I had gone to volunteer at the gay history archive in Cologne because I was going insane. Every morning I made coffee, looked out from my high kitchen window in Bonn Endenich, and thought about how handy it would be to tip out of it. Each day that the sun bobbed up in the sky like a rotten egg in a glass of water, I felt robbed.
I did have things to do. I was, in theory, a visiting researcher for the year at the university in town. There were articles about medieval saints to produce. Students to teach, and German to learn. In practice, however, I spent most of my time reading Wikipedia articles about mountaineering disasters, calling my ambivalent girlfriend back in England and sloughing dead skin off my left foot. I was inept in Germany. I couldn’t work out how to buy stamps or smile at strangers or sustain a relationship that had migrated to live entirely in my phone. All the time, my skin felt rubbery, sausagey. I watched Everything Everywhere All at Once in a bad German dub, and when they got to the scene where everyone’s fingers are hot dogs failing to gain purchase on surfaces I thought—exactly. It is hard to make contact. Everything is sliding away.
I wanted to be useful. I wanted to be useful in community. Even communion with the dead would do. I found the archive by googling “gay volunteering bonn cologne.” After several results about helping teens, which I scrolled past at speed (I have never helped a teen, not even when they were my peers), I found the archive’s website. The banner photo showed two twinnish white twinks with mid-2000s hair and tight sweaters cheerily engaging in scholarship. The slogan translated to: With passion into the past!
Well, I could go with passion into the past. I loved the past! My days were thick with the stuff of it. I liked the taste of old words in my mouth—the gristle of Middle English, the liquid vowels of Latin. I imagined recovering stories of queer lovers hidden through one or both World Wars, tracing the lives of insurgent German trancestors, having my work smiled upon by a dykey superior who would make my girlfriend jealous. I sent off a quick email about my deeply felt historicist passions. My qualifications for archival work, I explained, were that I was gay and patient. Also, as a medievalist, I had touched pieces of vellum older by centuries than anything in the archive, and I hadn’t ruined any of them.
They replied faster than I’d expected. The email named a date for me to come in and discuss doing some cataloguing.
When the day arrived, I was met at the door by an older man who looked like an indignant emu. White fluffs of hair; skinny, cartilaginous neck. “Sie wissen, dass wir hier keine lesbische Geschichte haben, oder?” he had asked me, as soon as I came in—You do know we don’t have any lesbian history here, don’t you? I assured him that I was interested in masculinity and would be perfectly happy working without a steady supply of historical lesbians. He looked at me with open distrust.
The man set me down in a room containing about two hundred gray boxes filled with photos. Before I entered, he made me take off my bag and leave it in the hall.
“I don’t want you running off with the choicest pictures,” he told me.
I was baffled. Surely the bag thing wasn’t a foolproof defense? I was wearing big jeans. I could slip a whole cache of folded photos into my pockets, if I was quick. But I didn’t want to point this out, in case he told me to strip off and leave my trousers in the hall too.
“Have you had trouble with that sort of thing before?”
“Not yet,” he said, making his eyes golf-ball huge.
It wasn’t easy for me to understand the man, whom I always called Herr Eckhard in my head, though I only knew his first name from his email signature. Herr Eckhard’s German was unusually accented, laboriously formal and had an odd courtly flavor. Following a conversation with him made me sweat. When, on that first day, he popped his head round the door at about 3 p.m., it took me five minutes to grasp that he was trying to offer me coffee.
In the room with the boxes, my task would be to compile a digital catalogue of every photo the archive held. I would write up descriptions of each item, Herr Eckhard explained, noting places, dates, known persons, measurements—“of the photos, not the subjects,” he clarified—and anything else that struck me as relevant. He asked if I thought this was something I could do, and I told him yes!—excited, because it seemed true. I was excellent at making notes. It was thrilling to be presented with a discrete, achievable task.
