Kartonnen Dozen published a ‘city chronicle’ about LGBTQ life in Antwerp, focusing on the post-World War II era. Together, Bart Hellinck, Paul Borghs, Marc Daems, Johanna M. Pas, Mark Sergeant en Marion Wasserbauer wrote the book ‘De kleur van de stad maakt mijn ziel amoureus‘. ‘The city colours make my soul fall in love‘.
The authors used photos from the Suzan Daniels Fund, the City of Antwerp archives and from private persons’ own collections. The authors often use previously published interviews as sources for their stories.
The book is an idea of ErfgoedLab Antwerpen (Antwerp Heritage Laboratory).
In the first two chapters, the book delves into the gay history of the Schipperskwartier, literally the Sailors’ Quarter, but actually the red light district, and of the lesbian scene.
The neighbourhood was home of several bars and cafés with transvestites and were a relatively safe space for gay sailors to meet and hook up. “Gay men read the papers to look for ship arrivals. When a ship arrived, it meant there were fresh men on the market who hadn’t had intimacy for weeks or months”, author and histrian Paul Borghs said at the presentation of the book.
Other chapters explore the history of the Van Schoonhovenstraat near Antwerp-Central Railway Station. The street or or more accurately used to be known as Rue Vaseline, Vaseline Street, referring to the lubricant necessary for anal penetration.
Another chapter focuses on the lost lesbian bars. Currently, Antwerp has no bar or café catering specifically to women who love and have sex with women.
Obviously, there’s a fair amount of attention for queer activism history of Antwerp. The fight against hiv and aids, the story of Café Strange and Armand Everaert and bookshop / publishing house ‘t Verschil, now Kartonnen Dozen.
There are testimonies of transgender activist Marleen Hufkens and of Zuhail Xaeed, a refugee from Pakistan.
Preserving our own LGBTQ history
Paul Borghs stressed the importance of such an exercise. “We tend to import LGBTQ history from elsewhere”, he said. Citing the celebration in 2019 of 50 years of the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969. Those were an American affair and did not have an (immediate) impact on queer life in Belgium.
“Let’s also avoid forming myth. Gay men were not chemically castrated in Belgium, as was the case in the Netherlands.” On the other hand, Borghs pointed out the chronicle is mostly anecdotic and not an academic work.
For Johanna M. Pas, the book shows the LGBTQ struggle for recognition is more than the legislative affair of equal rights. “You also want recognition in everyday life.”
Marc Daems, for his part, has always been intrigued by gay men and femininity. “When Het Roze Huis (The Pink House) was founded in 1995, it was not done to be an effeminate gay man. It was ‘bad for the cause'”, Marc recalled.
Host Fleur Pierets asked Mark Sergeant if it’s a shame gay bars and lesbian bars are disappearing. Mark didn’t want to be drawn in that conclusion. “The way people go out evolves, on every level. Those small lesbian and gay bars couldn’t survive as no small bar can survive.”
Antwerp recently lost its oldest gay bar, Café Strange. It opened in 1955 and closed in November 2021. Manager Armand Everaert (89) is just too old.
Is there still room for LGBTQ bars? Safe space are a hot topic, Pierets stressed. “Yes, we need them”, replied Wasserbauer. “We nood to be able to have the choice.”
HIV & aids
Sergeant wrote a chapter on hiv and aids, on the world-renowned Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) and on how aids affected gay nightlife. “The party just stopped, out of fear. People stopped dancing, kissing and having (loads of) sex.”
So ‘De kleur van de stad maakt mijn ziel amoureus’ not only offers a history of queer Antwerp, but also showcases contributions of LGBTQ Antwerpians to Antwerp life, such as the Antwerp Six fashion designers.
Pas would love a new safe haven for queers. A place for the Suzan Daniel Fund, a LGBTQI bookshop, a bar or café. Should the City of Antwerp invest?
Alderwoman for Culture of the City of Antwerp Nabilla Ait Daoud (N-VA) was also present and was diplomatic. “We can talk, for sure. But I don’t have a bag of money to invest. Budgets are set.”