is a productive liminality, one that doesn’t bottom out. Can queer life sustain its special brand of precariousness without caving in? I hope so. It should be noted that self-destruction looks ultimately as grim as any other form of violence, whether inwardly or outwardly directed. Collapse, either societal or GHB-fuelled, doesn’t have to be our default fate. A friend told us two people died in the club on Saturday. We were there. Nothing felt different. In fact, I thought it was a mild night. What does it mean when, inside said club, bared tits are more noteworthy than the mounting death-toll, Eric’s lipstick deeply shocking to the dark room daddy on our left? It’s important to have one’s spree, to cut loose and be yucky, but also important to remember, from the swishy center of that K-hole — it’s not unqueer to live well. We questioning queens, perhaps more than anyone else, can make the flux work in our favour.

It took a weekend trip to the woods of northern Germany (our vacation from vacation, Eric and I half-joked) to see the situation clearly: if I wasn’t feeling ill, I didn’t feel like I was really participating in Berlin. Our queerness is not contingent upon being crushed by half-naked bodies in a repurposed bunker or swallowing graffiti-cleaner (though these activities have certain charm). We biked around and ate ice cream and still felt deviant. We were gawked at just as much in our family-friendly hostel (despite wearing nothing more flamboyant than pink sweatpants) as we were the night an infamous gay sex club attempted to have a Ladies’ Night. The upstairs was still packed with men, as was the dark room, magnanimously opened to women “and the people they like to fuck” for one night only. Sasha Grey contended with ten cocks on the TV screens over our heads as my friends and I chatted in one of the cubbies and a far-gone stranger whispered in my ear, It’s the male gaze! Two naked men interrupted to ask which one of us had a cock. All was quiet but for Sasha’s intermittent gags. The girl next to me valiantly broke the silence, gesturing limply towards screen. “It’s the male gaze,” she ventured.

Whether in the woods or on the dance floor, this shifty status (as Interloper? Entertainment? Big-Talking Tourist?) is OK with me, as is the status of Dangerous Femme. I must return to that queer prophecy, the one that led me to Berlin. We do not have to blinker out. One can go hard in many different ways; maybe, to use a gendered term, the most hardcore thing would be to go soft. To wear a corset to the club, as my friend Jonathan does, or attend Olympia Bukkakis’ weekly queer performance night Get Fucked. Every femme or trans-centric event I’ve been to in Berlin has been fabulous, packed to the rafters with brave beauties; Faux Real, a night of lady and trans* performance hosted by Dusty Whistles, was so full that folks had to be turned away. The shakiness of our existence could be, can be, more like shimmering. Or is that the sleep deprivation speaking? Lean in and tell me, babe.