“Queer(ing) spaces outside the metropolis”: Aachen, a case study
Pepe Sánchez-Molero (he/they) is a scientific and teaching associate at the Chair of Planning Theory and Urban Development of RWTH Aachen University’s Architecture Faculty. He has collaborated internationally with design studios, universities and organisations in the fields of architectural, urban and regional planning, exhibition and communication design, illustration and activism. This article is based on Pepe’s Master’s thesis, which explores queer spatial production in Aachen during the past five decades.
A deadly pandemic, the search for safe spaces indoors, the difficulty to feel welcomed in society, uncertainty about the future, fear of the unknown and distrust for people around us … We’ve seen this before: the HIV crisis stigmatized and erased a generation of queer people, setting a social and medical precedent that we did not expect would be repeated until the outbreak of Covid-19.
Crises such as these have always affected minorities disproportionately; nevertheless, history proves that these times also offer huge potential for the reinvention of communities in order to offer support each other in safe spaces, and if these solutions/spaces can’t be found, they are created. It is nothing new to talk about the wide range of queer clubs, bars, societies, etc. that turned cities into queer safe havens and even created urban contexts such as Canal Street in Manchester, the gaybourhood of Chueca in Madrid, or Schaafenstraße in Cologne – but what about queer people outside of the metropolis, dealing with oppression, needing to socialise and organise, seeking their community, before the internet or in times of crisis?
For my Master’s Thesis in Architecture at RWTH Aachen University I decided to take a look into my university home town of Aachen and search for clues to understand if queer spaces had populated this city, how they were created, who was involved and what we could learn from them.
Aachen, of Ancient Roman origin, became the residence of Charlemagne in the 8th Century and has always been a town in constant exchange with its neighboring cities across nations, in a region successively under the occupation of different Central-European kingdoms and nations. Aachen’s Catholic worship has kept centuries worth of traditions such as pilgrimages well safe from outside influences. One would expect that the social and political power of the Church wouldn’t allow much space for queer expression and celebration; this definitely was the case until the 20th Century.
On the other hand, almost one third of all Öcher*innen (gender-neutral version of “Öcher”, Aachen’s dialectical demonym) are nowadays in some capacity related to the RWTH University, having thousands of young German and international students constantly moving in and out of the city, creating communities and spaces for themselves, including one of the very first student-led “Referate” (“societies/departments”) for gay/queer rights in the Bundesland of North Rhein-Westphalia in 1985.
Nowadays, Aachen’s privileged international position right next to the Belgian and the Dutch borders in the West is nevertheless not able to compete (in many people’s minds) with Cologne’s cultural scene, less than an hour away by train to the East. Germany’s 4th biggest city and to many the “gay capital of Germany” – yes, even over Berlin – Cologne has been organizing the biggest CSDs (“Christopher Street Day” aka Pride celebrations) for years and has a wide and colourful variety of queer spaces that have brought queer people from all over the region and the Bundesland. With clientele and visitors comes socialization, the flourishing of meeting points, hotspots, subcultures, and, finally, queer migration into the metropolis takes place, with its subsequential emptying of rural areas.
In a struggle to create their own spaces and to support each other, queer Öcher*innen have had to improvise and develop alternative urban strategies, reimagining mainstream processes of spatial production and offering each other solutions to their own well-known problems such as discrimination, unsafety and lack of socialisation. I am interested in how they have been able to do this and what Architecture and Urbanism can learn from it.
My archival work with both historic materials and closed-down websites, looking into grass-root events, publications and prints, as well as interviews with generations of queer activists, organisers, students, neighbours provided some surprising facts about the quantity and quality of queer spaces in the city throughout the last 50 years. By listening to their experiences I started mapping queer Aachen, how it came to be and how it still exists.
“These spaces are made for and by us, the gay bar almost felt like a second living room.”
The first queer space that comes to mind when looking for a queer urban subculture is the queer bar, a place to meet like-minded people, listen to music, forget the everyday struggles. Such is Aachen’s case with recorded examples dating to the 1960s and 1970s. Hidden clubs with blinded windows, locked entrances and eyeholes in doors to prevent raids from the “Polizei” and homophobic attacks. One interviewee explains the nervousness of his first visit to a gay club in the city centre, his desire to meet queer people and at the same time his fear of being recognised and being outed to his coworkers and family.
