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“Self Portrait with Robert Andy Coombs in My Dorm Room”, 2019 © Joey Solomon, Manhattan, New YorkCourtesy the artist and the Schwules Museum

Berlin’s gay museum is damaged by gunfire

While the perpetrator is yet to be identified, the incident comes amid a growing resurgence of far-right, transphobic and homophobic violence

On the morning of February 24, employees of the Schwules Museum,  an iconic LGBTQ+ institution in the Tiergarten district of Berlin, arrived at work to discover evidence of an attack. Two window panes, an illuminated sign above the door, and an artwork (an upside-down black triangle created to promote an exhibition about queerness and disability) had been damaged by a firearm. The exact weapon used has yet to be determined, the full extent and costs of the damage are still being assessed, and there are currently no leads on who is responsible. 

This is not the first time that the museum has been targeted. “In April 2020, we discovered a windowpane that had been severely damaged by rocks and in 2016, the reception was also damaged with firearms,” Ben Miller, a historian and member of the board, tells Dazed. “So this is not something new. But it is always unsettling.”

Founded in 1984 by a group of gay men from West Berlin, the Schwules Museum has grown to become the world’s largest independent institution dedicated to archiving, exhibiting and preserving queer history and visual culture. It has a collection of over 1.5 million archival items, including photographs, videos, artworks and sound recordings, and is visited by tens of thousands of people each year. It’s also an important community space for queer people in Berlin. “The museum is democratically controlled by its members, which I think is quite unique for cultural institutions across the world,” says Miller. “The community can come here not just to see itself on the wall, or to find itself in history, but also to have conversations about how our history should be told. It’s a place where that kind of democratic community life can really take place, and that’s what’s so special about it.”

While the perpetrator is yet to be identified, it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to wonder if an attack on an LGBTQ+ museum might be ideologically motivated. Like many places across the world, Berlin has seen a staggering increase in hate crimes against gay and trans people within the last few years, and the far-right have been steadily organising in its outer boroughs: Neukölln, in particular, has recently experienced a spate of attacks carried out by neo-Nazis.

“I think it’s important to state that we don't know who did this or why,” says Miller. “However, I’m not sure it’s possible to think about this incident without considering the right-wing, anti-queer mobilisation that we’re seeing around the world. And I think it’s fair to say that we are certainly the target of that kind of mobilisation in general.” For example, the NPD, a neo-Nazi party, has made a point of marching past the museum and hanging a banner directly outside its door. The museum’s employees also receive regular threats, whether through phone calls or the internet. “It’s something that’s a regular part of our day, and shouldn’t be,” says Miller.

Mirroring its global resurgence, the far-right has a strong presence in Germany. According to Miller, the most notable example is the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a party which has consistently opposed full LGBTQ+ rights and equal marriage. Maintaining a fixed and stable presence in German politics, it is represented in both the national parliament and all but one of the country’s regional state parliaments. While its overall share of the vote decreased in the 2021 federal action, it came in first in two states (Saxony and Thuringia.) At a local election in Berlin just a few weeks ago, the party increased its vote share, securing 9.1 per cent.

Going beyond the traditional far-right, but not entirely separate from it, Germany is also undergoing a wider transphobic backlash. A proposed gender self-ID law (similar to the legislation recently passed by Scotland) is now being delayed by one of the three coalition parties in government, and has become the focal point of an organised anti-trans campaign, similar to the movements which have emerged in the UK and US.

 “I’m not suggesting that this attack was committed by someone who was opposed to this gender reform law,” says Miller. “We don’t know. But it took place in the context of a rising far right, and separately, a rising transphobic backlash. And what I can tell you is that no matter how sensible and theoretically pro-LGB that backlash claims to be, it is a clear and present danger to all LGBTQ+ people. There is no such thing as pro-gay transphobia. Because the people that you end up aligning with to pursue a transphobic agenda would gladly see queer people back in the closet, excluded from public life, and in the most extreme cases eliminated.”

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