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February 12, 2024
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Manuela Kay On Boosting Lesbian Visibility In Germany

Manuela Kay challenges the norms within the LGBT community, expressing her views on the need for subversive activism over conventional pursuits. She shares her political vision of pornography and its role in sexual education and liberation.

Sylvie: We want to know everything about you, how all your journey started?

Manuela Kay: My first job? I cleaned public swimming pools. It was a nightmare. So I knew I had to find something less dirty and that was pornography. Seriously, it can’t get any more dirty than in public swimming institutions. And I started journalism in 1986.

Sylvie: You're now a well-known journalist in Berlin, having founded L-Mag, a lesbian magazine that ran for many years. Currently, you're leading Siegessäule, which was a gay magazine and has now evolved to be more inclusive. Could you share the story of L-Mag?

Manuela: To understand L-Mag, let's start with Siegessäule. The name itself is challenging to pronounce, even for Germans. It means "Column of Victory," a phallic monument in Berlin's Tiergarten area, near the main gay cruising spot. It was amusing for gay men to name a magazine after it. Siegessäule was established nearly 40 years ago in 1984 as a gay magazine. I served as its chief editor for nearly a decade starting in the '90s. I transformed it from a gay magazine to a gay and lesbian publication, well before the use of the term "queer" became widespread. Today, it's called "We are Queer Berlin," a highly inclusive publication for anyone who doesn't conform to the straight normative society. During my time as chief editor, I, along with a colleague, purchased the publishing house to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. I'm now the publisher, co-owning it. In 2003, the idea of creating a lesbian magazine for Germany outside Berlin emerged, considering Siegessäule's limited city-based reach. We asked, "What do lesbians read if they don't live in Berlin?" So, in a nutshell, we, the Siegessäule team, gave birth to L-Mag. L-Mag is the direct offshoot of Siegessäule, sharing the same publishing house but with separate editorial teams.

Sylvie: So how long did the L-MAG exist? 20 years?

Manuela: 20 years. It still exists.

Sylvie: So, another baby you have already is Dyke March and it started, like 10 years ago, how did you manage to make it happen?

Manuela: Well, the Dyke March is linked to my journey and L-Mag’s history. When L-Mag had its 10th anniversary, we thought, what do we do to celebrate? And parties are boring. Striving for lesbian visibility, which is still insufficient even within the broader LGBT community, we sought a powerful statement. I recalled the invigorating energy of Dyke Marches in the U.S. and Canada and felt compelled to replicate that spirit in Berlin. The Dyke March has roots that trace back to the Lesbian Avengers in 1993 during a significant human rights march in Washington DC. They recognized the need for a distinct lesbian presence, which often got lost in the broader narratives. The Dyke March was their solution, not as a rival to the pride marches but as a complementary event, a celebration of lesbian visibility and solidarity. Launching Berlin’s first Dyke March in 2013, we stepped away from the commercialism that often overshadows pride parades like Christopher Street Day. If you've ever been to Gay Pride or Christopher Street Day, as we call it in Berlin, you know it's quite the spectacle. It's beautifully commercialized, with around 70 trucks, mostly bearing the logos of big brands, you know, those household names, the champions of the LGBTQ+ revolution that started in the sixties. From Deutsche Bank to Lufthansa to Mercedes Benz, they've all been at the forefront of the radical activism that defined the era, right? Naturally, this history has earned them a special place in our hearts, and many folks are just thrilled about it… (laugh) So with no big-name sponsors or flamboyant floats, our march was a grassroots gathering, a refreshing contrast that resonated with many. We started with around 1,500 people, a number that has swelled to 10,000 over the years. The movement we ignited spread to other German cities like Cologne and Hamburg, and it’s fascinating to see how the Dyke March concept is taking root globally. However, sustaining this movement is no small feat. It's all volunteer-led, relying on the dedication of those willing to sacrifice their free time without financial incentive. We deliberately avoid corporate backing to maintain the authenticity and grassroots nature of the march. This approach, while fulfilling, presents its own set of challenges. The Dyke March, as it grows, requires considerable organization, meeting the expectations of a community yearning for recognition, and the commitment of individuals who believe in its cause. It’s a labor of love, demanding yet incredibly rewarding.

