Diary of polarizing shirt from Berlin and Martha in New York City

Sten Kuth

I posted this in December 2022 on my German website. Many of you asked me if I can post this in English as well but it took me a while to find the time to translate it, but here it is.

 Which shirt and who is Marsha you are probably wondering.  Well I want to tell you the story that started in Berlin and ended some time ago in New York.  Ibiza also has something to do with it. 

 Anyone who knows me well, knows that I often dress in invisible black, but I also like colour, atypical cuts and designs.  The choice of my daily looks does not only depend on the daily schedule and my mood, but also, and this often annoys me, on the districts and places I visit and the people I will meet.  I hate it, one of my biggest mistakes is thinking too often about how I might come across to others.

 Although Berlin is said to be so open and tolerant, I often dress extremely casually and unobtrusively here, especially when I visit certain parts of the city.  Sometimes I wish I was “cooler” in this regard, but there are more and more experiences where mostly tourists but also certain Berliners stare at me, look at me uncomfortably or even secretly film, but more on that later.

By the way, I often hear that I dress too youthfully.  Who puts up crap like that anyway?

 Berlin, April 12, 2022

 Earlier this year I found a shirt online that I fell in love with.  I often don’t like normal cotton shirts.  As a non-slim person, those in my size often look shapeless and baggy, especially after a few hours of wearing.  And I really shouldn’t wear tight muscle shirts anymore, they not only look like “Tamara, the dancing pressed sausage” to me, but also like to roll up to my belly and a “Jaqueline Chantal belly top” doesn’t look tingly on me either.  Also, I hate being constrained in clothes.

 The new shirt I loved was made of slightly heavier cotton knit, flattered fat, residual muscles and old skin optimally, even after hours of wear.

Since I’m often on the go, I bought it twice, a bargain, since it was on sale.

The shirt

Ibiza, June 2022

 Somehow I hadn’t decided to wear my beloved shirt until then, so I packed it for a trip to Ibiza.

 I wore it there to go shopping, to restaurants and even to hippie events.  On the latter occasion, it seems logical that the shirt was well received.  But the market women, other Ibizans and a few foreign tourists also complimented the shirt.  Well, I tend to take compliments with a pinch of salt because nothing is easier to lie and snort about.  On the other hand, I sometimes prefer a polite lie to unsolicited criticism, which can often be very intrusive.  Americans, for example, often tend to say nice things and give lying compliments, but somehow you can always tell when they really mean it and when it’s a lie.  Especially if you get compliments from a complete stranger who only speaks to you because of that, you can assume that it is meant seriously – or you’ve ended up with beggars, serial killers and/or psychopaths.  But better such a person than a chronic hater, but more on that later.

 Personally, I like to give compliments, which I get the impression that people in Germany are often kind of shocked.  I am a very critical person, but I have got used to never criticizing without being asked, but I would also never give praise or compliments if I didn’t mean it.  In such cases, I’m good at keeping quiet.  In other situations I would sometimes wish for that too, but unfortunately I also have Shade sucked in with breast milk and sometimes it has to come out too.  But I always say, as long as the shade doesn’t end in bitterness everything is ok. So if you get a compliment from me at some point, it’s usually meant honestly, that’s how it is with Spanish-Catalan market women in Ibiza, and my shirt was actually popular there.

 With the certainty that I had a really nice, comfortable and practical shirt, I flew back to Berlin.

Berlin, July 20, 2022

 Back in Berlin it was time for some cultural events and it was Pride Season. My very talented, dear friend* Barbie Breakout had a live podcast in Central Berlin that I wanted to go to.  It was a very hot day and what could be more natural than to bring a bit of Ibiza to the big city close to the Polish border aka Berlin.  In addition, my beloved shirt was also very grateful in terms of sweat.  I only made one crucial mistake that day, I used public transport, which is today apparently better only done in invisible black or jogging clothes.

 I’m used to the fact that tourists stare at me when I leave my apartment on Kurfürstendamm.  But hey, if blue jeans, white sneakers and my floral shirt make these people stare, then it must be really gray in the provinces.

Well, I took the bus to Anhalter Station to change to the underground train to get to the venue in central Berlin.  Two young men were lounging on the very empty platform, who at first just stared at me and then thought they had to call me a shit fag with a gay shirt.  I just kept walking and luckily I noticed that they were following me.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the two running up to kick me in the back.  I had a quick moment of reaction and a lot of luck, because my backpack filled with two full 1l mineral water glass bottles was hanging over one shoulder and when I turned around I threw the attacker in his face, who then fell to the ground and was bleeding from his mouth and nose.  His buddy was frozen in shock and I was able to save myself with the elevator a few steps away and got to the surface.  At the taxi rank a few yards away, I trembled into a car and drove home.  My evening was messed up.

