Tuesday 13 July 2021

Interview with Nora Eckert

Monika: Today we are going to Berlin in Germany, where I would like to present to you an inspirational woman from Germany. Born on March 14, 1954, in Nuremberg, Nora Eckert is a well-known German cultural journalist and theater and opera critic. She is the author of many books and articles about German cultural events. I am going to talk with her about her recently published autobiography “Wie alle, nur anders. Ein transsexuelles Leben in Berlin” (Like everyone, just different. A transsexual life in Berlin), the history of the German transgender movement, and her own journey towards womanhood. Hello Nora!
Nora: Hello Monika, nice to meet you!
Monika: How are you doing in these crazy pandemic times?
Nora: These days are really crazy. None of us have ever experienced anything like this. But despite all the limitations, I try to live as "normally" as possible. Of course, I stick to the rules. Fortunately, I am not only a person interested in culture, but also a nature-loving person. While the theaters, museums, concert halls, cinemas were closed, I could at least go hiking. There are beautiful landscapes around Berlin and running is very good for my health!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Nora: You've already introduced me a little bit. I was not born in Berlin, but have lived here for 48 years. For me, this city was love at first sight, although back in 1973 Berlin was still divided and looked very different than it does today.
I was 22 when I finally discovered my female identity, and although the '70s were still almost right-wing and therapy-free times for us trans people, I was able to walk my way into womanhood completely unmolested. In this city, there has always been a laissez-faire attitude that has made life pretty easy for me and my friends.

Available via Amazon.

I started my transition in the famous travesty café "Chez Romy Haag" and at the same time, I found myself in the middle of the small but fine trans* community of West Berlin. That was just a great atmosphere. But at some point, it was clear that I had to get out of the nightlife again. I did that in 1984. I found an office job and at the same time, I started my journalistic "career".
Monika: "Chez Romy Haag" was founded by Romy Haag, a famous Dutch dancer, singer, actress, also well-known as a former lover and muse of David Bowie during his Berlin years, when she was just 26. I heard that she did not like the cabarets of the old West Berlin because they were elitist and completely overpriced. Is it true?
Nora: Yes, that's right. Above all, she wanted a young audience. Her cabaret was something completely new of its kind when she founded it in 1974. It was a discotheque and pub with a show stage. The show was also something completely new. These were not the usual star imitations, but Romy invented small musical sketches as playback numbers. That was the same as the video clips today. It was very well received by the audience and we actually had a very mixed audience, and the community also felt at home with us. Above all, stars came to us again and again. Of course, we also needed the money from the audience, because up to eleven artists performed on stage in the best of times. They eventually had to be paid.
How did you get a job there? Did you dance and sing?
Nora: No, I didn't work on stage. I had my one-woman show at the ticket office and guest wardrobe. At that time, I simply went to the managing director and asked him if he had some work for me. It hadn't worked right away, but in April 1976 I was able to start there.

In the Green Room of the Volksbühne Berlin.

Monika: Romy Haag was of the first transgender women that managed to be successful in showbusiness. Did you have a chance to work closely with her? Did she keep a distance from her employees?
Nora: I think we had a very good relationship, but she was my boss. And since I didn't work on stage, we always kept a little distance. Romy's contact with the artists, on the other hand, was very intense, because firstly they were on stage together and secondly Romy also directed. Good cooperation was very important to create these fantastic and very perfect shows.
Monika: Was it a coincidence that you left the cabaret when Romy Haag sold the nightclub?
Nora: I was only at "Chez Romy Haag" for four years and changed my job in 1980. I then worked for two years as a party promotor in bars on Stuttgarter Platz. My passing as a transgender woman was very good, and I wanted to prove myself as a woman, so to speak. I succeeded. However, I soon saw that this job offered no future prospects for me. So I wanted to get out of there and I succeeded. Still, it was an interesting experience.
Monika: How big was the transgender community in Berlin? Was it a homogenous group?
Nora: Our community was rather small in the '70s. How many we were exactly, I can't say - I knew personally or through stories at most 20 trans women. And this group was certainly more homogeneous than the trans* community today.
Today, there is a spectrum of self-definitions and ways of life, which, by the way, I think is very good, because we always embody an individuality, whether trans* or not. Every person is unique in his or her own way, and trans* does not mean a new norm for me. We live it "As you like it" - as Shakespeare so beautifully puts it.
Monika: I assume that doctors did not know too much about the transgender phenomenon at that time. How did ladies get hormones or surgeries? How did they know about the dosage and so on?
Nora: Right, medicine didn't know very much about us back then. The trick was to find a doctor to give you prescriptions for hormones. Progynon Depot 100 was our "favorite drug". We all found some doctors, we all had our prescription suppliers. Since we were pioneers in therapeutic terms, for example, our own endocrinologists, we either took hormones according to feelings or we followed the package leaflet about dosage. We were really very independent in all respects.