Herr Eckhard hovered behind me as I opened the first box, labeled “Postkarten.” My breathing was shallow, my heart hummingbirding. I thought about all my archival progenitors, my brothers-in-lust for dead people’s things. I thought about the Polish historian in Vernon Lee’s short story “Amour Dure,” his hands quivering as he thumbs centuries-old letters, his body in commotion, going feral with history. I don’t know what I expected to find in the box, but I know what I fantasized about: saucy correspondences, suggestive interwar slang, organizers arranging clandestine liaisons, manifestos scrawled on the backs of museum prints. Getting to see these contacts and collisions playing out in the postcards would, I thought, be the next best thing to participating in them.
It’s true, I knew archives didn’t always yield intimate gems at first touch. I knew traces of historical queerness were slippery. In my own research on medieval religiosity, I had mostly seen queerness’s possibility articulated through its negation: medieval penitentials assigning 365 days of fasting and prayer to wipe out the stain of a light spot of sodomy; anchoresses being warned not to spend too much time with their pretty maids. And though these modern postcards were closer to me in time, I didn’t want to delude myself into thinking that meant I would feel closer to them. Rationally, I knew the romance of archival recovery was suspect, knew I should approach it with caution. But few archival researchers, I think, could honestly say we’ve never daydreamed about uncovering something that would blow history wide open, throw us backwards out of our present lives. Come on, I thought. Enliven me. Give me something good.
I opened the lid and found sixty promotional postcards of the iconically deceased 1950s bisexual heartthrob James Dean.
I turned around. “How many of these are there?” I asked Herr Eckhard. He shrugged.
I had never spent much time considering James Dean’s face before. It had, I suppose, attractive contours, places where shadows sunk pleasingly. But he had always struck me as one of these men who, quite simply and unimaginatively, look like men. And the more I looked at him, the more he disconcerted me. That big pouty slab of a face. That canyon-wide forehead. In every postcard he was posed differently, cowboying, or rebelling without a cause, or looping his arms, cruciform, over a rifle. He started looking like a nasty puppet.
All the postcards were blank on the back. Several were still in their sheet-plastic. No foxing, no grease marks. Someone had loved these images.
Eventually, I got to the end of the box, wrote a summary and turned, relieved, to the next box, labeled “Fotos Personen.” But it transpired that these were not photos of personen-plural. They were photos of one person. That person was James Dean.
I took a third box down from the shelf and peeked. Dean again. Maybe every single one of these boxes was stuffed with more of the same; maybe this archive was, in fact, the James Dean Memorabilia Mausoleum, and I had consigned myself to spending whole days in the company of photos of a man who didn’t even appeal to me. I googled “Germany James Dean mania,” “Cologne James Dean visit,” “do gay people in germany especially love james dean????,” trying to determine if there was a reason for his disproportionate representation in this regional queer archive.
Nothing came up. I could not explain the abundance of Deaniana. The best I could do was to say that some old Rhineland queer had simply loved James Dean very much and had wanted his love to be put somewhere safe when he was gone. I kept telling myself this as I catalogued the photos—around three hundred, in all. I tried to persuade myself I was doing it for him.
After that, and for some weeks afterwards, came the SCHULZ photos. SCHULZ had been the community gay and lesbian center in the city, something between a nightclub and an organizing space. The local Gay Liberation Front set it up in an old dance school that probably still smelled of girls’ feet and chalk on opening night. It opened in 1985 and shuttered in 2003, brought down by debt, mismanagement and decades of straight neighbors’ noise complaints.
The first box was all photos from the opening party. It looked like a kind of prom. Puffy dresses, hairy chests, double-breasted suits worn with red high heels and thick lashings of mascara (so there were dykes in the archive!). Across four photos, you could see one dancing couple getting closer and closer together, tangling, shuffling into the edge of the frame before vanishing entirely. I hoped they’d gone home together.
