Beers and Bears: Gay Oktoberfest Events Reflect Changing Bavaria

By Christopher Cottrell in Munich, Germany

Drawing more than six million visitors each year, Munich's Oktoberfest has also become a magnet for the gay community. With a number of events catering to the gay and lesbian crowd, the "Rosa Wiesn," or "pink Oktoberfest," reflects the progress gays have made in the traditionally conservative region.

Photo Gallery: Oktoberfest Celebrates 'Gay Sunday' Photos
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By 8 a.m., the line in front of the Bräurosl beer tent has already started to snake around the massive white structure. Huddling under umbrellas, ambitious partygoers shield themselves from a light drizzle while last-minute deliveries roll in to re-stock food stands with fresh meat and warm rolls. Cleaning crews hose away remnants of a parade the day before.

"It's a very curious sight: You arrive at the Oktoberfest by 9 or 10 a.m. and every other tent is empty. No one's standing around waiting either," said Gunar Hofmann, director of a gay collective known as the "munichbears," with "bears" referring to the hirsute aesthetic for which their members have a particular affinity. "And then you get to Bräurosl and there is this horde of people around the tent waiting to get in. It's insane."

Since 2001, Hofmann and his "bears" have had a yearly presence at the tent on the second day of Munich's Oktoberfest. Otherwise known as "Gay Sunday," the day has become a favorite event among not only the Bavarian city's Lederhosen-loving gay community, but also gay and lesbian visitors from around the world.

"The normalcy makes me very proud about the fact that not only can you be gay or lesbian in Bräurosl, but everywhere at the Oktoberfest," said Thomas Niederbühl of Rosa Liste München, or Pink List Munich, a gay rights party that sits on the city council. "It's a clear signal that, against all odds, so much has changed for Munich's gays and lesbians."

Come Rain or Shine

The lively party traces its roots back to the 1970s, according to Niederbühl. Back then, a small group of men from a gay leather and fetish collective known as the Munich Lions Club would come together every year on the festival's first Sunday and head to Bräurosl, a tent belonging to the Hacker-Pschorr brewery, one of Munich's six major beer producers. Word of the fun eventually got around and in the mid-1990s "Gay Sunday" began gaining popularity, becoming a modern tradition at a festival which dates back to 1810.

Turkish-born bisexual Kadim Cimen has been attending the festivities at Bräurosl for five years. While ducking from the rain under an awning, the 27-year-old Munich resident told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "Gay Sunday" is a great opportunity to meet people outside of the Bavarian capital's close-knit gay scene.

"If you go out on the weekends here, it's always the same club, the same people. (At Bräurosl) you can meet people from Berlin, Hamburg," he said, noting that the party always draws large crowds. "The gays don't care if it's raining, snowing or hailing -- they just want to have fun."

Inside the massive tent, blue and yellow bunting hangs from the ceiling. By 10 a.m., waiters and waitresses are already delivering armfuls of beer to the thirsty revellers, the wooden floorboards creaking beneath their feet as they hurry from table to table.

Because "Gay Sunday" continues to grow in popularity and size, space inside the tent has become scarce over the years, thus the early morning lines. But to compensate those unfortunate few who are denied entry, other gay days have also come to life. The "Prosecco Wiesn" party is slated for Sept. 26 in the Fischer Vroni tent (the smallest among the larger, brewery-affiliated tents), and will feature a burlesque variety show by Bavarian entertainer Baby Bubble. The final gay get-together takes place on Oct. 2 at the tables near the Schottenhamel tent's kitchen -- near the site where Munich's mayor ceremoniously taps the first keg each year. The "hot kitchen" event is the smallest gay gathering despite its rather symbolic location.

'Sense of Togetherness'

The fact that gay life has integrated itself into the Oktoberfest culture so well has a lot to do with changes in Munich's political landscape over the last 15 years, says Rosa Liste's Niederbühl. Since 1996, his party has enjoyed representation on the city council and advocated a more open gay scene, including more gay and lesbian tourism. Despite the unwritten rule that Oktoberfest remain a politics-free zone, Munich's mayor Christian Ude comes to Bräurosl every year and conducts the band -- something Niederbühl calls a "strong political signal."

"This upswing that the gay scene has seen in Munich in general is, of course, reflected in the gay and lesbian events at the Oktoberfest," he said.

Björn Dippon has been attending Oktoberfest's gay parties for nearly a decade. A dancer by profession, the 32-year-old from Stuttgart says he just likes to come and enjoy an unhurried afternoon with friends. "And a few million other people," he adds.

On Sunday, Dippon secured a table for himself and eight friends by 9 a.m. As the day progressed, more people crammed their way onto the table's already crowded benches. Two newcomers were Ebru S. and Lourdes M., lesbian friends visiting Bräurosl for the first time.

"It's got nothing to do with being gay or straight here," Ebru said. "It's just fun, you know?"

Nicole Hoffmann, a waitress in the Bräurosl tent, agreed. She said "Gay Sunday" is her favorite day to work because of the atmosphere. "The crowd isn't quite as young and everyone gets along so harmoniously," she said. "There's no aggression, there's a sense of togetherness and the mood is great from the beginning."

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Photo Gallery: One Delight after the Other at Munich's Oktoberfest


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