Berlin's Mayor Under Attack Sadomasochism Fair Handcuffs Wowereit

Berlin is recognized the world over as a beacon of tolerance and sexual promiscuity. So, why all the rancor over mayor Klaus Wowereit's embrace of a sadomasochism festival in the German capital? Instead of being panned, Wowereit should be hailed.

By in Berlin

Everything goes in tolerant Berlin. Christopher Street Day is an annual hit.

Everything goes in tolerant Berlin. Christopher Street Day is an annual hit.

The word is virtually impossible to translate directly into English: spiessig. The dictionary makes a noble effort, offering up words such as "conventional" and "pedantic." But such a definition does little to call up the fear bordering on paranoia that most young Germans (and a good many older Germans) have of being labeled a Spiesser. It's not all that far from calling someone a boring, scrupulous, capitalist pig -- and in a country where hipness and leftiness have achieved almost iconic status, calling someone a Spiesser is harsh indeed.

In Berlin, it doesn't take much to be to be stained with the dreaded label. Indeed, in some parts of the city -- Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg -- just walking down the street in a clean collared shirt with no tattoos showing is enough to stand out from the ultra-nonchalant, hyper-cool masses. From the Berlin perspective, entire cities -- Munich, Hamburg -- are spiessig whereas Berlin itself is seen as the center of German chic where anything goes and the nightlife is unbeatable.

Enter Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit. Recently crowned "The Glamour Guy" by Time Magazine, the 51-year-old gay man is better known as a partying socialite than as a hard-nosed manager -- all part of his strategy to make Berlin Europe's creative center by attracting the young and hip rather than the old and stodgy.

This time, though, the mayor may have gone too far. Controversy is raging this week over the "Folsom Europe Fest," a European attempt to copy San Francisco's (in)famous sadomasochism fair on Folsom Street. Events begin on Friday, prompting some to fear that a hurricane of leather, handcuffs and undesirables will sweep through the German capital. Not that Berlin is lacking in any of these anyway. Still, Wowereit's gusto and willingness to write the festival's opening greeting has rankled conservative nose-wrinklers. "The first weekend in September will be marked by pure joie de vivre," Wowereit wrote. "The international leather and fetish scene is meeting for the second time in Berlin. ... Welcome to Berlin!"

Berlin, the sex capital of Europe?

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit came out of the closet by saying, "I am gay and that is a good thing." Here at Christopher Street Day.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit came out of the closet by saying, "I am gay and that is a good thing." Here at Christopher Street Day.

Welcome indeed. The mega-tabloid Bild goes after "Wowi" on Tuesday with a two-page spread prominently featuring a large picture of the Berlin mayor right next to a cuffed leather boy wearing a gas mask and ready for -- well -- for the Folsom Fest, of course. The accompanying editorial lambasts Wowereit for spending too much time issuing invitations to masters and their sex slaves and too little addressing high unemployment and the city's €60 billion debt. "Wowereit is transforming the problem capital into the sex capital. Berlin doesn't deserve this."

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Bild, it is worth noting, hardly ever goes a day without a bit of soft porn on its front page -- today the paper's some 4 million readers are greeted by bare-breasted Sylvia staring alluringly from below the fold. Last month, the paper ran a full-page feature on a Dutch dominatrix and her midget sex slave. And last year, the paper went on a virtual headhunt of Turkish actress Sibel Kekilli of "Head On" fame. Before starring in the award-winning film, Kekilli spent a fair amount of time on the porn-flick circuit -- a fact that Bild chewed on -- and lavishly illustrated -- for weeks. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bild is the best-selling paper in Germany.

Of course, what is good for the tabloids isn't necessarily good for politicians. But the point is this: Germany is used to nudity and sex and a little skin generally doesn't bother anyone. Indeed, late-night television is filled with soft-porn and naked women and nobody flinches. And as hard as the populist press tries, this is not a scandal. Even in stuffy and suit-addicted Munich, professionals head out to the English Garden on their lunch breaks for a bit of sunbathing, au naturel. And Berlin is already known the world over for its laissez faire attitude to sex and sexual orientation -- indeed, when it comes to world capitals of homosexuality, Berlin ranks right up there with San Francisco, Amsterdam and Sydney.

In other words, Berlin is already a sex capital no matter what Wowereit does. Sure the massive techno-fest Love Parade is no longer part of the summer entertainment, but that is more due to security and clean-up costs than to any increase in spiessig attitudes. And the annual Christopher Street Day gay pride parade along with the Folsom Europe festival more than compensate for its absence. In the 1920s and during the Cold War, Berlin was a beacon of tolerance where society's fringes were welcome and the mainstream felt uncomfortable for being mainstream. So it is again today -- thanks in no small part to the personality of Klaus Wowereit.

What is Wowi's plan?

Still, though, one does wonder what benefit a mega-city mayor hopes to gain by courting the S&M scene. Even in San Francisco, where the Folsom Street Fair originated and attracts hundreds of thousands of leather fetishists every year, Mayor Gavin Newsom doesn't go out of his way to be associated with the event. (Although joke flyers were handed out during the 2003 event advertising an after-hours party at Newsom's home prompting his television-personality wife to comment, "I was up until four in the morning answering the door and listening to people chant outside. The only thing that kept me from getting out the garden hose was the thought of what the newspaper story the next day would say.") Yet like Wowereit, Newsom does go out of his way to make people of all walks of life feel welcome in his city. Just before Valentine's Day in 2004, Newsom dramatically opened up San Francisco City Hall to same-sex marriage, cementing the city's claim as the world capital of homosexuality. Of course, his actions were later overturned by the courts.

The tabloid attack on Wowereit for inviting an S&M festival to Berlin is hypocritical.

The tabloid attack on Wowereit for inviting an S&M festival to Berlin is hypocritical.

Mayor Wowereit has a similar attitude. "I like to compare Berlin to London in the swinging 1980s," he told Time. "London was in a bad economic situation but had a great deal of creativity and positive mood.... Promotion is part of my personality, but it's also important to show the savoir vivre you can feel that makes the city so attractive internationally." It's a strategy that has worked; tourism in 2004 was up almost 19 percent against 2003.

Still, it is likely that publicity-hound Wowereit is a tad embarrassed by this most recent appearance on the nation's tabloid pages. With Chancellor Gerhard Schröder facing an early retirement after the Sept. 18 general elections, the Social Democrats -- the party Wowi belongs to -- are casting about for the next generation of leadership. Berlin's mayor has positioned himself masterfully to take over some of the reins of power and has even been limiting his late-night party appearances to add a bit of gravitas to his party-boy image.

But those who are taking Wowereit to task for his invitation understand neither Berlin nor the essence of the city's tolerance. They are, in a word, Spiesser. As Wowereit himself said referring to the S&M festival, "that, too, is Berlin. And as long as nothing illegal happens, I expect tolerance."


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