Clare Hand is a self-described flaming London lesbian. She’s spent the last year writing about queer women’s nightlife in her city. She documents the atmosphere, music, fashions, vibe (are you going to get laid or make new mates?), and those behind the nights.
Clare decided that it wouldn’t be right to only document dyke nightlife in one city, so she packed her bags and hit the road. She’s written about the thriving scenes in New York, San Francisco, Bogota, São Paulo, Berlin, and Dublin so far. This list will keep expanding. Keep an eye on her Dyke Nightlife Diaries here.
I’ve just stepped onto the dusty path leading to Berghain. I can see it: the unmistakable concrete facade of the power plant turned sanctuary of hardcore techno and queer hedonism.
The sight is my cue to take my top off and buckle up my leather harness. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and though Berlin is a very permissive place, the old folks taking their grandkids to the lakes don’t need to see me in all my Bergs glory. And the guys on the tram who confuse a glimpse of a harnessed thigh for a cry for attention, input, or the D will never deserve to see it.
The queue takes around thirty minutes; we snake in a silent single-file line, anxiety brewing as we get closer to the door—the infamous door, with one of the world’s most infamous entry policies. I usually go on a Sunday in the early evening when the queues are far shorter than the three hours you can wait on a Saturday night (Berghain parties are often weekend-long, and see a continuous stream of sets by the biggest names in techno). I am yet to be denied entry, a reality aided by the fact that I’ve only ever gone with a girlfriend or obviously queer pal and by my collection of leather, lingerie, Doc Martens and tit-tape—all of which I feel more alive in than normal clothes.
The security guards are all male and bull-necked with folded arms and stern faces. They look like knights guarding a keep of queer hedonism. They blithely send people home; groups of four, pairs, people on their own are all sent away like stray cats. As they do the Berghain walk of shame—past the queue, back out into the city‚they look remarkably composed. The closer we get, the more my shoulders stiffen, and the more conscious I become of my facial expressions and body language. I could easily be shooed away too. I plan where I’d go instead, but dressed like this? Home, I guess.
Contrary to what a lot of (hetero) tourists hoping to party in the world’s most legendary club may think, the gatekeepers aren’t just looking at your clothes and measuring how nonchalant you seem about getting in. They are making a swift (but informed, through years of practise) judgment about you. They’re looking into your eyes, assessing your vibe, determining whether you need this queer hedonism space, whether you can handle it, whether you’re wearing that dog collar or it’s wearing you, and whether you’ll contribute to and thrive inside a venue that is, at its core, a sex club for gay men.
I hear you. What’s a dyke like me doing in a place like this? The answer is simple: freedom. This is one of few places I feel comfortable expressing my sexuality without judgment or unwanted (male) attention. The majority of people inside are queer guys, so uninterested in me that they look through me like I’m a window. This makes dabbling in outfits, dance-moves, and dark corners with other queer women a lot easier.
The male-centrism also removes the pressure if you’re new to the club sex scene or queer hedonism in general. I have queer guy friends who find Berghain intimidating, feeling it has too many options and invitational eye-bangs. There is less potential for queer women, but also less pressure, allowing you to assess how comfortable you feel in this environment without the constant onus to participate.
Moreover, as the door policy suggests, this is a no-nonsense venue that demands good behaviour, consent, and respect. The very act of getting in encourages you to elevate your attitude, be kind, and allow people to discover what they want in the night, knowing that they’ll let you do the same. There are tons of people toying around with their gender and sexuality, discovering new ways of expressing both. I’ve never felt judged or unsafe here. It’s magic, really.
As I pass the threshold, I thank the guards as if they’ve just spared my life, and hand over €18 ($20) with quivering fingers and sweaty palms. It takes a good half an hour’s debrief in the changing area/cloakroom to properly unwind into the space.
When we’re ready, it’s time to head inside. The cavernous entry hall is all concrete walls and steel staircases, dark corners, and red lights and offers a choice. To the left is a yellow-lit bar. It’s chilled, with an odd resemblance to the mellow atmosphere captured in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (minus some clothes, plus a few cages in the background). I will return here for some downtime later. To the right is a staircase, the loud clang of the main room’s hardcore techno hurtles downstairs. It sounds like they’re building the gates of hell up there.
As I reach the top of the stairs, my heart thuds. I feel instantly dwarfed by the enormity of the (18 metre high) dance-floor, and am greeted by the pulsing, glistening shoulders of hundreds, maybe thousands, of humans. Their bodies collectively worship the DJ and the space, their minds wander light-years away. I’d either entered heaven or hell, the end of the world or the start of a new one; they seem one and the same in this euphoric moment. Everyone is covered in sweat and entranced by some of the most textured, undulating, transformative techno from one of the world’s best sound-systems. Everyone is in their own head, picking up on different parts of the music, but woven together, like a shoal of fish caught in a net.
Past the masses and up another flight of stairs is Panorama Bar, a smaller (but still gigantic) room playing more rhythmic, house-infused techno. There are countless other rooms: various darkrooms and caged play-cubicles, an ice cream and smoothie bar, and an outdoors stage (with a shower). You could easily spend all day, night, or weekend inside; there is no world outside, no time, no mirrors, and no selfies (photos are strictly prohibited). You just sit, strut, or dance around, letting the energy infuse you. I admire the enigmatic temple of decadence, taking in people’s bodies, outfits, dance moves, and interactions. We all simmer, collectively and individually, in new realms of hedonism and gratitude.
On my first few visits to Berghain, I was too busy soaking everything in to notice sex. The more I’ve visited, the more queer hedonism I’ve seen. While many have come to explore their capacity for receiving and giving pleasure and pain, lots have come to find and express love in a limitless space. Couples—be they queer, homo, or hetero; brand new or years old—seem to share powerful, transcendental bonds here. I’ve witnessed this many times, but one couple resonates more than any other.
A pair of guys walked past me in Panorama Bar, cradling each other. They were both shirtless, with identical curves in their spines; their bodies were made for each other, like hands joined in prayer. The guy at the back was a couple of inches taller than the one at the front, he held him, his arms wrapped around his ribcage and forehead resting on the back of his head. They edged across the room—not dancing, just shuffling, moving in sync, left foot, right foot to a silky, funk-infused techno beat. Both had their eyes closed and a matching expression of absolute bliss. They’d morphed into one body and were now voyaging through the dancefloor (and the universe) together. I stood and watched them, others around me stopped dancing and did the same, we were witnessing the heights of human connection, one of the biggest affirmations of homo-love I’d ever seen—and it was Berghain we had to thank for this.
This debaucherous place exists to facilitate this level of self-realisation, free from limitation and inhibition. Once you come to these understandings, you are free to connect with other humans in this way,, or so I decide while my mind wanders on Panorama’s dancefloor.
My entry-stamp reads: “Don’t forget to go home???” It’s a gentle, somewhat necessary reminder. I leave the steamy, concrete fortress full of queer hedonism feeling exhausted and overjoyed. The heat of the morning sun greets me; it never felt so warm and never looked so bright.
As I walk away, I put my t-shirt on, stuff my harness in my bag and go back to being a relatively incognito queer person. On the tram home, I am reunited with the public eye, the constant-seeming surveillance of the patriarchal gaze and all the ways it exhausts and perplexes me. I get home at 9 a.m. on Monday morning.
“Early, then,” a friend assured me over coffee later that day.
For more on Berghain and its listings, head here.