Last week I spent 5 days in the city of Mannheim, Germany, for a twin-city exchange on LGBT+ issues. Mannheim invited representatives from LGBT+ organisations from all of its twin cities to apply for a place at the event, and Swansea University’s LGBT+ Staff Network (which I co-chair) was offered 2 places! I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to take part, and it was such an enriching and inspiring experience.
I’ve written about the visit from a more professional (ish) perspective on the LGBT+ Staff Network blog, for anyone who might be interested!
Day 1: travel out and dinner party
We flew out from Bristol Airport in the smallest plane I’d ever been in and arrived in Frankfurt airport at around 7pm. It was lovely to fly over Germany and see how much of the country was covered in forest (I later learned that 30% of Germany is forest!).
When we got to the hotel in Mannheim, we met the organiser Jana, who was such a lovely person and made us feel very welcome. After giving us a big bag of freebies each (including free stationery, which is my favourite kind of freebie!), we all got a taxi over to meet Soren Landman, one of the city’s LGBTI commissioners (along with Grace Proch, who we’d meet at lunch the next day), who was holding an informal dinner party for all the twin city reps (at someone else’s house who was kind enough to host us). I met Arnon and Yoav from Haifa (Israel), Metehan from Istanbul (Turkey), and Uwe, one of the organisers of Mannheim Pride. After a long day of travelling, I felt quite shy at the party which was frustrating, but I had a good time nonetheless, and the homemade food was delicious.
Day 2: city tour and Rainbow Reception
In the morning we had breakfast with Arnon, Yoav, and Metehan (unlimited hotel breakfast buffet, very nice) which usually I would shy away from for the sake of conserving social energy, but I’m glad I made the effort to be fully sociable because I had a lovely time.
After breakfast we went for a walking tour of the city with a tour guide, where we visited the famous water tower, The Mannheimer Rosengarten, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum, and the Palace. She also shared some local history with us, including Beethoven’s connection of Mannheim, the story behind the city’s street layouts, and the history of the bicycle which was invented in Mannheim!
Photos were prohibited inside the Palace, which was a shame as it was so beautiful inside – you can see some photos on the official website.
We had lunch in Dachgarten, a beautiful roof-top garden restaurant that overlooks the central shopping area. At lunch we met the 2 reps from Chisinau (Moldova) who had just arrived, Anastasia and Veasceslav (Slavi).
After lunch, we visited queer bookshop Der andere Buchladen to meet the organiser of Mannheim Pride. I was frustrated at the bi erasure at the bookshop – they had stacks labelled “gay” and “lesbian” and a very small section labelled “transsexual” (which the owner acknowledged was insufficient), but nothing about bisexuality.
That evening we participated in the city’s Rainbow Reception event, which was the official city reception for all the LGBT+ activists at the Zeughaus museum. The event was opened by one of the Mayors of Manneheim, Dr Ulrike Freundlieb, and featured a 40-minute interview with the twin city representatives! It came as a bit of a surprise – I knew that we were going to be participating in the Rainbow Reception event, but didn’t know quite how formal it was going to be, nor how senior the attendees and fellow speakers were – in other words, that escalated quickly!
Once we’d arrived at the venue, the presenter Alfonso Pantisano had a pre-show interview with each of us to take some notes for his use as interviewer, and he told me that I had the most important role in the panel as I was representing both the UK and Germany due to our similar positions on LGBT+ rights! He also encouraged the other speakers to ask me challenging questions! I was very nervous but it went pretty well on the whole (and the questions weren’t tooo difficult) – I mostly spoke about the importance of not getting complacent now that we have marriage equality, and the importance of being active allies.
Afterwards we met the Mayor and the Twin City Commissioner Dr Ludovic Roy:
We had some nibbles, mingled with guests, and spoke to some press representatives – fancy pants!
Day 3: Twin Cities workshop and Dyke*March
On Day 3, all twin city representatives met with various LGBT organisations and activists from Mannheim to share best practice and discuss ideas for how the twin cities could work together to advance LGBT+ equality in Europe. We talked about the situations in our own countries, the work we do, and ways to work together – I’ve written a bit more about this workshop on the LGBT+ Staff Network blog.
At the venue, they had a Swansea room, which of course I had to get a photo with because I’m a huge nerd:
It was fascinating to hear the others talk about their experiences in their countries – e.g. in Turkey, the question Metehan hears the most from people who come to his LGBT center for help is “can you please cure my son/daughter?”. In Moldova, Anastasia and Slavi’s organisation GENDERDOC-M is the only LGBT+ organisation in the whole country, and are entirely funded by European grants and donations – they receive zero government support, and in fact, Anastasia later told me that the reason she got into LGBT+ activism is because she received first-hand police discrimination for being queer where she was detained against her will by the police and had her ID confiscated.
After a short afternoon break, we travelled to Heidelberg to participate in the Rhine-Neckar Dyke*March, a protest/celebration march for all self-identified “women-loving-women”. Men were invited to show their support on the sidelines of the march, but not within the march itself. During the opening speeches, the organisers thanked the twin city visitors by name which was pretty cool! The march had a friendly and energising atmosphere, and we had a great time despite heavy rain.
