Nightlife, as we know it today, would not exist without the influence of gay clubbing. Disco, house, techno: they all have strong roots in LGBT communities that created an environment in which this new music could flourish. By turning warehouses and clubs into safe spaces in which people of all backgrounds, races and sexual orientations could enjoy themselves without the judging eye of white, heteronormative society, new music could be tested, developed and perfected for the dancefloor. To deny or ignore the LGBT community’s influence on the history of dance music is a great faux pas. Even to this day, all of the world’s revered cutting edge nightclubs (like Berghain in Berlin or De School in Amsterdam) are venues that have more than a liberal attitude towards sexuality in one way or another.
With this in mind, we were curious to see how the current state of gay clubbing is doing over here nowadays. The first things most people think about when you mention gay club nights are cheesy pop hits and bare chests – but that’s not what we are looking for here. Commercial clubbing exists in all realms of nightlife, straight or gay – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to look to the party concepts where the music selection is still razor sharp and the approach to clubbing still well out of the ordinary.
“The main reason why gay people go out to gay parties hasn’t changed much. They want to have fun and meet other gay people”, says Thierry Coppens, who has been the promoter at La Demence for more than 28 years, making it Belgium’s longest running gay party (or just ‘longest running party’ to be fair, we can’t really recall any other Belgian nightlife event that has been continuously and successfully running for that long). Taking place at the Brussels techno institution Fuse every month, ever since the club started, La Demence really stands tall as the success story of gay clubbing in Belgium and far beyond. “We still attract people from all over the world, resulting in a mix of old and young, local and international”. As one of the co-founders of Fuse, Coppens did not have to look very far for a suitable venue. The history of Fuse and La Demence are completely intertwined, thus further proving the point that the LGBT movement has a very big helping hand in the development of club culture altogether.
But you don’t always have to look to big clubs for gay parties. SPEK, a cutting edge dance night in Antwerp organized by Bert Vanlommel (who is also known for managing Klub Goud and Full Circle amongst many other non-LGBT things) and Stijn Hoebeke (aka DJ Sixsixsixties) often takes place in surprisingly random venues across town, like a Turkish disco or the back room of a typical ‘brown café’. By combining their expertise in hosting quality nightlife and providing a welcome environment for LGBT people, SPEK attracts crowds from beyond the gay community and the city limits. The extended DJ-sets of their guests, like Nick Höppner, Roi Perez or Marco Passarani are probably best enjoyed in a dim-lit setting where obnoxious alpha male behaviour is far away, benefitting everyone, straight or gay.
Recently, the SPEK guys have taken their gatherings to club territories that are well-known across the board. “We’ll always have love for sleazy basements and backrooms, but were moving towards club settings more and more to cater towards a growing audience, ensuring an improved quality of the production”, explains Vanlommel. Nowadays, many SPEK editions are held in Club Vaag, one of the city’s prime nightclubs for house and techno music – and not the ‘typical gay night club’, thus opening up to non-LGBT crowds. Doesn’t that lead to clashes with macho behaviour sometimes? “We usually have a bouncer at the door who makes sure that only those get in who know what SPEK is all about”.
Across the Scheldt river, the green meadow on the left bank near the marina at Linkeroever is the yearly setting for another notable and respected LGBT event, Unicorn Festival. “We started this from the understanding that you should always be able to be yourself”, says co-promotor Kim Vlaminck. Going in its seventh year of existence, Unicorn, is different from SPEK in a few ways. For one, they host 3 stages that showcase house, pop and techno, thus attracting a wider variety of music fans – and given the panoramic location and the daytime timing, it’s more accessible to people beyond the LGBT community.
While Antwerp certainly isn’t doing bad, it’s Brussels where most of the action is taking place. Vanlommel has to admit, “In general, we look up to the scene over there; the crowds are more lively, sociable and they start dancing a lot earlier on the night”. Apart from the aforementioned La Demence, there’s a lot more to be discovered in the capital’s LGBT party scene, like the afternoon dance gatherings of Gay Haze for example. With its explicit name and direct visual promotion, this concept certainly isn’t shy to show the world what they are about. “Some people really act condescending towards the party – or just the name even – but we see this as some sort of clumsiness and not an act of actual homophobic expression”, says co-promoter Guillaume Bleret. Even though public opinion has become more and more receptive towards LGBT rights over the last decade, not many gay nights would actually put the word ‘gay’ in their event title. In that sense, Gay Haze is the odd one out. “Some are still surprised when the word ‘gay’ is used in positive way to appeal to everyone. We hope they feel more comfortable about this after they pay us a visit”! It’s true most non-LGBT people still have to get used to an event with promotion that’s quite graphic, but Bleret emphasizes that Gay Haze is there for everybody: “While we use homoerotic and provocative gay iconography for our promotion, our regular audience extends from a generous queer majority to people from the broader public”.
