Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Last Radical Lifestyle Choice

"Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest" -- Anatole France

A petite middle-aged female lies swinging in a market stall, trying out a leather sling. Well-built and well-oiled German men with beer brand labels tattooed on their pectorals hand out drink tickets. Carefree kids laugh, scream and run about while their parents munch bratwurst and Eis (ice cream, even in winter a Deutsch favorite). Men dressed as nuns act out an array of vaudeville schtick. A tattooed butch man in chaps sits cooling himself off with an oversize Geisha girl fan. And lording it over the whole affair, in spirit anyway, an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, whose motto is "“Ich bin schwul – und das ist auch gut so." ("I am gay, and that's not a bad thing.")

My German pals and I sweep through the streets of the Schöneberg district of Berlin, absorbing the sensations of the annual Christopher Street Day Strassenfest, the Deutsche permutation of gay pride. One thing is apparent: gay culture here is nothing if not inclusive. There is a studied nonchalance to this acceptance; it's not jaded, but insouciant, good-natured and welcomes just about every persuasion this side of NAMBLA.

The attitude towards different orientations and gender identities here in general is so laissez-faire that the gay pride festivities might be redundant if they weren't so much fun. This attitude is manifested in a large banner strung across a tinsel-studded stage, reading "Sexualität Demokratie," and it also encompasses (gasp!) -- families, and their redefinition under any rubric. Although gays cannot legally wed in Germany, and adoption is difficult for any couple, gay or straight, there is a tacit unquestioned acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people of all ages and stripes as normal.

Contrasted with the histrionic chest-thumping and identity-mongering of North American queer tribes, I feel as if I've gone down the rabbit hole, noshed on the caterpillar's proffered mushroom and am now experiencing lysergic visions of Utopia. Outside the colossal neo-classical gay club Goya, identical skater boy "twins" roll around kissing and cuddling on a patch of grass, looking like this year's over-the-top auditions for a particularly provocative edition of the A & F catalog. Like the Peppermint Schnapps swigged from the bottle by a group of lei-sporting baby dykes and their straight male pals, it all goes down smooth here in Berlin. Today -- hell, every day in this city -- revealing leather shorts are to Motzstrasse as suits are to Wall Street. Even the Turkish merchants from Kreuzberg have decamped their stalls here, and it all adds to the communal, multicultural spirit.

Eccentricity is the order of the day, normalcy is relative. As my roommate Jan and I make our progression through the streets -- which follows a temporal arc music-wise from 80's kitsch classics to jittery 90's techno -- I don't see anything particularly new, simply new modes of expression of the age-old desire to be oneself. At one intersection a few desultory dancers shuffle their feet to Schläger music (cheesy German oldies). The music ceases and an addled looking old longhair in a kilt fashioned from leather fringe makes announcements from a microphone -- wait, that's no microphone, he's merely pantomiming , clenched fist poking at the air, spinning around to the Karaoke DJ in his mind. We collapse in gales of laughter and head down an arterial street.

As we penetrate the next sector of the Strassenfest, an attractive female twentysomething thrusts a pamphlet into my hand, the pink cover of which reads: "Asexualität: nicht jeder steht auf sex." Translation: "Asexuality: not everyone is into sex."

Jan crumples his pamphlet, a dubious gift, into my palm, shooting me an amused glance.

"The asexual woman was very pretty," he observes.

"What a waste!" I say, unable to resist the urge to facilely invert (no pun intended) the old cliche about gay men.

Glib remarks aside, the tract inside essays a paradoxically passionate, but vague, explanation of this lifestyle. It's a plea for understanding on the part of society 's latest “category” of pariah, the citizen who chooses to live ohne Sex. Pertinent questions are answered. A few myths are exploded, but the reality seems nebulous. It's more of an opportunity to say "We exist." We explore hitherto unanswered questions, for example, does asexuality necessarily mean abstinence or a solitary lifestyle? The answer to both is unequivocally "Nein."