Other books by Nora Eckert (available via Amazon)

Surgery was available from the '50s. I would just like to remind you of the famous Dr. Burou in Casablanca. In the 70s, surgery was also performed at German university hospitals, but you had to pay for it yourself. We had to pay for everything ourselves, for hormones, for epilation, for all plastic surgery, etc. But you could get anything.
However, very few transgender women had surgery. There was even a strong rejection among us against gender reassignment surgery. Opinions had only changed in the '80s and '90s and since then there has been a veritable operational optimism. For me, this has never been an option, because I am still convinced that you can be a woman within any body. I see myself as proof of this. Physical integrity that I felt vital for myself.
Monika: After you stopped working as an animation lady, did you already know that you would like to be a cultural journalist and critic?
Nora: The wish was there immediately.
Monika: Being a girl without a high school diploma, you suddenly had to write about the "high-cultural" nightlife of the city: theater, opera, and concerts. It is amazing! How did you learn so much about opera and theatre?
Nora: I've been interested in the arts since I was at school and have always known more about it than most people. Writing was also an early passion of mine. I started to find out more about opera, music, and theatre history and read an entire library. By the way, reading is also one of my passions. I think you never meet me without a book. Well, I was an autodidact, but when it comes to writing, it's the skill that counts. And I was obviously able to convince everyone - also with my knowledge.
Monika: You have managed to transform yourself from a travesty club dresser into a highly acknowledged opera critic, a woman that is regarded as an opera guru. Do you remember any event or episode that catapulted you into this successful career?
Nora: No, this career was not a sprint, but a marathon. In the beginning, there were a few reports about art exhibitions, then book reviews were added, and finally, I conquered the opera as a special commandment. All this went step by step until I was well established in magazines and newspapers at the end of the 80s. I've always been a self-made woman in my own way in my life.
Monika: What inspired you to write “Wie alle, nur anders. Ein transsexuelles Leben in Berlin”? Your previous 5 books were about culture and art.
Nora: A lot happened in 2018. First of all, my retirement came into view, and the associated question of how I should shape my last stage of life after the end of my professional activity. At the same time, I was preoccupied with my past, for the banal reason of finally beginning to put my private archive in order. I was confronted with my past, which moved me a lot and sometimes irritated me.
I also began to re-engage with my trans*being. Until then I lived as an untapped trans woman and suddenly I had a need to make my trans* being visible. From all these questions, the need finally arose to give me clarity about my life. I started writing my autobiography.

More information about Nora Eckert available via her Website.

Monika: You are a transgender activist too. You are an active member of TransInterQueer e.V. (TrIQ) and a member of the Board of Directors. For TrIQ, you moderate the "TransInterQueerer Salon" series of talks organized in cooperation with the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Could you say a few words about this initiative?
Nora: I had the idea at the beginning of 2019. I wanted to talk to interesting trans people and invite an audience. I wanted to talk about their biographies, about their self-images as trans* persons, and also about their talents and professions. The Volksbühne found this idea wonderful and offered us a stage for two seasons.
In autumn 2021, a new management team will take over activities at the house and unfortunately, they have other plans for the Green Salon, where the talks have been held so far. The talks are now to be continued elsewhere and I am therefore currently in negotiations with another stage here in Berlin. Let's see what will become of it.


Main photo: Ralf Günther (07.04.21)
All photos: courtesy of Nora Eckert.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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