Posted on 08/06/2019 by kathrin
Berlin, Germany, September 2014
When I wrote to Katharina a few weeks before my trip to inform her I would actually be coming to Berlin for the ‘Max is Marie’ project, her reply email came with the subject line ‘Katharina is happy in Berlin.’
Also, she had written about a special place in Berlin that she thought I should definitely see: the Tempelhofer Feld (field).
Now we are here, standing next to each other, in silence. We are just taking in the atmosphere.
It’s a huge area. The gaze can wander here, right in the middle of the city. Katharina hadn’t promised too much. This place is magical.
‘When I want to unwind, I come here. They wanted to destroy all this. At the referendum, I voted against the development!’
We remain standing a little while longer. The sky on the horizon is getting darker and darker. Katharina has just come back from vacation.
‘It was totally great. We had fifteen thunderstorms in eight days. With two lightning strikes right next to us. One of them hit the transformer shack right next to the campground. Another hit the pine tree on the cemetery where Hans Fallada is buried. We were almost fifty meters away. That was close.’
Katharina grins. ‘Do you know the Feldberg Lake District? It’s beautiful there!’
‘Look over there, that’s where we have to go.’
Part of the area is open to the public as a community garden. Lots of small plots, without any fences. Benches, wooden signs showing what is grown here, high seats… Everything lovingly hand-made.
‘You can play a mean game of hide and seek here! Sometimes I came here with the children of the boss where I was doing my internship. Children are very creative when it comes to hiding places. I often didn’t find them.’
For our conversation, we choose a blue bench. The backrest consists of discarded skateboards. Behind us, in the bushes, the birds are chirping noisily. Pretty birds with yellow plumage on their bellies. We ponder a little what they might be. But both of us can’t come up with any names.
Katharina has been in Berlin for three years. Here she is living her dream. She is retraining to become a dressmaker. ‘This is the first training I have chosen myself!’
During her internship, she works in a wonderful shop that tailors beautiful bodices to order.
The move to Berlin was one of the happiest moments in Katharina’s life. It was preceded by restless years marked by searching and despair. ‘Until ninth grade, I went to school in Greifswald. I would have failed there, I just couldn’t get along with the teachers.’
When Katharina’s grandfather died, she moved in with her grandmother.
‘At that school, I was at the top of my class in the tenth grade. In the subjects I was particularly bad at before, I had A’s and B’s. You can see what a difference the teachers make. For better or for worse.’ Nevertheless, Katharina did not want to continue with school. After 10th grade, she left school and started a carpentry apprenticeship.
‘At the vocational school, they gave me a smiley, made from plastic, because I was always grinning.’
In the last year of her training, she decided to pursue an Abitur (university-entrance diploma) at the evening school. It meant working until 4 p.m., then class until 10 p.m. ‘But I made it somehow.’
During this time the certainty grew that she was born into the wrong body.
‘I sat in class for the Abitur finals completely dressed in women’s clothing. A man’s name and women’s clothing… I didn’t yet dare to go out on the street. I changed in the car on the way. Stupid, isn’t it?’
Only at home in her room did Katharina live her true identity. Her grandmother couldn’t handle it at all. ‘She was psychologically very skilled and managed to make me feel sick and perverted.’
“If you wear women’s clothes, you’ll end up a hooker,” was one of her lines!’
As in almost every conversation I’ve had so far, Katharina can’t help saying, ‘The internet was my salvation.’
‘Coming from helplessness and the certainty that something is wrong with you, you suddenly learn there are other people out there with the same feelings! How could somebody who never had to experience anything like this, relate to this feeling of liberation?’
‘I started the transition in late summer of 2010 when I told my family doctor about my “problem”. After I had seriously considered suicide. I was so completely at a loss. Not a nice feeling having to avoid balconies… Luckily she had an open ear and the determination to help me. Otherwise, I would be dead now. Somehow not cool … ‘
For the first time, Katharina was reading about transgender people on different internet pages. She came across the blog of a transgender woman from Kiel, where she learned a lot about the necessary hormones. From the internet, she purchased the birth control pill.