Sylvie: With your projects drawing inspiration from North America, I'm curious about your cultural influences. Berlin is seen as a cultural hub with a history of freedom. Who are your cultural role models?

Manuela: Well, that might be a personal thing, but I imagine myself as an American cowboy in a former life. That would explain all my tastes, passions, and everything. I was an exchange student when I was 16, and I just fell in love with the country, the culture, and the language. I'm also a big fan of rituals and traditions. When I learned about the Stonewall riots and where this whole gay pride movement came from, I thought, "Oh, okay, I need to go there and see." I was fascinated that it all started in just a shabby, dark little bar. Looking back, I'm not surprised it didn't happen at a university, but in a bar. It's hard to believe for many people that the gay movement didn't start at a university, but it's a fact, and there are good reasons for it. Ever since, I thought, "Okay, these people there, they are the ones who sparked this revolution of the LGBT movement." I was always very fond of American culture because it's a place where people from all over the world migrated, although, of course, it's important to acknowledge the tragic history of the native population being killed, displaced and mistreated before the establishment of a new culture, which, of course, must be viewed very critically. But when it comes to the LGBT movement, I think we can learn a lot from the Americans. I know that not everyone agrees, which is fine with me. But for me, this is my role model and my roadmap. Also, the commercialization of it all in the US is as critical to me as it is here in Europe. Especially now in New York, there's an alternative Pride event more connected to the original roots of gay pride, with no corporate sponsors and no trucks. They have the same discussions that we have. So it's not that I don't criticize American politics—I mean, how can you not criticize American politics? But in a way, it has always fascinated me. So the Dyke March was an American invention, and even Harley Davidson is an American invention. I love that stuff, I can't help it.

Sylvie: Any author from America?

Manuela: I have to say I'm a huge fan of American literature, but I usually like a straight white old man. My favorite author is John Irving. He wrote a great lesbian book, his latest book, “The Last Chairlift.” I don't know if you read it, but everybody is lesbian or trans in this book. I had no idea that my favorite author is over 70 and he wrote a book like that. It's quite fascinating.

Sylvie: In a city known for its free spirit, what has been the experience for women and lesbians in Berlin? Can you share your personal journey of self-expression in the cultural and media landscape?

Manuela: Being a Berlin native, the city's spirit of liberty is practically in my blood, a legacy from my mother and grandmother. Berlin's charm lies in its chaos and bluntness. Recently, a friend and I noted how different the friendliness there is compared to other places; Berlin skips the small talk, focusing on efficiency over pleasantries. It's not the friendliest city, but it's radical, with a magnetic energy that influences global culture and politics. Berlin's tumultuous history, marked by wars and crises, has imbued it with a mix of destructive and revolutionary energy. Growing up here, I took for granted the openness that others might find astonishing. In the '70s and '80s, having openly gay and lesbian teachers was normal; my first visit to a lesbian bar at 15 was uneventful, even bumping into my teachers there. This environment allowed me to be active from an early age, leveraging Berlin's infrastructure and vitality. However, my inspiration often came from the U.S., not Berlin. I imported this external stimulus, blending it with Berlin's unique culture, and extended it to the rest of Germany. Personally, I faced little struggle as a lesbian or as a woman. I never felt the need to hide; my journey was relatively smooth, marked by a sense of privilege and luck.

Sylvie: Before we speak about another child you have, Pornfilmfestival Berlin, I wanted you to tell us, what is your vision about pornography?