Gay Haze have certainly tapped into the rising demand for daytime dance events, a trend that seems to be growing in Belgium, and Brussels especially, every year. “LGBT events were getting a better turnover throughout the last few years – but daytime parties were some that wasn’t on offer within the scene yet, so the time was right to start throwing those ourselves”.
All of the parties and concepts we have talked about so far mostly operate within the realm of house, disco and techno. Though it’s certainly true that the lion’s share of LGBT dance events play these genres, there are some notable exceptions. Los Niños is an ‘unbalanced harmony’ that has been coming together since 2004 (!!!) and that doesn’t let genres define what their parties are about. “When people ask us what we are, we give a vague answer”, explains co-promoter Wilfried Redant. “The definition of this party changes as our influences and ourselves change. We like to keep it exciting for everyone, keeping an open mind. It's basically just a private party that has gotten out of hand”. Apart from Los Niños, Vicuna, Les Bals, Finger and 3D.HD.404 are just a few other of their projects that cover their need to offer such a variety of different events. Not many organizations in Belgium can say they put on events in such a wide range of music as these guys – on a good night, their crowd can dance to the sounds of Betonkust, Hashman Deejay and Dinamarca for example. None of those are the biggest A-list DJ’s out there, but they are definitely respected and upcoming talents within their completely different spheres of music. Clearly, such a broad scope of parties can’t be settled in just one venue, so that’s why Redant and his team regularly hop between nightclubs, train stations, swimming pools, subway stations and warehouses across Brussels and beyond. “In the end, all our activities are linked by open-minded fun and pushing the edges of music and art”, he adds.
No violence, hostility, sexism, racism, misogyny, slut shaming, transphobia, homophobia, body shaming, ableism, islamophobia, cultural appropriation or unwanted touching. If such issues occur, the offender will be removed immediately - Los Niños houserules
To make sure the open-mindedness of their events is safeguarded, Los Niños have recently started putting up posters on their parties with a very clear message. “No violence, hostility, sexism, racism, misogyny, slut shaming, transphobia, homophobia, body shaming, ableism, islamophobia, cultural appropriation or unwanted touching. If such issues occur, the offender will be removed immediately”. Additionally, they are one of the few parties that offer mixed toilets (as opposed to the traditional ‘men’ and ‘women’ division). Redant elaborates, “that’s because we’re not just a gay or even LGBT-minded event – we’re LGBTS, meaning lesbian, gay, bi, trans and straight”.
This touches an interesting topic: ‘how LGBT are LGBT events nowadays really’? La Demence might only cater to the gay community (after all, why change a formula that has been winning for more than 28 years?), but all the other examples we have seen today have all clearly stated that non-LGBT people are more than welcome too. Throughout the last few years, we have seen more people from outside the queer communities finding their way to these events – mostly because of the ‘good vibes’ and ‘great party atmosphere’. Many DJ’s agree that an LGBT crowd is just a lot more fun to play to, as they are a whole lot more passionate, meaning they just dance more, harder and longer. If you are a straight person, you might not have considered to give these parties a shot just yet. Give it a try though, a true sense of freedom on the dancefloor can only be achieved when you take away the toxic masculinity that plagues virtually every nightclub in existence.
Although things are heading in the right direction, our society is still plagued by homophobia in many different ways. One would expect that this hinders the work of these promoters, but to our surprise, the opposite is true. “The city of Brussels actively supports our events”, says Coppens. “They realized that gay club tourism can have a sizeable impact on the city’s economy”. Similar words are echoed in Antwerp by Vanlommel: “Most club owners open their doors to us very easily, because they know that the LGBT crowd is just a lot more enthusiastic”. Additionally, Vlaminck said almost the exact same thing: “a lot of venues are happy to see us because they know that our audience is loyal and loves to party hard”. Even though these are all economic motivations, at least they serve a good purpose here.
So the good part here is that ‘the gay scene’ has become a lot more internally versatile on the one side – and more open towards towards non-LGBT crowds (and vice versa). “There’s a lot more diversity within the scene compared to 10 years ago. While you only had a few gay parties for a long time, we now have many different kinds. Gay people also go to gay bars less and less. ‘Being gay’ has become more accepted in this society and so we can enjoy ourselves in more places; places that are not specifically catering to an LGBT crowd”, says Vlaminck.
In conclusion, it’s refreshing to see that the LGBT nightlife is healthier than ever before. If club culture is the forerunner of change in certain parts of our society (like it has been in many cases), we can only be optimistic about the future. The next time you are looking for a proper dance party where you can dance away your woes without any worries, in an environment where self-expression is valued, consider giving that LGBT party a shot, whatever your personal identity or sexual orientation is.