“BERLIN — A hush fell over the hundreds of kinksters gathered in the pews of the Twelve Apostles Church in Berlin when the cellist, clad in head-to-toe black leather, took a seat in front of the altar and began to play Rachmaninoff. At the back of the room, ushers from the nun-themed drag troupe the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence watched him, rapt. When the cellist was done, a leather-clad organist played Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in C major. He was followed by a quartet in chest harnesses and leather pants who performed Vivaldi’s Sonata in A minor. Then a towering baritone in skintight leather sang the hymn ‘Panis Angelicus’ to cheers from the crowd.”
This was the opening of Liam Stack’s peculiar coverage of Folsom Europe, “a five-day festival of street parties, cultural events, and bacchanalian club nights that draws thousands of tourists to what organizers describe as the fetish capital of Europe.”
I say “peculiar” not because the article was especially bizarre in and of itself, but because it appeared in The New York Times, which is not normally on the cutting edge of anything, let alone the gay leather fetish scene in Berlin.
“There are Folsom events each year in San Francisco,” Stack reports, “whose Folsom Street gave the festival its name and first location in 1984, and in New York. Public nudity and sex-on-the-sidewalk during the festival are not unheard-of at the San Francisco event, but New York tends to be a tamer affair. Neither of the American versions, however, has the over-the-top reputation of Folsom Europe, which gets its carnal and cultural cachet from Berlin, a city whose vibrant year-round night-life draws everyone from gay sex tourists to British bachelorette parties.”
Actually, I suspect that gay sex tourists have much more in common with British bachelorette parties than Stack suggests; after all, both groups produce a lot of bodily fluids (cum and vomit, respectively) in their pursuit of a wild time in the German capital.
“‘Berlin has always been a very special city,’ said Alexander Cabot, the first transgender man to win the title of Mr. Leather Berlin 2019. ‘Back in the 1920s, Berlin was called the city of sin. That is very appealing because you can experience a variety of things here — so many different things — and people like that. It is very free.’
“‘We are actually less scandalous than in San Francisco, I think,’ said Daniel Ruester, a bursar for Lufthansa who co-founded the festival in 2003. He described it as ‘sexy but not sexual. Tourists always think in Berlin you can do anything, but that is not true,’ he added. ‘We do have laws here.’”
Stack continues, “Organizers remind visitors that the festival is governed by rules, which are displayed on posters across the neighborhood. Three of the most important: no public nudity, no public sex, and no Nazi symbols, the display of which is strictly forbidden under German law. ‘In the beginning, especially, sometimes Americans would come in SS uniforms, and it was always a big, big problem,’” explained Alain Rappsilber, a Folsom Europe board member.
Stupid Americans. What else can one say? I suspect they weren’t Jewish. But if being out for more than 40 years has taught me nothing else, it’s that there probably is some schnook somewhere with a Holocaust fetish.
The article was illustrated by some arresting imagery. One photo featured a bald leather slave in chains and a black leather mask kneeling in submission before a rather stone-faced older leather daddy. Another showed a tree-lined street graced by an obese shirtless man seen from the rear with a thin leather strap around his chest being mock-arrested by a uniformed fetish-cop. The pictures looked like a bar rag ad for the Eagle NYC. That they appeared in the pages of the Gray Lady is extraordinary.
It is in the following paragraph that Stack commits an utterly unforgiveable sin: “Schöneberg was a playground for luminaries like the bisexual singer Marlene Dietrich,” he announces before moving quickly on to “the painter Otto Dix and the author Christopher Isherwood, who lived there when he wrote the novel that inspired the musical ‘Cabaret.’”
Bisexual singer?!?!?! Marlene Dietrich was one of the greatest superstars the cinema has ever produced! She starred in “The [Fucking] Blue Angel,” damn it!
I’ve been wondering why this particular article stuck out for me. I called it “peculiar” above, but I didn’t find the article at all objectionable, and the illustrations were notable only for their being situated in The New York Times. I guess my problem is with the normalization of gayness (gaiety?). Our culture and its various subcultures used to be liberating by virtue of their transgressive quality, their capacity to shock. Now we’ve got leather boys in full fetish gear sitting in church playing classical music, and it’s lavishly covered in The Times. Ho hum.