But my favorite photo was much quieter. In it an older drag queen, whose name was Albrecht S., stands in front of a black crepe cloth spangled with stars. She looked celestial, like an emissary from some lost pantheon—her hair as gold as an Orthodox icon, her eyelids a glittering blue, smiling down at a white rose she was holding between her long fingers. When I looked up Albrecht S., I found that he had died in 2019. He and his partner had been together since the end of Nazi rule.
In her novel Lote, the Scottish writer Shola von Reinhold talks about “transfixions”: glimpses of the past that flash on you, make your body vibrate, send moonlight sighing up and down your spine. That word transfixion comes from the Latin transfigere, meaning to pierce through, to impale. Looking at the SCHULZ photos—not just the images, but the creases and smears and stains in the corners, proof that they’d been touched by people whose lifespans had brushed up against mine—I felt the good pain of being staked through the heart by a new obsession. It felt a lot like falling in love.
The night I came home after seeing the photo of beautiful Albrecht S., I called my girlfriend. I wanted to talk to her about Herr Eckhard, about how I still didn’t get the James Dean thing, about how I’d watched a child hit another child repeatedly over the head with a coloring book on the train back to Bonn, about SCHULZ most of all. I wanted to tell her that I might have found something to love in Germany at last.
I don’t think we ended up talking about any of those things. I think we fought again. At the time, I was keeping a mental list of proofs that she was coming to love me less, hoarding them like rough little stones against which to rub myself raw. This made me whiny, and made her, in turn, rougher still. We seemed to have lost the trick of being good to each other. I kept saying things like, “Do you even still like talking to me?” and she kept saying things like, “Don’t do that. I don’t have time for that right now.”
We tried to make nice, but that night she had to get off the phone early. She was going to a party at the gay bar that was, I guessed, our English city’s glossier equivalent of SCHULZ. “Have fun,” I said, like a liar. “Thank you, baby. You too,” she said, like a better liar.
In one afternoon in the archive, I would go through hundreds of lives in shifting constellations, hologram projections of sociality. I don’t think I ever saw a single self-portrait. This means that, every time a photo was taken, there were probably at least two people in the room. Thinking about this occasionally gave me a mad urge to deface something. I was jealous, I suppose, and hungry for contact. Objects that made me feel this way included:
—a flash-lit bare ass in a crammed room
—three drag queens cheersing a champagne glass to the camera in front of the Berlin Wall. Glamorous comrades: all feathers, painted beauty marks, dark eyebrows scored into faces, yards of touchable silk
—a photo series titled Männerpaare by a photographer called Claus-Constantin Rüttinger. Undated but from the Nineties, I thought, or maybe earlier. He shot nine couples in their homes. They were open-mouthed at the breakfast table, reading in bed, fucking, hooking arms round their knees and squeezing them to their chests, fixing harnesses on each other, taking kids to the park, slumping in yellow-lit hallways. The ease with which they lolled together or pressed into each other made me unbearably sad. Especially the ones with children, and the ones that seemed to be taken just after sex. I could barely stand to look at them.
But then Herr Eckhard came up behind me when I had all the photos fanned out, pointed at one of the men getting fucked on his knees, and said, “Oh! That’s Gunther.” Which was sort of enough of a shock to jolt me out of my moping.
This was not the only occasion on which Herr Eckhard recognized someone from the photos. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did, every time. My brain kept sliding off the concept of Herr Eckhard’s youth. Sometimes I wondered if I caught his twentysomething profile at the edge of a crowd scene, if that was him sucking face in a pearl necklace at the 1991 AIDS demo. But I didn’t like entertaining the possibility; it felt invasive. We knew so little about each other.
I could never decide whether he liked me. His formality was unfaltering. Once, I accidentally slipped him the informal “du” pronoun, rather than the polite “Sie,” and he stopped speaking to me for the rest of the day. He loved to call out to me from across the hall: “Frau VIHL-sson…” When I suggested that he might consider calling me Rowan, he sternly reminded me that we were colleagues, and stalked off.