The mind reels at this assertion, giving rise to yet further questions. Does this mean that asexuals will be splitting off into ideological factions, for example "True asexuals" and "Asexuals who have sex" (AHS)? Will there be infighting among said factions (remember the plushies and furries a few years back)? Is asexuality simply a matter of choice?

What about the advent of "anti-fetish" wear such as coke bottle glasses, braces, hearing aids and pocket protectors? Will this yield to the appearance on the catwalks of watered-down versions of "asexual chic" featuring faux dowdy and dumpy models, causing friction between "serious asexuals" and "mere poseurs"? Will some be accused of hewing to stereotypes? Today, at least, the asexual tribe chose an emissary who doesn't fit the mold.

Seems to me the important thing to these people isn't simply being acknowledged as a sexual orientation, but to be given a platform to define themselves and to express the valid point that in a society so oversaturated with sex, we can be damning of those who choose not to have their life revolve around it. In fact, according to the pamphlet, asexual Volk are often approached by concerned family members, the assumption being they need clinical treatment, both psychological and physical.

The most poignant section in the asexual lit poses the question: "What does an asexual relationship look like?" A whole litany of virtuous non-sexual traits is given, including security, understanding and emotional intimacy. It's true that many of these characteristics have been left behind in the ever-expanding quest for sexual liberation, ironically, placing them perhaps further out of reach for the sexual "outlaw" (even this phrase seems quaint now, when everything is permissible). The catch is that none of these things seem particularly desirable on their own when sex is taken out of the equation in a relationship. Therein lies the conundrum of the asexual "Partnerschaft."

The more I thought about it, I reckoned that this movement could be considered, in theory, a logical conclusion to the sexual revolution, drawing full circle the tendency to push the envelope further with ever more leather, rubber, uniforms and all manner of polymorphous perversity. Not that sex -- kinky or vanilla -- and love are mutually exclusive. But, in a city where Colt butt plugs the size of infants are displayed proudly in boutique windows, and where a sex museum stands cheek by jowl with one of the major train stations (Zoologischer Garten), a declaration of asexuality is an inherently radical act, perhaps the ultimate perversion. The problem is that it is only a few paces out of the starting gate from radical act to blithe public indifference. Hence the bemused stares, rather than judgmental looks, of passers-by who have seen it all.

Then there is the elusiveness of the asexual herself. The more I read about asexuals, the less of a grip I had on the definition. It kept slipping through my fingers like mercury, going this way and that. The literature states that many studies have been done in the last year, but statistically anyway, the asexual seems to be a bit of a cipher. In a society where everything has a label, and labels are often used as a means of control, this could be a most subversive quality.

In the end, though, it's really all about freedom of choice and upholding the principles of a sexual democracy. Something tells me -- in Berlin, at least -- there will always be a place at the table for whatever version of "asexual" one chooses to be, as long as the asexual isn't harming anyone while not doing it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hall of Mirrors

About a millenium ago (just before the millenium actually: 1999) I posed as a model for a great Surrealist-style collage piece (part of a dream sequence) by my old friend, artist Mina Luxa. It was based on a Northern Renaissance rendering of the Deposition by Van Der Weben. This is me (right) standing next to a copy, which I stumbled on nearly ten years later in the Bode Museum in Berlin. The original is in the Prado in Madrid. On the left is the original work of Mina...ironically in the series was arranged as if I had stepped into the painting, and here it looks as if I have. Certainly added to the martyr complex I had at the time. In fact, for a while I thought I was Jesus Christ...

Monday, June 2, 2008

City of Ruins

I recently discovered not far from my Friedrichshain digs an enormous old abandoned Kraftwerk, or power station (exterior shot in the previous post), which could double as a horror movie set. The place is unglaublich, or unbelievable. This ruin (and potential squat) now plays host to a thousand graffiti artists, the curious and the daring (gay porn is filmed here, too). The inner sanctum can only be accessed by a small hole in the outer wall through which one must propel oneself after a dicey ascent over stacked concrete blocks. Once inside one encounters a labyrinth of staircases, cavernous filthy rooms and one elevator shaft straight from hell.

After much debate, curiosity won out and Jan and I were on our way up. Once up there, we made some new friends, and I took about 75 pics.