A trip to Lab.Oratory
I hand my clothes over in a plastic bag and have a number written on my arm. Filled with trepidation and curiosity, I step into Berlin’s most famous gay sex club.
We’d been in love for a year. As he and I re-wove our lives around each-other, we embarked on a program of cultural integration — each of us would take the other to key places in our lives.
I grew up bookish and solitary, he affable and athletic. I found our differences exciting though challenging. At my cousins wedding I read a research paper whilst he danced. I regretted that.
Spurred by our love, I resolved to cross into his world.
We spent the summer learning to party together. Little festivals, nights out. I discovered new ways of being with the world. We danced together, to techno.
Like many others, my boyfriend grew up in a world that did not make it easy to be himself. LBGTQ individuals have had to fight prejudice to make space for themselves. Much has been achieved, but we still live in a world where queerness is constrained.
Since its heyday in the twenties, Berlin has been a haven for the fringes of sexuality and society. The scars of the second world war, maintained in plain sight by the city, permeate Berlin’s psyche: authoritarianism and persecution must be avoided at all costs.
That background can be felt in Berlin’s modern day clubbing culture. Diverse, debauched, as-you-are, anything-goes, a kaleidoscope of venues and events against a backdrop of concrete and electronic music.
In the cab ride over to Lab.oratory, our venue for the night, I was filled with anxiety. Whilst I’m an enthusiastic skinny-dipper, getting down to my underwear in a hyper-sexual environment felt exposing. My bigger worry was emotional: what if I’m left, alone, with my boyfriend engaged with someone else?
The queue for the club was like an inside-joke: we all stood quietly clothed in the cold, knowing the alternate universe we’d shortly enter. Three straight men reversed back out of the entrance, laughing uncomfortably, realizing this was not the club they expected.
Upon paying the fee, one is presented with a clear plastic bag and undresses under fluorescent lights. Surrounding men transform into jockstraps and harnesses. I ask my friends if I should keep the jeans. They say no.
You then descend into the bar: a cavern, beautiful and hellish, of debauchery. The bar is surrounded by electric pylons and gas masks. A warm human scent fills the air. Groans can be heard distantly over the loud techno.
If Berghain is the cathedral above, this is the demonic paradise below.
Vodka sodas in hand, my now almost naked friends take in the view and grin; “Oh it’s good to be back”.
My boyfriend takes me on a tour. Squeezing through holes in brick walls, the complex has creative architecture catering to many kinks, from sex-slings to multi-level wet-rooms. Lubricant is dispensed from wall mounts like burger-bar ketchup. Outdoors there is a shipping-container box park.
We find a corner with a sling and he reclines; Sex, techno and red lighting blurs into one. A crowd forms around us, I swot their hands off my body like flies. It is like the end scene in the film Perfume, I wonder if we will be devoured by the masses.
We explore some more, then eventually decide to leave. To get out, you settle the bar-tab against the number on your arm. It’s eleven-pm and we take a cab home for an early night. My apprehensions gone, I’m thrilled to have explored this other world with my partner.
I did not know what to expect to find in Berlin, from its harsh urban exterior the place appears unwelcoming. That’s the sort of paradox at the heart of it: everyone is free and equal because nobody is favored. Concrete and techno seem inhuman, but they do not discriminate. And in that, was a sort of comfort.