Broadly speaking, I didn’t mind being misgendered in German. It’s a language with limited options for expressing nonbinary identity. Plus, because it wasn’t my native language, it felt remote; it didn’t needle under the skin like English did. When people addressed me, they were addressing a fictive deutschsprachige avatar. I had arrived in Bonn and thought, Okay, I’ll be a girl for a year. It felt fine almost all the time. But I hated frau. Such a lumpy, frumpy word. The claggy gunge of womanhood flung at my body. I didn’t want to insist on anything different with Herr Eckhard. I had no desire to discuss nonbinary transmasculinity with an elderly homosexual who thought breath mints were a wild indulgence.
Still, he was kind to me, in a spasmodic, avuncular sort of way. Every day I was in, he would come by at 3 p.m. to offer me coffee. Sometimes a little chocolate bar, too, kid-size, a Snickers or, on special days, a Toblerone. Sometimes there would be a choice. Whichever chocolate I picked, he would say, “But of course, Frau Wilson,” and hold it out to me with a flourish, like a butler, never smiling. I felt strange about taking them right from his hand.
And he talked to me. About his mother, whom he had set up in a ground-level flat by a dwindling lake about an hour from town. About Cologne traffic. About the gauche spectacle of Pride these days (“I will ensure that I am out of town at the time. Maybe for days. Don’t come in that week.”). About the Grecian light lapping at boys’ arms and legs in the photography of Wilhelm von Gloeden. I understood approximately three-quarters of what he was saying at any given time. Sometimes I gave up trying to parse his multi-clausal recitatifs, and his voice swirled and eddied senselessly over my head, and I felt the peace I had always imagined belonged to the last conscious moments of drowning.
He asked me questions too. Mostly about what I was ferreting out of the archive. He wanted to know about the most interesting thing I’d seen. I didn’t really want to play favorites with the dead, but I did it anyway, for him. I showed him photos of activist conferences held in the SCHULZ basement: the girls slouched at the back bored of procedure, the man gesticulating at a whiteboard covered with fundraising proposals (“party????”). “It’s nice to think of people making things happen there,” I told Herr Eckhard, and he nodded. I was pleased. It felt like I’d picked the right answer.
But I was lying. My favorite photo series would have been too hard to explain in German. In box 38 there were five undated black-and-white photos of Cologne intersections. The first time I saw them, I felt distaste. There was nothing to hook onto in these scenes. No one was waiting at the crossings. What was I supposed to fall in love with? Roadworks? Office buildings? Even the light was stale.
The best that could be said for these photos was that they felt representative of Cologne, its heavy ugliness and grayish-brown grime. I shook slips of paper out of the envelopes, read addresses like consonant-hairballs: Gereonsdriesch, Severinstorburg, Perlenpfuhl. Next to them, someone had written, “ehem. Klappe.” For reasons that became obvious upon googling, Klappe hadn’t come up in my language course. It means, literally, a flap, a lid. But it’s used as slang for a public toilet where people go to cruise. Someone had gone through the streets of this city and photographed spots where fags went to fuck.
Together, the photos made up a ghost map. The Klappen had been scorched off the grid as the city got richer and cleaner. I didn’t know if these spots had been common knowledge, or if the five photos represented an insider’s special pickings. I didn’t know, either, how the photographer knew these places. If his eyes had slicked up and down other bodies by the urinals. Had he had pleasure there? Were the memories good? I hovered my fingers over the photos, as if I could tell where the cruising spots had been by some emanation of heat. But there was nothing. Just “ehem. Klappe”—former Klappe. I felt a sharp spur of grief, just over my breastbone. This happened all the time in the archive. I kept on mourning things that weren’t even mine to remember.