The bar scene has changed a lot since then, having its golden age during the late 1990s with almost 10 queer bars in the city. Promenadenstraße became the queer nightlife hotspot having several queer venues throughout the street who organised parties together, mostly by and for gay men.
Former owners of these bars have said that they felt the need to create such spaces, in first instance for their own circle of friends, in order to avoid isolation and to have somewhere to network and feel safe. Lesbian bars, closely linked to the feminist movement, had the added function of political organization, although in the case of Aachen, these gatherings were often informal or in private spaces, not necessarily in official venues. Social disparities and oppression in society are reflected in the production of space – queer men had an easier access to creating spaces in Aachen than queer women.
The origin of queer societies and activist groups relied on the private space; different groups started meeting in homes or bars in the 1970’s and after finding enough support and funding, they would either share offices with other initiatives or create their own queer centres. The creation of these institutions was a reaction to the rise of HIV cases in Germany in the 1980’s. The lack of information and care of both local and national governments forced queer communities to connect, research, inform each other and protest. In fact, one of the very first private clinics in Germany to treat HIV patients was opened in Aachen’s city center, setting an example for the entire country. Its founder, Dr. Knechten, specialised in Infectiology, specifically HIV and STDs, and in 2005 received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his valuable service.
Both Aachen’s queer bar culture and activism societies have emerged in response to the recognised problems and specific needs in the local community and the perceived requirement for a bottom-up conception and creation of safe spaces independently from the lack of societal progress (or rather because of it): Queer spaces are pioneers.
“It is difficult to organise queer parties but they are much needed!“
Sadly, a shift in culture within the past 20 years has had a negative impact on Aachen’s queer venues, and has led to the closure of all bars and clubs by 2011. The need for solidarity and exchange, fueled by the HIV crisis seemed not to be as relevant in the 2000s during which Germany’s society appeared more open-minded and queer people could meet in mainstream bars. It became the time for independently organised parties and events, mostly by queer societies or individuals, renting clubs, multifunctional spaces and even university cafeterias. Often, a percentage of the money from events which took place in the 1990s would go to HIV research and queer NGOs. This tradition was carried on well into the 2010s, during which it was mostly the university’s queer student unions, queer youth groups and AIDS support groups who were the main actors joining efforts to organise Pride/CSD events, parties and demonstrations throughout the year – not forgetting the origin of pride events as protests against oppression and police violence.
Recognising the potential of monthly and annual events to bring the community together was key to be able to protect the queer subculture, being easier to fund in comparison to bars open most days of the week - especially after the 2008 financial crisis which affected the Aachen nightlife, especially queer venues. Utilising the connection to the university and renting out the cafeteria became a biannual tradition to stage Aachen’s most popular queer party “Schwules Fest” (“Gay Party”), which ended up attracting all sorts of age groups and clientele from across the entire region, even tourists from the neighbouring countries.
The use of internet platforms to connect, inform, and advertise, proved to be a significantly more effective means of reaching a wider audience and swiftly replaced the previous methods of communication like placing posters in the streets or pamphlets on office desks in an attempt to reach queer Öcher*innen. These new resources have become both a local and a global tool for queer communities to interact, substituting certain spatial roles to offer a quicker, more practical approach to networking and dating from the comfort of one’s own home, rather than having to go somewhere and make the effort of meeting other shy humans. This dichotomy of finding a powerful tool but also a substitute for physical spaces is seen by many generations as a danger for the future of Aachen’s queer spaces. During the lockdown periods brought about by the global pandemic, the internet has served as the oxygen tank supporting the vulnerable existence of physical queer spaces that are not immune to mass-gathering laws imposed on wider society. The relocation of Aachen's queer spaces from the physical to the virtual realm, made possible by the internet, has proven to be the salvation of queer institutions and individuals alike.
The development of creative responses to community requirements and a sustained effort by queer communities to open safe spaces for each other has been a constant struggle throughout the last half-century. Crises have brought challenges but also the potential to reinvent the queer scene of Aachen, not only in terms of individual spaces, but new spatial productions and media, e.g. temporary and virtual spaces: Queer spaces are resilient.
