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 interim basis after the coalition that ruled the city for a decade collapsed amid a bank scandal and mounting debts. The shift removed the conservative Christian Democrats, led by outgoing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who had been the senior partners with the center-left Social Democrats in the coalition formed soon after reunification. At least until new elections this fall, Berlin will be run by a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens party — mirroring the government on the national level, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. 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 a majority 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 into his government — a prospect that angered conservatives, who say the communists have not distanced themselves enough from the brutal East German regime. "It's a bad day for the capital and sends a wrong signal for Germany's political culture," Christian Democrat General Secretary Laurenz Meyer said. "For power, the Social Democratic Party is today selling its ideals and roots."
An Unknown Until Last Weekend
Wowereit, 47, was a little-known political figure before grabbing nationwide attention last weekend when he came out as gay at a party convention before his nomination. "I am gay, and that's a good thing," he said, later admitting that he made the statement because of rumors that tabloids were planning 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 he hasn't focused on gay issues. Nevertheless, Wowereit's election was greeted with applause and some cheers when it was announced Saturday at a street festival in Berlin's Schoeneberg district, the heart of the city's thriving gay and lesbian scene. At a booth for the local branch of Germany's national Lesbian and Gay Association, those attending the festival could pay 65 cents for the chance to toss balls and knock over pictures of three conservative state governors who oppose a new law giving greater legal status to gay couples.
An Important Symbol for Germany's Gay Rights Movement
Board member Bodo Mende, shouting out to passers-by to take a crack at the lawmakers, said he hoped Wowereit would take a leading role in pushing the gay marriage law in the upper house of parliament, 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 is increasingly at ease with homosexuals in politics — coming three months after Paris voters elected an openly gay mayor. Berlin's history as a gay metropolis goes back as far as the 19th century, when some historians say it was the birthplace of the gay rights movement. Later, the vibrant cabaret and theater scene of the 1920s and 1930s fueled the community's growth. That all came to a halt after the Nazis took power in 1933, eventually condemning homosexuals along with Jews and Gypsies to concentration camps. After the war, West Berlin's status as a closed-off enclave where residents were granted an exception from the draft also led to 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 is known for its tolerance," said Dirk Schutt, 36 — alias "Miss Gucci," wearing a fluorescent yellow dress with silver sequins and white go-go boots. Across town at Berlin's tatty Alexanderplatz near City Hall, a crowd of elderly onlookers watching women in floral shirts singing folk songs as part of the city's "Senior Week" were more ambivalent. "For us, it's all the same," said Eva Becker, 70. She said the more pressing problem were the city's financial woes. Wowereit "should first actually do something and then we'll see," Becker said. "Today everything is different from back then," the longtime Berliner said when asked about the new mayor's coming out. "If he's happy, I don't know why he needed to say that."