B E R L I N, June 20, 2001 -- City lawmakers elected Berlin's first openly gay
mayor Saturday, bolstering the city's credentials as one of the
world's gay capitals, in a political shift that also could open the
way for the former East German communists to enter the government.
Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, takes over on an interimbasis after the coalition that ruled the city for a decadecollapsed amid a bank scandal and mounting debts. The shift removed the conservative Christian Democrats, led byoutgoing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who had been the senior partnerswith the center-left Social Democrats in the coalition formed soonafter reunification. At least until new elections this fall, Berlin will be run by acoalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens party — mirroringthe government on the national level, led by Chancellor GerhardSchroeder. Schroeder welcomed Wowereit's win Saturday, saying it opened"new prospects" for the capital.
Will Need Help From Communist Successors
But until the new elections, the city's coalition will lack amajority and need backing from the Party of Democratic Socialism —the successors to the communists in former East Germany. And Wowereit has not ruled out bringing the neo-communists intohis government — a prospect that angered conservatives, who say thecommunists have not distanced themselves enough from the brutalEast German regime. "It's a bad day for the capital and sends a wrong signal forGermany's political culture," Christian Democrat General SecretaryLaurenz Meyer said. "For power, the Social Democratic Party istoday selling its ideals and roots."
An Unknown Until Last Weekend
Wowereit, 47, was a little-known political figure beforegrabbing nationwide attention last weekend when he came out as gayat a party convention before his nomination. "I am gay, and that's a good thing," he said, later admittingthat he made the statement because of rumors that tabloids wereplanning a story on his homosexuality. Since then, he has emphasized in interviews that he's a"politician who's gay, but not a gay politician" — and that hehasn't focused on gay issues. Nevertheless, Wowereit's election was greeted with applause andsome cheers when it was announced Saturday at a street festival inBerlin's Schoeneberg district, the heart of the city's thriving gayand lesbian scene. At a booth for the local branch of Germany's national Lesbianand Gay Association, those attending the festival could pay 65cents for the chance to toss balls and knock over pictures of threeconservative state governors who oppose a new law giving greaterlegal status to gay couples.
An Important Symbol for Germany's Gay Rights Movement
Board member Bodo Mende, shouting out to passers-by to take acrack at the lawmakers, said he hoped Wowereit would take a leadingrole in pushing the gay marriage law in the upper house ofparliament, where states are represented. "The symbolism is important — in Germany and in the capital,also in eastern Germany," Mende said of Wowereit's election."Thank God that this is possible in Germany." The choice of Wowereit was a further sign that Europe isincreasingly at ease with homosexuals in politics — coming threemonths after Paris voters elected an openly gay mayor. Berlin's history as a gay metropolis goes back as far as the19th century, when some historians say it was the birthplace of thegay rights movement. Later, the vibrant cabaret and theater scene of the 1920s and1930s fueled the community's growth. That all came to a halt afterthe Nazis took power in 1933, eventually condemning homosexualsalong with Jews and Gypsies to concentration camps. After the war, West Berlin's status as a closed-off enclavewhere residents were granted an exception from the draft also ledto a prosperous left-wing scene where homosexuality wasn't taboo.
A City Known for Tolerance
Wowereit becoming mayor "fits with the city's credo that it isknown for its tolerance," said Dirk Schutt, 36 — alias "MissGucci," wearing a fluorescent yellow dress with silver sequins andwhite go-go boots. Across town at Berlin's tatty Alexanderplatz near City Hall, acrowd of elderly onlookers watching women in floral shirts singingfolk songs as part of the city's "Senior Week" were moreambivalent. "For us, it's all the same," said Eva Becker, 70. She said the more pressing problem were the city's financialwoes. Wowereit "should first actually do something and then we'llsee," Becker said. "Today everything is different from back then," the longtimeBerliner said when asked about the new mayor's coming out. "Ifhe's happy, I don't know why he needed to say that."