“Nationality and sexuality are just categories“

I'm meeting Jana and Alejandra, a German-Colombian couple, in a bohemian café in Berlin-Neukölln. The two of them got to know each other in 2004, when Jana was enrolled in the Erasmus exchange program in Barcelona. Alejandra, who is originally from Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, had already been living in Spain for almost 20 years. When Jana had to go back to Germany, it was absolutely clear to Alejandra: “I’ll go with her.” Alejandra’s decisiveness was a little surprising to Jana. But her passion was worth it: Both have been living together in Berlin for six years now.

This spring afternoon the café in the Reuter neighborhood is almost empty. There is only one more guest sitting at the bar. “This place becomes a hot spot in the evening hours”, says Alejandra. So we keep on talking undisturbed about subjects such as difficulties for immigrants in finding a job in Germany. Alejandra is a film maker, graphic designer and photographer. But her certificates are not valid in Germany. It was quickly obvious to Jana, who is an ethnologist and photographer, that both of them had to set up their own business together. Their interdisciplinary artist initiative „Intransitos“ (In Movement) was established in 2006. They explain to me that their work always focuses on art and culture in connection with migration and urban development in Neukölln. Their current big project is “Neukoellnimport”, a platform where artists from 80 different countries can network.

One of the main ideas of “Intransitos” is to challenge boundaries and to mix concepts. To Alejandra’s mind, concepts of nationality or sexuality are just categories revealing only one of many aspects of an individual. “Every single person is like a unique suitcase containing all experiences that he/she brings along with him/her.” Sometimes, however, Alejandra also plays the game of prejudice, says the filmmaker. Typically German through Colombian eyes is: having to plan everything carefully.

Jana and Alejandra agree that their openness and their interest for new things enrich the relationship. But there are also difficult moments. When they met, language was an issue, as Jana spoke little Spanish and Alejandra no German.

Both of them are rarely confronted with the issue of their homosexuality in Berlin. The gay and lesbian community is very open in most of the districts, Jana explains. “Moreover I don’t define myself by being a lesbian, I’m just Jana. Sexuality is just one small part of my life. But maybe if we lived somewhere else I would notice it more.” She adds: “When we were in Colombia for holidays, it was difficult. We weren’t able to move as freely as in Berlin over there.” Alejandra’s sexuality is a taboo in her family. They know that she is lesbian but never talk openly about it. “When we were in Cali two years ago, my father said that we were welcome to visit him but he wouldn’t accommodate us in his house”, Alejandra tells me. However the couple was then surprised by his cordiality when he accompanied the couple everywhere. “But we didn’t walk around hand in hand over there”, says Jana.

The lack of acceptance of homosexuality does not only refer to family circles. In general, Colombian society has still to overcome many obstacles to achieve sexual equality. Lesbian filmmakers make headlines just because of their sexual orientation, and not because of the content of their films. But when people who fight for gay and lesbian rights are found dead in Cali, local media does not cover these subjects.

Homosexual, multi-ethnical, bi-religious couples – it seems that self fulfillment is possible and human dignity is respected in Berlin. Still, there are also difficulties in Germany, as can be seen in the heated integration debates over the last months. At the end of our conversation I ask the couple whether binational relationships set a positive example to our society in terms of seeing diversity as something positive. “Communication is incredibly important”, says Jana, “and this society can indeed learn from our experiences”. Big theoretical integration concepts won’t help that much, if people’s experiences are ignored. “These should be included in political decision making”. Alejandra says, integration is a very complex issue and there are many questions she can’t answer. “But if there is something you can use to define integration, it is respect. This is the big basis."

This article is an adaptation of the German version, in which you can also hear the couple speaking in short audio samples.