In April, I skipped out on the archive for three weeks. The reason was that I had to go back to England to reassure my mother and break up with my girlfriend. The former project took a week. The latter took 72 hours, after days of trying to do literally anything else. It was an operation that involved mussels, an excruciating bath and a medieval mystery play called The Raising of Lazarus. By hour seventy, we were tired and winding down. We began to talk about the bench in the Botanic Gardens where we’d got started.
This was when my girlfriend called herself the archivist of our relationship. She had kept everything, she said. Notes I’d tied to her bike’s handlebars, scrunched paper bags from the place where we bought cardamom buns on Sundays, bits of books, songs, leaves. A journal entry for almost every day of the first two precipitous months. The entries gave exact accounts of our movements. She could have plotted us on a map.
At the time, I resisted her characterization. “I have a journal too,” I said. “Look”—flicking through hundreds of pages of dense dark scrawl. But, in truth, she was right. Half-right, anyway. For that first happy year I had written almost nothing down. Naïvely, I had thought I would remember everything. I had thought she was printed on the front of my brain, a seal squashing its impress into wax. For the eight months I’d been in Germany, however, I had kept better records. Our phone calls, flight times, bitternesses. She had written very little, all that time. She had been busy. I was sad that I held the better archives for the worse part, but I supposed it was better than not knowing where we’d erred.
Between us, then, we had the complete account. Pieces of it, anyway. They might be reassembled into a whole story, with a little imagination, a little creative license. When my girlfriend said “archivist,” I thought about the history we had laid out on her bedroom floor being packed into gray boxes and shipped off to Herr Eckhard in Cologne. I wondered if he would be able to locate the truth of our history together, the point where her account lapsed into mine. I wasn’t sure if I could. It was possible that I wouldn’t be skilled enough to recuperate the facts. After all, when it came to archiving, I was still scarcely more than a beginner.
It was odd, imagining the point at which our personal history might shade into history-history. Every twentysomething boy I’d seen photographed in the archives must, at some point, have made the same choice: to be remembered by strangers, to have his pictures prodded at by people who never kissed him good night or had him over to dinner or cut his hair over the kitchen sink. I didn’t know what made a choice like that possible. I didn’t know when the idea of it stopped making the skin prickle. Maybe it was just a matter of time—of waiting, patiently, until it started to feel like the things in our photographs had happened to someone else.
When I came back to Bonn, the seasons had switched on me. Summer was coming on early, the trees dripping with elderflower. I was going to the archive more often now. Since I no longer had to spend hours on the phone to England flitting between animosity and penitence, I had time on my hands. I wanted to solace myself with the cool, imperturbable company of dead homosexuals, and also of Herr Eckhard, who said I could come in whenever.
It was nice to notice myself speeding up as I moved through the collection. Once, as I was zooming through the last column of boxes, a kid from the university came in asking if I’d seen any photos of trans people in the archive. He was short and round, dressed like a beach dad, with scraggly dark hair and an ankle tattoo of a lunette window over a door, fat-leaved pot plants all up the steps. It looked like the sort of place I’d like to visit. Absentmindedly, I wondered two things: if I found him attractive, and if he was trans himself.
It wouldn’t matter either way. He had no way of knowing I was—Herr Eckhard had introduced me as Frau Wilson, as his custom and my cowardice dictated. Ostensibly, we were just a boy and a boyish girl talking. He explained that he was doing his master’s thesis on queer-trans solidarities in political movements of the Eighties and Nineties, and was looking for local material. He talked animatedly about the porousness of identity boundaries, about the gay “she,” about the fast-changing language sloshing around in the pre-AIDS years. He wanted visual counterpoints to his reading. He wanted to see solidarity, spelled out in glossy Polacolor.
