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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK
Eastern gays seek Berlin refuge

By Ray Furlong
BBC, Berlin

The rainbow flag of gay pride flutters gently in a spring breeze outside the HT café in Friedrichshain, a hip district of eastern Berlin.

Inside, the techno mingles with snatches of German and Russian conversation. It's Tuesday night, and the Russian "stammtisch" is getting under way - a regular social event for Russian-speaking gay men.

Berlin love parade
Berlin has a reputation for tolerance

"If there was different public opinion in Latvia then I would go back for sure," says Vadim, an ethnic Russian from Latvia. "But at this point I can't imagine my life there."

Vadim says that at home only his mother knows about his sexuality.

"Everybody in Berlin knows that I'm gay, but I would never tell anyone in Riga that I live with a man," he says.


The "stammtisch" is a German concept, a place for the pub regulars to sit. This event was also organised by a local - Kai Stromberg.

Kai, a database expert, often travels to Russia on business and started the meetings to keep up his language skills.

It's no big problem to hold hands with someone on the street here in Berlin, but I certainly, certainly could not do that in Slovakia
dance teacher

But he also points to a paradox - while gay men from Russia come here for the liberal atmosphere, they are often still afraid to "come out" - wary of reactions from the wider Russian community in Berlin, which numbers about 100,000 people.

"They are often afraid to visit gay bars because they might be spotted by another Russian,' he says.

"But even if, due to their Russian roots, they are inhibited in comparison with Germans they are still definitely much freer. This is certainly not economic migration, as many politicians like to claim."

There are historical precedents for the large gay Russian community in Berlin.

Model for emancipation

In the 1920s, when they were part of the wider post-revolution diaspora, it became fashionable for drag stars to adopt Russian pseudonyms.

Gay couple
Gays are trying to change attitudes in Eastern Europe

"The situation was very liberal at that time, so many gays and lesbians among the exiles found a new way of living here," says Karl Heinz Steinle from the Berlin Gay Museum - believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.

He says Berlin now also serves as a model for gay and lesbian communities in former communist countries seeking to build up structures of their own - and that Germans are trying to help them achieve emancipation at home.

"The first Christopher Street parade in Russia, in 1992, was financed by Berlin gay organisations," he says.

"Another example is the Campaign Against Homophobia, in Poland, which is being built up with the help of the German Green Party."

Small details

This Polish campaign points to the ongoing battle for public attitudes towards homosexuality in East European countries about to join the European Union.

Jozef, a dance teacher from Slovakia, discovered he was gay shortly after coming here 13 years ago - and decided to stay.

Although Jozef says he does not consider himself an "exile" he stresses the importance of the small, everyday things that make life different here.

"It's no big problem to hold hands with someone on the street here in Berlin. But I certainly, certainly could not do that in Slovakia. I would be a bit afraid about how people react."

Like Vadim, at home he has only told his immediate family he is gay - they would not like other people to know, he says.

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