“One man kisses another, they fool around, and it’s all downhill from there.”
“Perhaps it is easiest to see things first where you don’t take them for granted.” –Jane Jacobs
Angels in AmericaDenkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen
How to Be Gaywho already are gay
Free FallBrokeback Mountain The BirdcageModern Family
kultur360Free FallHideA Single Man
What Belongs to You
An Evening at the Garden of Allah
The Seattle Public Library has only one copy of Paulson’s book on hand, and it is not allowed into circulation. When asked why so few and why so strict, a queer librarian explained that it is because the rest were likely vandalized or destroyed. As he spoke, he choked up. He described archives—including smut—that have been lost or never entered at all. My heart grew heavy as those known unknowns gave way into the abyss of unknown unknowns. The desecration of our history threatens to leave us with only the broadest brushstrokes of Holocaust and Stonewall and AIDS, with little room for the nuance of a thriving interbellum gay culture at the Garden of Allah and in Isherwood’s Berlin. How many ebullient pockets don’t we remember at all?
As I prepared to visit Germany, a friend and colleague urged me to read Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, in which I would learn about the “first public coming-out in modern history” that Ulrichs staged in 1867. Much like Evening, Beachy’s history would serve to educate me on a booming gay scene and activism before Nazi persecution. (Disappointingly and rather ironically, significant members expressed staunch nationalism and vehement anti-Semitism. Even more disappointing is to recognize their reflection in the gays of my day, who cite LGBTQ safety and wellbeing as an excuse for their naked Islamophobia and American exceptionalism.) Beachy challenges the common oral tradition of my generation: Before Stonewall, we had nothing.
At this point I hear the cries of Rabih Alameddine’s aging gay poet in The Angel of History. “How can you not know your history . . . ? You with your righteous apathy, how can you allow the world to forget us, to delete our existence, the grand elision of queer history?” I am rebuked, even as I channel that rage at my peers for their continued prejudices and their elisions. For every tragic film about homophobia, I should be able to name hundreds that reflect the ways queer people have related to one another for centuries.
But the knowledge of such representation doesn’t get passed in classrooms, or from parents to children; it is piecemeal, scattered and hidden. Any pleasure in discovery is diminished when I consider what we might lose as yet another generation turns, as the memories of our grandparents are lost within the deaths of our parents. When David Rakoff passed, I felt like I’d lost a member of my family. I read his sardonic essays when I first moved to Seattle. His humor soothed me through the coming-out process. He visited town on tour for Half Empty, and several months later I watched him dance for a live performance of This American Life—both on dates with Nick—Rakoff looking reedier as his lymphoma spread. The news of his death devastated me. He’d taught me so much about being a contrary gay man (I think often of our shared disdain for that singing telegram from AIDS, Rent), and then he was gone.
This is why I come to sites like Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen. Amidst my shame and regret grows the sober resolve to make the future a gayer place. I want to be a librarian, caring for my elders’ ecstasy as much as their agony, passing their stories along to those who will come after me. I want to be part of this record, not just passively watch it fade or stolen from us by time, negligence, malice.
The tide of history crashes over my head as Nick and I wander out of Tiergarten and into the bustle of city streets, but my newfound resolve is settling in strong. We are headed to Bebelplatz, where the most famous Nazi book burning took place. We cross Friedrichstraße near Unter den Linden, and I get pick-pocketed.
I sense it immediately. For fifteen minutes I spit rage. I forget every broken word of German that I learned in the past two months as I shout at a man my age to give me back my phone. Nick is by my side, calmer but still bristled, repeating my demands. It becomes ridiculously circular. I wonder if we should be capable of compounding our efforts instead of reduplicating what has already been said.
The altercation is brief and yet it seems to take all afternoon. I eventually get my phone back, but I don’t feel my dignity return. For the rest of the trip I will be paranoid about my possessions. Walking onward, we recite what just happened. What we’d each done. What we’d do differently in the future. We repeat this again and again until we reach Bebelplatz, a pavilion between an opera house and a university hall.
At first, we miss the memorial; it doesn’t exactly announce itself. A glass square lies in the pavement near one end of the plaza, and we only notice because a small gathering of people have been staring at the ground for several minutes now. When it’s our turn to look down, I see. My heart sinks. Through the glass, there is a small room of bookshelves. All empty. Another wave crashes. I feel the pull of loss and must cling to the little I have amassed to remain standing. There is a protective urge to recede when the world robs you, but giving up forfeits more than even the clumsiest archivist might. Though my library may never be complete, it offers a working knowledge far more accessible than bare shelves behind glass.
Dave Wheeler is the author of Contingency Plans (TS Poetry Press). He has written for The Morning News, The Stranger, The Other Journal, Glitterwolf, The James Franco Review, The Monarch Review, and others. He earned his BA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University and is now associate editor for Shelf Awareness in Seattle.