Up until last month, I hadn’t been abroad for ten years. Two trips to Crete, aged 13 and 14, and then I found myself in a desert. A travel one.
As a student in Brighton, I saw little point in holidaying. My money went on rent, laser hair removal and my appearance, yet social phobia kept me indoors for fortnights at a time.
I’m not scared of life anymore. I fear death. But earlier this year, the constant battle of my activism started taking its toll, and I needed a break.
I renewed my passport two years ago, as clubs had started to question anyone who looked under 25, let alone 18. I didn’t need a government document to be me, yet getting it was like a stamp of legitimacy on my identity: tangible proof that the state agrees I am female. I wanted to travel.
Imagine, then, how pleased I was to be offered an all-expenses covered trip to Germany. Yes, thank you Grungtvig. I had no expectations other than a series of workshops with European activists: but for someone who used to struggle to reach the corner shop, flying to another country, to catch two trains, was a big deal.
Sod it, I thought. I got on the plane.
The Waldschlösschen – literally “forest-castle” – lies 13km southeast of the university town Göttingen amid beautiful, hilly woodlands. It was an attractive destination both in my mind and in reality. Es war wunderschön. Nothing was foreign: the trees seemed to grow as though from my very childhood, the forest of fairy tails; Brothers Grimm-like, deep, dark and green. I wanted to run away and become lost there… frightened.
Our wonderful hosts, Ulli, Volker and Stephan, told us how the grand building, just a few miles away from the former Iron Curtain, had been taken over by queers in the 80s. Now it has evolved into a life-long learning centre and we were there. Even the Pope was in town.
It soon became apparent that, in addition to my fine surroundings, I was in exquisite company. Never before have I seen such a diverse collection of human experience, intelligence and kindness.
Ulrich is quite possibly one of the nicest human beings I’ve met, along with his delightful “friend” Anna, who came with us to one of Göttingen’s charming and apparently conservative coffee houses. Anna enoyed provoking reactions from people with her appearance – reactions which left me unamused.
But I was moved to tears by Deborah’s amazing history, shared with us by the log fire. Ania’s account of being beaten by the police in Eastern Europe made me angry, while Dagmar and Heino humbled me with news of their fantastic work organising Baltic Pride amid fierce hostility. Why had I never heard of these people before?
In Germany, a drag queen is given her title by a more established artiste. I think Frau Doktor – “Mrs Doctor” – got lucky with this tradition, and she proved to be as fabulously funny as her name.
Claudia… what an amazing person: full of laughter, charisma and light. And how lucky I feel to have met such inspirations as Frank and Kathryn. Lesbian, trans, bi, gay – these were my people. I’ve never had any doubt that gender and sexual minorities are fighting the same battle, and everyone present seemed to agree.
Outsiders won’t appreciate the magic. By turns, it was a holiday, cultural exchange, conference, health spa, networking opportunity, therapy session… all these things and more. As the lovely Tony says: “It was life changing”.
I lived by the shore for three years, yet swam in the sea no more than five times. I was ashamed of my body. But I felt completely comfortable stepping into the huge sauna with my new friends at the Waldschlösschen, a veritable sauna-virgin. Well, I had to be a virgin of something.
What a great mix of expertise, ages, nationalities, genders, and sexualities. How often do you find yourself in the same room as one of the driving forces behind LGBT History Month, a leading Polish gay rights activist, and Norway’s answer to Christine Jorgenson? I’m looking at you, Jeff, Adam and Jeannette.
Geert was a giggler, and I warmed to him immediately. And Vreer, thank you for showing me your alter ego, Astral-Sausage. I’ve never seen anyone pull off a silver PVC cat suit quite like that! Nadine was the “gurrrl” who straightened my hair in the early hours of the morning, after I’d been flirting and posing in the sauna with Kieran and Saulo.
Lying in bed just hours before our flight home, the wooden beams on the ceiling reminded me of pictures from German textbooks back in school. I’d always wanted to have a foreign pen pal to visit, but never felt confident I’d be safe in someone else’s home – I didn’t feel that welcome in my own. I also felt excluded at school, and wouldn’t have dreamt of going on any of the various German trips our teachers organised.
As clichéd as this sounds, I realised that the Waldschlösschen was the school trip I’d never had. It was the sweet-end of bittersweet. Thank you.
Perhaps the saddest part of leaving was not saying goodbye, but knowing that we were returning to heteronormativity. As a group, we shared a keen sense of injustice. We see the gap between how things are, and how we would like them to be, and we work hard to remove it. At the Waldschlösschen, there was no gap.
It was beautiful.Follow @parislees