Berlin opens Europe's first home for elderly gays, lebians and bisexuals

HK$60m project allows residents to live openly supported by understanding staff

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:05am

Over wine and coffee in Berlin's Wilde Oscar restaurant, Peter Sibley and Gottfried Stecher swap stories of the bad old days when homosexuality was outlawed.

"I was a late developer, and didn't even learn the word 'gay' until I was 30," says Stecher, 84 a retired confectioner who now works as an extra at the national opera house, the Deutsche Oper. "I've spent most of my life being a lover to married men."

Sibley, 70, a former London theatre and music manager, says he had the fortune "of working in a profession where it was considered normal to be queer". Apart from his parents, "I've lived with other gay people all my life".

They may have had different life experiences, but in retirement both men had a similar wish: to grow old in an environment in which they could be open about their sexuality.

Now neighbours, they are meeting for the first time in the plush restaurant on the ground floor of a revolutionary, 25-flat housing project both call home in west Berlin. In Europe's first multi-generational house for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, Stecher has a two-room flat, Sibley a single room in a shared flat.

"What all our residents have in common is that they wanted to live together with other gays and lesbians," says Marco Pulver of Berlin's gay and lesbian advisory service, which is behind the €6 million (HK$60 million) project, Lebensort Vielfalt (Diverse Living Space). "Many of our older residents spent their youth and often a large amount of their adult life in gay-hostile environments.

"Several even experienced persecution under the Nazis, and all of them have been affected by Germany's 'Paragraph 175'," he says, referring to the law that forbade sex between men and was not abolished until 1994.

"Now their priority is not to have to shy away from their sexuality and to certainly not have to worry about whether who is taking care of them, often in an intimate way, has a problem with it."

More than 200 people are on the waiting list for the home.

While 60 per cent of the space is reserved for men over 55, women and younger men also live there. The youngest is 31-year-old Robert Franke, an accountant at a yoga centre, who jumped at the chance when told he could apply for a flat in the project.

"I lived in a commune with 24 others in a squat in the former East Berlin," he says. "When that broke up, I thought it would be nice to be a bit independent, but also to be in a well-defined community with other gay people."

The residents are served by a concierge and enjoy a library, garden and the restaurant, which doubles up as a theatre/cabaret bar for regular entertainment.

Sibley, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a stroke, says the housing project saved him from "ending my days rotting in an anonymous old folk's home".

"There was nothing comparable in the UK, so we had to look elsewhere. They're planning something similar in Madrid, but seeing as I have friends in Berlin, and it's easy for UK friends to fly over to see me, we decided upon this," he says.