 I am firmly convinced that the shirt drew the attention of the perpetrators to me.  In straight acting black and sportswear that probably wouldn’t have happened.  It’s frightening when I get in my face because of a shirt that isn’t basic, what do my friends do every day?  Is one only safe in Berlin if one makes oneself invisible?

Berlin, August 21, 2022

 A second experience, fortunately less bad but still stressful, happened at the Schlesisches Tor in Berlin.  Together with a good friend I was on the way to an open air drag event.  When we wanted to change from the elevated train to the bus, I was the first to be photographed on the platform by tourists without being asked.  On the stairs down, my companion suddenly said, I’d better walk behind you, the hooligans over there are trying to film you.  I hadn’t even noticed that, otherwise I would probably have already freaked out on the platform.

 Tilly has been a drag queen for decades and knows situations like this, she just said ignore it, it’s not worth it.  It kept me busy for hours, why can’t a fat 53-year-old man wear what he likes without getting into such situations?

Luckily, when we arrived at the event, it was a safe space, cool young queer people in all their diversity and creativity;  I didn’t attract attention at all with my look.  Everything was almost fine until two straight acting acquaintances showed up and greeted me with the words “oh that shirt is very brave at your age and not very manly”.  I shot back verbally but it was enough for me.  My mood was in the basement.

Needless to say, later I took a taxi home, my need for people was met on this day. The shirt ended up in the laundry and then deep in the closet.

New York City, October 22, 2022

 I’ve been to New York for a few days to visit friends and family.  Despite all the negative experiences, the ominous shirt found its way into my suitcase.  Now it was hanging on the coat rack in my room and my mum saw it and said oh put that on Marsha would have loved it.

 Marsha, this was Marsha P Johnson.  Marsha was an activist before Stonewall and long after, until her death in 1992. You often read that Marsha was transgender, I’m sure she would use the term non-binary and DragQueen herself today, which wasn’t the case back then.  Marsha was a sex worker, activist, drag performerand volunteer social worker.  She took care of homeless trans* people and was involved in the fight against AIDS.  Marsha loved colorful and fancy clothes and played with gender roles, she loved flowers and often put them in her hair.  And, Marsha was my babysitter on a number of occasions when I was a toddler in New York, because we lived right in the middle on Christopher Street and my family was close to the LGBTQI+ community.

If you want to know more about Marsha, please avoid the German Wikipedia entry as it is not correct while the English one is pretty accurate at the moment.  The Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” and the documentary “Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson” are about Marsha’s life and her probably violent death, which is still unexplained to this day


So I put the shirt on because we were going to do a little Marsha memorial tour.  First we went to the Stonewall Inn and the Christopher Park in front of it with the Stonewall National Monument, where a memorial for Marsha and her comrade-in-arms and friend Sylvia Rivera is to be erected in the near future.

 There we spoke to an older activist who my mother knows from the 1970s.  In the middle of our conversatio he looked at me and said, “Marsha would have loved this shirt”.  I was speechless.

 We then made our way to the piers on the Hudson River where Marsha’s body was found in 1992.  There is a fountain nearby, the Marsha P. Johnson Fountain.  Whenever I’m there, I throw a few coins into the fountain in memory of Marsha, because Marsha has had to flip every coin several times in her life.

 From there we drove to East River State Park in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn.  This park was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park in 2020.  It is a park of encounters, display boards also remind of Marsha’s life and work, children learn about nature and plants, but also about community and diversity.  In the near future, the entrance gate will also be decorated with some kind of floral arrangement, just as Martha often put flowers in her hair and clothes.  It’s not all ready yet, but it’s a great place.

While we were there, a group of children who had been on a tour and seemed to have learned about Marsha approached us.  A girl said very loudly when she saw my shirt, “cool, that man wears a shirt with flowers, like Marsha had on her head”.

 I’ll shorten it a bit, I was reconciled with my shirt and anyone who knows me knows that I’m close to tears, of course.

 The next day I went to the park again and secretly buried the shirt under a bush in the ground because:

 Marsha would have loved it and I, I have a second copy at home in Berlin. I’m not sure if I’m going to wear it in Berlin again, but it sure will find its way to Ibiza very soon.

 I hope I learn from this never to be told what to wear and what not to wear again.  

And if I’m criticized for clothes in the future, I’ll just say: Marsha would have loved it.

 Happy Easter, be kind to each other,

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