Manuela: My political vision of pornography... that's a big one. I've been involved with the porn film festival for 18 years now. Sexual liberation is both a political and feminist issue, and I see pornography as a tool for sexual education, helping individuals shed their shame and negative feelings about their own desires and bodies. And especially if you are educated as a woman, you are educated to feel shame, shame for your body, shame for your lust. Similarly, if you identify as gay, lesbian, queer, enby or trans, society often makes you feel different or somehow "wrong," leading to shame and self-hatred. I believe that pornography can play a role in overcoming this self-hatred and shame. It allows you to explore what these images and scenes do to you without being physically present with others. You don't need to comment or engage in sexual activity with someone to view them naked. You can simply observe, compare, and relate yourself to what you see. This broader perspective helps you realize that everyone has similar questions and insecurities about their bodies and desires, promoting self-assurance and a reduction in shame. In my view, pornography should enable you to experience a range of emotions, including finding things ridiculous or ugly. These emotions are typically reserved for intimate sexual encounters, where insecurities about your own or your partner's body, sexual techniques, or fantasies may arise. However, when you're watching pornography in a cinema or at home, there's no one around you, giving you the space to question and educate yourself. You can determine what you like and dislike, and this self-exploration allows you to grow without impacting anyone else. Ultimately, I believe that pornography, when used in a responsible and thoughtful way, can lead to a more educated and liberated sexual maturity. It offers a space for you to develop your own sexual taste and identity. Even if you come to the conclusion that you don't like sex at all after consuming pornography, you've still gained self-awareness and developed a complex personality. Pornography can be a safe space for personal growth as a sexual individual.

Sylvie: Can you delve into the origins of the Berlin Pornfilmfestival and your vision for pornography through it?

Manuela: Eighteen years back, Jurgen Bruning, a filmmaker and the founder of the Berlin-based porn label Cazzo Film, initiated the Porn Film Festival Berlin. His aim was to challenge and expand the notion of what pornography could be, particularly within the realms of queer and alternative porn. He observed that pornography had retreated into private spaces with the advent of video and internet, and he wanted to bring it back to the public—to cinemas where it was once consumed collectively, albeit with a mix of delight and discomfort. The festival started in 2006, and my entry came as a lecturer on 'How to Make Lesbian Porn,' following my work on "Airport." Despite not being from the porn industry, I was intrigued by the festival's vast scope, which included parties, debates, exhibitions, and workshops. Seeing the enormity of the task at hand, I offered to help Jurgen, and just like that, I was part of the team, without a formal application process. Now, as part of the programming team, we select a diverse array of films. While the festival's name suggests explicit content, over half of the films we showcase don't feature sex. We explore the meta aspects of sexuality, gender, body politics, sex work, and more through documentaries, experimental art, and the occasional hardcore porn. It’s a festival that goes beyond traditional expectations, surprising newcomers who may expect something akin to the old porn cinemas. Our festival offers a different experience, aiming to educate, provoke thought, and spark discourse on a wide spectrum of sexual topics.

Viviane: I'm curious about the production of "Airport" in the early '90s, particularly any challenges or anecdotes from the set. Could you share how the filming process was back then?

Manuela: Funny stories behind the film "Airport"... So, we shot it in 1993, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's set at an airport because I believe Berliners have a unique relationship with airports. We had four different airports, none of which worked properly. However the airport situation reflects the political history of Berlin because, after World War II, Berlin had multiple airports, each controlled by one of the occupying powers—there was a French airport, an American airport, a British airport, and a Russian airport all in one city. It's quite crazy. So, I have a special connection to airports, and I wanted to set the film at an airport. We actually shot at the original Tegel airport in the north of Berlin, which used to be the main airport of Berlin for a while. However, the entry scene where the plane is landing was stolen from a commercial for a German airline. Someone who also acted in "Airport" worked for television and took the material, giving it to us to include in our film. Then, we shot the scenes where the stewardesses walk into the toilet at Tegel airport. Of course, we needed permission because airports have high-security standards, even in the 1990s, though it wasn't as strict as it is today. My co-director, Silke Dunkhorst, was a student at the Technical University in Berlin. She stole the paper from the university and forged a letter claiming that it was a student project and needed to be shot at Tegel airport. Remarkably, they accepted it, allowing us to film there. I believe that even in the 1990s, resourceful filmmakers used such tricks to make their films happen. Perhaps the funniest story is about the toilet scene. We wanted to shoot in a public toilet with stalls and have the camera positioned above the stalls for that authentic public toilet feel. We filmed it in a museum in Berlin, a massive building. I worked part-time as a museum guard and had all the keys to the building because of my job. So, we shot in the museum at night, and I used my keys to open all the doors.