‘When I started taking it, I felt immediately better – and my breasts began to develop, too.’ Katharina smiles to herself.
After the carpentry apprenticeship and her Abitur, Katharina began training as a physiotherapist. ‘That was fun. At the hands-on work, I was pretty good.’ But she did not pass the theoretical examination. ‘My head wasn’t clear at all during that time.’
So the time had come when Katharina should have gone back to her grandmother. However, she didn’t want that at all. She wanted to stay in Neubrandenburg at all costs.
‘I lived in a shared flat with a punk from Dresden. He was so influenced by his own story that he couldn’t help but be tolerant. He wasn’t particularly interested in my life. That was what I needed.’ To prevent her from moving back to her grandmother, Katharina enrolled at the University of Applied Sciences in Neubrandenburg to study food technology. She stayed there for three semesters. Then she had to quit.
‘I wasn’t strong enough to study during that time. So I did go back. From then on I felt worse and worse. Now I knew what was wrong with me and couldn’t tell anyone. It is a shitty feeling to live with glass walls around you. You are watching the lives of others around you and yet you’re not part of it.’
Katharina takes a break from speaking. It is as if she briefly withdraws into herself. Then she is back again.
‘During that time was the first time I understood people who hurt themselves. You have to do that to finally feel yourself again. To feel that you are still alive.’
While she is talking, I take a picture of Katharina. ‘Then you can also take a picture of this.’
‘Let’s go a little further. We could do a lap over the tarmac back there. Do you still have that much time?’ Katharina tosses her backpack over her shoulder.
‘Until two years ago, I had really long hair. Coloured a nice red shade. It looked great! But at some point, they got on my nerves during the night. In addition, the hair always got tangled in the backpack. It just had to go.’
Katharina’s grin is back again.
‘Today my looks don’t catch anyone’s attention. Except when I speak. But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I did speech therapy for half a year. But to constantly change my voice, I just don’t feel like it!’
We stop at a large plaque and read about the history of the Tempelhofer Feld. Then we continue walking into the vastness, along the tarmac. Katharina fetches a camera from her backpack.
‘I bought it shortly before my vacation. A friend lent me a lens. He loved analog photography.’
Katharina takes pictures of me taking pictures of her.
It starts to drizzle. It’s a really great atmosphere. Silence. Grey. ‘I would have actually wished for sunshine for our excursion. That would have been even better!’
A few months ago, Katharina had her gender-matching operation.
‘My name is Katharina, I am 32 years old and live in Berlin. Less than a month ago I underwent gender reassignment surgery in Munich. That changed me so fundamentally…imagine an astonished saucer-eyed child at the Christmas market. That’s how I feel every day,’ Katharina had described this big disruption in her life in her first e-mail.
Now she adds, ‘Of course this was also a very tough experience. Both physically and mentally. Nobody prepares you for what’s coming.’
Katharina had only little time to heal, ‘after a few weeks, I had to return to my training. The wound still hurt a lot. Especially when sitting. So while sewing I used a pillow and sat on the edge of the chair. Somehow I had to go on.’
Katharina tells her story with the hope of offering support to other people with the same fate.
‘I spend a lot of time at the Sunday-Club in Berlin, where I keep in touch with the many different trans*people in the city and also talk to newcomers in order to ease their fear a little. For many, the Sunday Club serves as a meeting point and to go out ‘en femme’ for the first time.’ Katharina was also involved in the ‘Trans at work’ initiative of the city of Berlin.
One last photo: The Polaroid picture. ‘Katharina, you can write something on it. It just has to start with ‘I’.’ Katharina deliberates for a long time. I’m not so good with the ‘I’. I have become very social, I prefer to be with other people’. She writes ‘Rara Avis’, a rare bird.
Me -> rara avis