“The event was in a huge hall in a hideous building, the bar was a plank on top of beer cases, (…) but the party was always wild.“
This quote refers to the “Schwules Fest” and demonstrates the simplicity of the action required to “queer“ a space (using “to queer” here as a verb). The way in which different queer spaces are created is different in each individual case, but they all coincide in reacting to a specific need, often reinventing or reclaiming an existing space. It is more about what happens in a specific place and not so much as for where it happens.
There are certain types of queer spaces that prove this in their own way, blurring the public/private lines and reclaiming urban spaces and redefining them. This is the case of cruising spots or “Klappen”, which specifically refer to public toilets used by men to have sex with other men. The origins of these traditions might as well be as old as Aachen itself, being an Ancient Roman settlement, but it is during the 1960s when gay travel guides first start mapping Klappen in Aachen and informing men where to find other men late at night. There are well-known places in metropolitan areas across the world which became, over time, hotspots for these practices but in Aachen’s case the lack of privacy afforded by local society and the reduced size of the city forced these users to be even more resourceful and careful.
Older gay Öcher remember the thrill of looking for partners in badly lit streets around public toilets while carefully anticipating potential homophobic violence or detentions from the “Polizei”. The reality of these spaces was a constant antithesis of going public to engage in illegal private relations, exposing oneself while remaining anonymous, the desire and longing for other men at night while being closeted during the day. The reduced opportunities in daily life to meet potential partners, and the oppression from society, government and Church to follow heteronormative behaviours, forced generations of men to express their sexuality in a concealed and stigmatised way.
“You would hear about it, you just knew.“
Klappen-users took advantage of the early closing times of bars, the lack of street lighting, and the empty public toilets to either have sex there or find partners to take elsewhere. Despite the need for the secrecy behind cruising practices, men interested in these places would sooner or later end up finding out about them one way or another. Local queer artist Klaus Paier became well-known in Aachen for his provocative street art in the surroundings of cruising areas. His work often commented on social and political issues such as wars and violence, as well as homosexuality/homophobia. He “marked” certain Klappen with explicit images of men engaging in sexual practices next to painted faces of shocked people. It wasn’t his aim to be informative about these places but thought-provoking or even shocking, as a reaction to society’s rejection and disgust. Most of his pieces have been removed since but one of the few that remains has become the symbol of “Café Kittel”, two men kissing, an image too provocative for the local government in the 1980s but that can still be seen today and was furthermore protected under the Law on the Protection and Maintenance of Monuments and Memorials from the year 2016 for its cultural and historical value.
Klaus Paier’s graffiti “Liebespaar”, photograph by Regina Weinkauf
These performative elements of the “queering” of public spaces, also found in demonstrations and Pride parades, send political messages and present an oppressed community to the Aachen mainstream. These acts rely on both improvisation around existing spaces and the active creation through (re-)purposing, understanding space as a multidimensional context of material, social, political and symbolic layers. The creative approach to understand and reinterpret spatial and urban potentials in Aachen proves that queer spaces question the status quo of Architecture and Urbanism.
More than 90 queer spaces were found during my research of Aachen’s past 50 years. The majority of them had closed by 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Germany. This is the case of most European cities in which an inability to keep queer venues afloat (Dr. Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall prove it in London), coincides with a rise of homophobic and especially transphobic violence. Dr. Ellie Cosgrave explains that Urban and Architectural design has a direct effect on the everyday life of humans through unequal social power dynamics. A lack of consideration of minorities provokes unequal access to space and lack of safety in the city: this is the origin of the need for safe queer spaces, both inside and outside of the metropolis.
Dr. Petra L. Doan applies John Stuart Mill’s concept of the “tyranny of the majority” in the need for academic research on queer minorities and queer spaces, not for the sake of understanding individual venues, but to understand their relation and access to the urban space – with the goal to shape the disciplines of Architecture and Urban Planning.
By observing and understanding queer spaces and their creators, we can learn how cities can be co-created and can become more accessible to specific minorities, and to everyone.
Queer spaces question the status quo of Architecture and Urbanism through performativity to become resilient pioneers in times of crisis.