In Berlin, a Drag Show Aims to Help Queer Refugees Feel at Home

Performers at Queens Without Borders.

Vincent Reynaud

It was a Saturday night in Berlin in April, just before 10 p.m. The city was only just getting into its nocturnal stride, with people filling sidewalk patios and jostling through the streets carrying bottles of beer. I was standing at the front of The Club, a queer dive bar in Neukölln, a borough southeast of the city center. The place was packed with hippies and hipsters, artists, activists, and their allies. In most bars such a volume of people would be an inconvenience, but this was different: The crowd was a sign of solidarity.

We were there for Queens Against Borders, a twisted, sophisticated drag show that helps raise funds for LGBTQ refugees in the city. Germany took in 1.1 million refugees last year, including an estimated 3,500 queer refugees in Berlin alone, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has been criticized by right-wing groups apparently fearful this influx will lead to terrorism or other crimes against women and LGBTQ folks. Surprisingly, even the Dalai Lama (a refugee himself) recently declared that, to keep Germany from becoming an Arab country, refugees should only be admitted temporarily. Such hostile remarks only add fuel to the right-wing blaze, so explicitly welcoming events like Queens Against Borders are an important means for refugee supporters to push back.

Right on schedule, someone started shouting that the show was about to begin. Many patrons were sitting around tables, drinking beer and puffing on cigarettes. Smoke filled the air. People got up and begin moving into the performance space in the back, so I grabbed another drink and followed. At the door, they were collecting donations for an organization that helps queer refugees. “I am a refugee myself,” the man in front of me in line said. They let him in free of charge.

Berlin has been particularly pro-refugee, and nowhere more so than in Neukölln. Many shops, bars, and cafes display signs in their windows that read “Refugees Welcome”—and this, even after the events of last New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where hundreds of women filed criminal complaints against North African and Arab men, alleging sexual assault. Berliners seem to understand that the men involved were criminals and refuse to paint all refugees with a broad brush.

This isn’t true for all Germans, of course. The right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany recently declared that “Islam is not a part of Germany,” feeding the xenophobic sentiments that are on the rise. According to a poll conducted by the INSA Institute, 61 percent of German citizens think there is no place for Islam in Germany, and 30 percent believe that those Muslims who live in Germany do not belong in the country. The secretary-general of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, Aiman Mazyek, compared the AfG to Nazis, and rightly so: “It is the first time since Hitler’s Germany that a whole religious community is discredited and existentially threatened.”

Olympia Bukkakis, organizer of Queens Against Borders and hostess for the evening, got on stage and explained the format of the show. Her fashion sensibilities are somewhat difficult to pinpoint, but she later explained to me that she imagines herself as a high priestess from a religion that never was. Queens Against Borders was launched last November by Bukkakis, who is an Australian expat and drag queen. With the event, she was hoping to provoke some political engagement surrounding the refugee issue and awareness among the queer community. “Late last year I decided that it would be a good idea to do a refugee fundraiser,” she told me. “And as that evolved, I decided that I didn’t really want to do a party where a whole bunch of well-meaning, middle-class, queer people come together, donate money, then go home and pat themselves on the back. I thought the actual night could be something more interesting.”

Bukkakis describes the show, with a bit of a cringe, as “conceptual drag,” where specific themes are explored through various acts. It features a mixture of “punk, alternative queens” along with refugees new to the city, incorporating belly dancing, burkas, and gender-bender performance art. The acts are reminiscent of Fossie’s Cabaret, with costumes that could’ve been taken right from legendary drag queen Divine’s boudoir, yet the whole thing maintains an intellectual edge that is uniquely Berlin. “People do, in quotation marks, ‘political performance,’ ” she explains. “It’s very eclectic and kind of trashy, aesthetically. Kind of DIY. And [the performers] come from very different backgrounds.”

Bukkakis has a specific issue she wants the show to address going forward. “I want to argue against this idea that more refugees mean more attacks on women and queers, which has been peddled since Cologne,” she said. “I think a very powerful argument against that is the fact that there are queer refugees, so the refugees are not this amorphous mass of people who are threatening to queer people, because there are queer people among the refugees. Because the refugees are people,” she adds with a chuckle.

At this night’s show, in addition to the performances, there was also a forum discussion featuring activists Salma Arzouni, the general manager of Gays and Lesbians from Turkey (GLADT) who speaks about her organization’s work in supporting queer refugees, and Diva Maguy, an artist and board member of GLADT and a trans refugee from Lebanon. Also joining the group was Steffen Beach, an anti-racism activist and member of Sozialistische Alternative, who speaks about how the crisis is more about austerity than refugees. He explains that it is the corrupt elite who should be blamed for the perceived decrease in the standard of living, rather than foreigners and refugees.

Later, there were dance performances, sing-alongs (more like “hum-alongs”), and personal testimonies about protests throughout the city over the years. With a focus on the struggles faced by queer refugees and the crisis in general, there’s no mistaking that this is not your average drag show.

This is also not your average fundraiser, as the evening is clearly not motivated by the hope of collecting massive sums. “In terms of the money that you can raise from an event, it’s not a huge amount, but you can do something more important socially,” says Bukkakis. “I’m trying to provide a way for people who are new arrivals to the city to enter into the queer scene—like, find somewhere to perform.” Diva Maguy, also a co-organizer of the event, is working on an initiative through GLADT that helps queer refugees discover their artistic side. She’s assisting Bukkakis in curating the program to include these refugees and showcase their talent for future shows.

“They dance, they act, they sing Arabic, German now, they start to sing,” Maguy says. “They do a lot of things.” Maguy also hopes that Queens Against Borders offers the opportunity for native Germans to discover the cultures coming to Germany during this time of crisis. This kind of mixing has the potential to break down borders, physical and mental, by combating xenophobia through eclectic music and dance. “They need to discover and have more knowledge about the new people coming,” Maguy adds.

Queens Against Borders has since outgrown The Club and has moved to a bigger venue. The most recent event this past June was at Engels Café, named after the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. The new space is still in Neukölln, which is a key to the party’s continued relevance. “You have younger people: students and artists who are in the neighbourhood, and who are likely to be more engaged with this area. Also, the refugee home that Schwulenberatung is building is only one suburb away,” Bukkakis explains, referring to the LGBTQ refugee center that opened in the Treptow-Köpenick borough in March. “So I guess it’s kind of the central area regarding the issues that the party is about.”

Those issues aren’t going away anytime soon. But, according to Bukkakis, Queens Against Borders is making things a little better: “The last party was amazing,” she said of the recent party held at Engels Café. “We were full beyond capacity and had four performers from refugee backgrounds from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. We raised around 1,000 euro, too.” Not bad for a trashy drag show.