By Riri Hylton
The queue outside Berlin gay nightclub SchwuZ on June 5 was a long one. With a waiting-time of around an hour, the club had pulled one of its biggest crowds. The attraction? A black icon. The theme? Beyoncélicious: a night dedicated to the queen. But the decision to deny entry to a number of black and PoC club-goers that night sparked anger among the crowd, leading to claims of racist door policy practices, an impromptu protest and a subsequent online campaign.
SchwuZ is a self-proclaimed anti-racist, anti-fascist, inclusive space, but it appears that a deep level of denial is still at work in one of the alternative club scene’s beloved institutions. This was most clearly illuminated in the way management responded to the public outcry in the days following June 5.
‘The attitude was different, the demeanour towards us was so different’
SchwuZ is located in Neukölln, Berlin’s most racially diverse district in an industrial-sized building, Schwuz boasting a three-room capacity of over 1,000. Its forty-year history in Europe’s gay mecca has guaranteed its status as a Berlin institution.
Rebecca and Jay, two black patrons, arrived at the venue in the early hours of Monday morning. ‘We planned to meet a friend, Stefan, a white German, who was further back in the queue’, said Jay. After queuing for an hour the pair reached the entrance and was asked how many were in their group. ‘Two’ Jay replied. ‘The bouncer told us “this party is not for you tonight, please leave the line”’.
Stefan, who reached the front with his white friend moments later, was met with a different response: ‘Within five minutes they immediately let them in’, said Jay.
Seeing that Rebecca and Jay had been denied entry, Stefan held back and began asking security questions: ‘I have to admit that, at first glance, I didn’t understand the situation’, he said. ‘A dozen other PoCs had not been let in either’.
‘The attitude was different, the demeanour towards us was so different’, Jay added.
Meanwhile, an all-black female group of friends, Cece, Gaby, Adrian, Isabelle, Natalie and Esther, were in the queue further back. They were asked a similar question at the entrance: ‘How many are you?’
‘We’re six’, said Gaby.
One bouncer replied: ‘You guys aren’t coming in, step to the side’.
Having witnessed security deny entry to Cece and her group, Rebecca and Jay decided to approach. ‘It was at this point that I was looking around and saw that we were ten People of Colour who had not been let into the club, so we started talking to these girls’, Rebecca explained.
Neither group was told why they were denied entry, whilst those ahead and behind had been allowed in, adding to the level of frustration at the door. ‘We were with them for hours, getting really frustrated because security wouldn’t give us any answers’.
‘SchwuZ wants black money but they don’t want black bodies’
As the group of rejectees slowly grew, they decided to stage a protest. ‘We sang Beyoncé songs and when people found out what happened they came to the front and joined us. We were playing music and chanting’, said Adrian. At this point security stopped all entry into the club, explaining why the two groups had been denied entry only after what seemed a prolonged period of time. ‘We were being too „loud“ and „annoying“’, a criterion of behaviour, Adrian notes, that wasn’t applied to others in the line, only the group of black women. Strange, given it was an event celebrating a black woman who has aligned herself with present and historical black struggle movements. ‘SchwuZ wants black money but they don’t want black bodies’, offers Cece.
With Rebecca and Jay it was a simple case of association: ‘The security guard said he thought we were all together’, said Rebecca. ‘We’ meaning Cece and her friends. The two groups hadn’t met prior to that evening and weren’t close enough in the queue to have seen one another.
‘We were around 15 minutes ahead of the other group’, recalls Jay. The only thing they did have in common was the colour of their skin – a classic example of racial profiling. When Rebecca pointed this out, security invited her and Jay to enter the club, but they declined.
‘I’m German, I was born in Munich. I never expected this’, said Rebecca. ‘I had to cry, it was draining.’
‘SchwuZ has a racism problem and it needs to be addressed’
After an hour of demonstrating outside the club, the two groups went home, determined to remain in touch and organise. Open letters were published, testimonies collated and community organisers contacted. The story quickly circulated among queer and PoC networks, with regular DJs cancelling upcoming performances and club-goer numbers dipping in the immediate aftermath, according to one member of staff.
Media response was minimal but telling. „Tagesspiegel“ published an article titled ‘Club-goers accuse SchwuZ of racism’ with the subheading: ‘Which side is right?’ Having interviewed one of the club’s managing directors, the paper failed to contact those denied entry or those who posted damning Facebook comments, on which the piece heavily relied.
The July issue of „Siegessaeule“ published a revealing response highlighting a key area of the debate:
There is something particularly racist about incidents like these involving the exclusion of Black people from events centred on facets of Black culture. What I find disturbing is that these events are organized by White people, intended for other White people. An individual group, or organization, can claim to be „inclusive“ in a statement, but real inclusion must be deliberate.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Beyoncélicious aftermath was the collated testimonies of those claiming they experienced racial discrimination at the venue over the years. They range in length and detail but build a compelling picture, bringing into focus the systematic and enduring nature of the problem.
SchwuZ management responded the following week by meeting with a representative of the complainants, arranging in-house anti-racist workshops for all employees and issuing an apology:
We sincerely regret what happened Monday morning in front of SchwuZ. After we had to pause letting more people in for reasons of safety (we were at full capacity early on), a situation between some of our white queer and non-queer employees and Black Queers and Queers of Color as well as non-queer people in the queue verbally escalated. In the course of events those involved were denied entrance to the club. We would like to apologize for the emotional harm and pain this inflicted on so many people.
This statement seemed to ignore the main accusation of the complainants, namely racism. It also didn’t mirror the account given by bouncers that night. If club capacity had really played a part, why wasn’t this mentioned by security who claimed noise and association as reasons for turning people away? What was meant by the phrase ‘this party is not for you’? And why were so many PoCs being told to stand aside throughout the course of the night? Community activists wrote a reply to the statement, deeming the apology insincere.
None of the five directly-employed security guards working on the night of Beyoncélicious were available for comment but the venue’s press officer did offer a response: ‘We are well aware of power structures and that they are functioning in SchwuZ’, they said. When questioned on the more specific claim of racial profiling on the night of June 5, management was clear that ‘there was not any racial profiling involved’.
Which begs further questions: why arrange in-house anti-racist workshops? Why apologise in the first place? For Adrian it was quite clear: ‘SchwuZ has a racism problem and it needs to be addressed’.
That people queued for hours outside SchwuZ in early June was a testament to the wide appeal of an artist whose works have increasingly centered on the black female experience. It should have been an event decidedly welcoming to black people and PoCs. But reports of racial profiling that night and the club’s subsequent failure to directly address these accusations has left a bitter aftertaste. A genuine apology would have gone some way to countering what appears to be racism of an institutional kind.