Viviane: Observing the evolution of the Porn Film Festival, I’d love to hear your thoughts on its growth and the changing perceptions of porn.

Manuela: First of all, I think that pornography remains a significant taboo, and even the word "porn" is still quite taboo, especially in Germany. Germany has one of the strictest youth protection laws globally, and there's this obsession with protecting young people from any form of sexual content. Of course, this approach doesn't work, as young people in Germany do engage in sexual activity. In fact, Germany is the number one user of online porn, despite these laws and rules. The debate about porn being dangerous, bad, and controlled by the mafia still persists worldwide. It's a slow process to educate people and dispel these myths. While there are unethical individuals in every industry, including porn, it's not inherently worse than any other. This realization takes time to reach the mainstream audience. Over the 18 years of the porn film festival, the image of pornography has slowly evolved. People are gradually realizing that there's a vast difference between forced prostitution and consensual sex work, as well as between snuff videos and pornography. It's essential to separate crime from sexual pleasure, but there's still a long way to go in this regard. While the audience at the porn film festival is open-minded, and reaching mainstream society, improving the image of porn remains challenging. Many people still label themselves as feminists but are, in my opinion, anti-feminist. They aim to protect not only children but also women from sexuality, equating sexuality with violence when they are opposites. There's much work to be done to challenge these misconceptions. As for the representation of sexuality in pornographic films and the evolution of how they are filmed, yes, it has evolved. Filming has become more accessible and affordable. You can now make a film or porn with a mobile phone, which wasn't possible a few years ago. While this accessibility has led to more filmmakers trying their hand at it, it has also resulted in a lot of low-quality content. Additionally, the internet has played a significant role. You can easily upload your films to various platforms, although the legal situation in Germany differs from the rest of the world. This has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. The trend toward authentic porn has also grown, with more real couples or individuals portraying themselves having sex. It's no longer a traditional film set or story; it's like watching real people in their intimate moments, which has become quite popular. Perhaps the most positive development is that more women are involved behind the camera, having a say in the production process, planning, and scripting. It's no longer a male-dominated industry, except for the major companies, which, like other patriarchal structures, tend to have men in leadership positions when significant money is involved. In summary, the porn film industry has evolved in terms of accessibility, representation, and female involvement, but challenges and misconceptions about pornography persist.

Sylvie: You just released a book, can you tell us about it?

Manuela: You can't even say it's a book. It's just a political essay. Unfortunately. Or luckily. I don't know, it's in German and I don't want to turn this into a commercial thing, but you asked me to bring it. It's a political essay, it's called “Sehnsucht nach Subversion”. So “The Desire for Subversion” in English, because that's what I miss most in the LGBT community these days. I find our community way too conventional, too conservative, too career-oriented, too much into gay marriage, family building, summer homes, and mostly being normal instead of being subversive. So that's what the book is about. I'm not really loved for that,  because I'm strongly against gay marriage and a lot of gay people hate me for that. Why do you make it look so bad? They look down at you but when have you been to a political thing last time? Instead of sitting on your sofa and taking your partner's pulse if they're still alive. I just don't understand why people have withdrawn so much into privacy and instead of enjoying collective social things like sitting together in a cinema and you know, getting in touch with people, communicating, meeting new people. I think that is what the community is all about. It's a collective experience and not just your personal fulfillment, that's what the book is about.

Photographic credits ©Jana Demnitz.


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