On our way to the central rally point, I took some photos of the beautiful architecture in Heidelberg:
The male twin city visitors were invited to participate in the “Boat of Love” which was taking place at the same time as the Dyke*March – Daf chose not to participate in a 4-hour boat party full of drunk gay Germans, which is disappointing as it would’ve made a great story! Instead, he chose to support the Dyke*March, and was described as “a man of principle” for doing so. 🙂
That evening we had dinner in a Turkish restaurant called Mahmoud’s with a big group of people from the march (eep!), and then finally back to the hotel for a long sleep.
Day 4: Mannheim Pride (CSD Rhine-Neckar) and the after-party
This was the big event, and my favourite experience of the entire visit! After a huge lunch in a Turkish restaurant (there seem to be a lot of Turkish restaurants in the area), we went to the Pride Parade, where we were the guests of honour! After receiving a shout-out in the opening speeches, all twin city reps were invited to cut the ribbon and begin the parade, and then we marched at the very front with our twin cities displayed on big red placards! The march had such a fun, uplifting vibe full of floats and lavish costumes and loud music, it was brilliant.
The march ended at a street party in the Palace grounds containing 70,000 visitors in total. Later in the afternoon a minute’s silence was held at the party in commemoration of the victims of homophobic violence in Chechnya, and the twin city reps were invited to read out the English translations of the German words of commemoration. A little while later, we were all invited back on stage to be interviewed about our LGBT+ activism work.
We all had backstage passes, where we had free food and danced to the music being played on stage!
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Daf and I eventually left the street party at around 8pm. On the way home, Arnon took us to a Japanese tea lounge near the hotel, where we had some posh tea.
We were picked up at 11.30pm (at night?!) to go to the Pride after-party in a club called MS Connexion which was wild. It was an enormous warehouse with rooms across 3 floors, completely packed with people, 95% presented as cis men, many of whom were partially or fully naked! The club also had dark rooms, which I’d never heard of until today (I was fully prepared to go in to see what was going on, until someone in the group explained to me what they were)!
The music was heavy techno and I didn’t like it very much, but it was fun to experience the surroundings.
Day 5: Heidelberg
After dragging my hungover butt out of bed at 10am for the hotel breakfast, we spent breakfast with some of the group and then said our goodbyes. Day 5 was a free day for our own use, as the twin city reps were all travelling home at various points today. Daf and I decided to go back to Heidelberg (where we’d visited for the Dyke*March) to see more of that beautiful town. We were lucky that the weather was much better today too!
We navigated our way to Heidelberg and back using the German-language public transport, which I was very proud of.
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On our way back from Heidelberg, we got the scenic route home via rural parts of Rhine-Neckar, and then went for lunch in Vapiano, an Italian restaurant where the chefs cook the food in front of you! I had salmon carbonara, SO good.
Day 5/6: travel home
We left Mannheim at 5pm and got home at 2am the following day. Rather frustratingly, the journey from Mannheim to Frankfurt to Bristol (650 miles) took 4 hours, including waiting time at the airport; the journey from Bristol to Swansea (80 miles) took 6 hours! Public transport in Wales is such a shit show, honestly.
I didn’t give much thought to the visit beforehand, as I was so stressed about getting everything organised in time, as well as work stuff generally being super tiring and stressful. So when I got to Mannheim and read the programme properly, it suddenly hit me just how much of a big deal the visit was. Throughout all our activities we were very prominent (this even included mentions in the official Pride programme, an article on the city’s website and scattered press coverage across Germany), and often treated like visiting dignitaries and experts in our field, which is something I’m not used to – I’m just a scruffy queer girl from the valleys!
One of the main things I learned as an LGBT+ activist was how much I overestimate perceived barriers to equality here in the UK. It was very insightful to speak to people from other countries where human rights violations and discrimination against LGBT+ people is routine, or where their culture is so closely tied up with homophobia stemming from the religious beliefs of the region. In the UK sometimes we perceive religion to be such an enormous, oppressive barrier, when in fact we’re fortunate to live in such a secular and liberal society by comparison to others in Europe. The experience has helped me see my own work through new eyes.
From a more personal perspective, it was inspiring to hear stories from such interesting, well-travelled people, which has motivated me to cultivate similar qualities in myself. It’s something that’s on my mind already, but this visit provided me with a little burst of motivation. I love to travel, but I don’t do it often enough, and usually that’s because I convince myself that I’m too busy and too broke – when the reality is that I don’t dedicate the time and money to it. The people I met were about my age and economic background, and yet they’re travelling the world. Also, when I do travel, I don’t always experience much culture, which is something I need to prioritise more going forward.
I was surprised at how well I coped with the intensity of the social interactions during this trip – I was around people I had never met before for 5 days straight, with only a few short hours each evening to recharge alone, and despite this I was happy to be around them making conversation. I often avoid filling my schedule with social plans because I tell myself that I’ll be tired and grumpy if I don’t get enough alone time, but it’s all relative really – sometimes a sleep is enough of a recharge, and sometimes talking to people can be refreshing! It reminded me that talking to people isn’t about “making small talk”, but about connecting with people – and I made some really meaningful connections this week, with people that I would love to spend time with again.