I would have liked to tell the boy yes. Yes, I had looked into the eyes of hundreds of trans people in the archive. I wanted to fan out photos of them on the table like a tarot spread, a map to where the two of us were, now, standing in the slatted light with our silly haircuts and our cliché Doc Martens. But the truth was, I couldn’t be sure if I had seen a single trans person in the boxes. Very few of the envelopes recorded biographical details. Many were labelled “N. N.” for nomen nescio—“I don’t know the name.” Being unfamiliar with the abbreviation, I had at first assumed that N. N. was a set of initials—Nicky Neumann, I guessed, trying to pick a name that suited one particular mop-haired gap-toothed gay who cropped up in a lot of the SCHULZ photos. It took ages to fix my notes once I realized my mistake.
Of course, I had seen gender nonconformity in abundance. Pageant-loads of drag queens, a smattering of kings, tangles of androgynous silhouettes, a troupe of bearded shepherdesses in dirndls and smart clacking shoes. But transness—the graft of transness, the play of transness, the wringing out of old skins and the mouthing of new names—none of the people in the photographs were around to tell me how to speak about them. And when I had googled beautiful Albrecht S., the queen who looked so restful with the rose in her hands, the internet said only that she was born a man and died a man, unwavering.
I tried to explain this to the boy. I said I was sorry I couldn’t do better. I suggested he come in another time to look through and draw his own conclusions. After he left, I went to Herr Eckhard and told him about how I’d failed. He said, kindly, that people came into the archive all the time after proofs of specific narratives, and often they were disappointed. “It’s alright,” he said. “You can’t always give them what they want.”
Or rather, I say that’s what he said. But this is only one translation. Because the German formal “you” is the same in speech as the German “they,” he could in fact have been saying, “They can’t always give them what they want.” They—the archives, the photos, the people frozen, silent, inside them.
The last day I was supposed to go the archive was in June. The sky was a clean, peeled blue. Thick air. Trapped heat.
Everything was done, almost. I’d gone through every box in the photo archive. I was only coming in for last checks. It wasn’t strictly necessary for me to even be there. It was basically a courtesy. Plus, it would be so very hot in that little room.
That’s what I told myself when I got off at the stop for the archive, went past the turning, and kept on walking along the Rhine. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I just wanted to be moving. The river looked flat and untextured, refracting the sun like metal sheeting. I could see the spidery black prongs of the cathedral in the distance. I let my eyes go swimming. I thought of very little. I walked myself smooth. At 7 p.m., after hours of walking, I slumped down in the coolest, dimmest place I could find: Melaten-Friedhof, a nineteenth-century garden cemetery named for a twelfth-century leper colony.
Weeks later—after I had left Germany—Herr Eckhard sent an email so pretty and gracious it almost made me cry. He said he would miss my “reservedly friendly manner.” He said he didn’t want to praise me or my work too much, “for that would sound too much like a goodbye.” He talked about summer in the Rhineland, a silent film festival in the courtyard of the university, Beethoven in the streets, all the things I’d missed.
That final day in Cologne, among the graves, I watched the tops of trees turn sticky with amber in the setting sun. At 8, I gathered up my things from the grass and made my way to the exit. I noticed a little informational placard. Melaten-Friedhof, it said, used to be outside Cologne. Napoleonic law stipulated that burials couldn’t take place inside city limits, for reasons of hygiene. The revolting dead were ejected out past the bounds of fellowship, and you had to make a special point of visiting them. But as the city had grown, it folded the dead back in, took them right to its heart. Now people went jogging through the cemetery paths on warm summer evenings.
I had plans that night to check out a new queer bar in the city run by some lesbians Herr Eckhard vaguely knew. I’d been trying to work up the courage to visit. They were having a dance party that evening. I didn’t know anyone going, but, I reasoned, I could always find somewhere to sit and watch the people move. I loved looking at the configurations bodies made in clubs. It might be nice to do it up close. Still, I stayed in the cemetery a minute longer, wondering if any of the archive’s residents were buried here, under the right names or the wrong ones, maybe in one of the littler graves squeezed to the side. I hoped so. It was peaceful under the trees, and everywhere, the air smelled of sap, of well-fed soil, of growing.