FashionSex & Gender

op-ed: layla mahmood dives into black lgbtq issues in the netherlands and gives us a peek at amsterdam’s my crush safe space event

September 12, 2016

Its midnight and currently I’m celebrating GayPride in Amsterdam. A fitting place to celebrate anything liberal and slightly edgy. The air is carnivalesque, filled with an odd mix of progressive celebration and debauchery. Protestant-looking tourist families are holding penis-shaped balloons like its nothing, whilst observing the general festivities of the city, like the good little spectators that they are. Because hey, its Amsterdam, the place where anything goes to those that visit. Only I am no longer in the city centre, with the crowds of rainbow dressed groups wearing neon head bands and peace symbols, reminiscent of some strange sci-fi version of a hippie. But I’m somewhere else. A party that most white (straight and gay) Dutch individuals are not aware of. I’m at My Crush, the “Gay Pride After Party Edition” held at club Panama. An event that my gay Jamaican friend once described to me as a “place where you don’t have to worry about being fetishized as a black body.”

By Layla Mahmood, AFROPUNK contributor

As I greet the organisers at the club they laughingly remark: “it looks like you’re going into battle with that handbag and jacket,” and “are you sure you’re not bi-curious?” A topic that becomes a contentious issue during our interview. “I’m sure, ask my boyfriend,” I reply.

My Crush is described by many as the only club event in the Netherlands that predominantly caters to queer people of colour. The organisers, Lisette, Dainesty, and Kimberlee, acknowledge this aspect of the event, but remark that it is a space that is welcome to anyone who is “open minded.”

It started initially in Amsterdam in 2010 as a lesbian concept called “Female Desire” in Club Bungalow 8. Later, the organisers posed the idea of holding a special edition called “Bring Your Gay Boyfriend.” A party where lesbians could bring their male gay best friends. That was the first time they actually gained a profit. Since then it has grown to become a space where all types of members of the LGBTQ community could gather and party, free of judgement. And who have a preference for r&b, dancehall, reggae, and afro-house music.

Jibriel, a Somali student here in NL (and who is currently in a transition from male to female) describes My Crush glowingly: “It’s a safe place, it’s beautiful, I love the concept. It doesn’t matter what you identify as: queer, gay, trans, bi. Also, the music and dance battles are always really good.”

At the event there are dance battles reminiscent of those witnessed in the cult classic documentary Paris is Burning (1990), a landmark documentary that represents the African-American and Latino ball room scene in 1980s Harlem. Iconic dance moves such as vogeuing originated in this scene, way before Madonna hijacked it for the mainstream. The documentation of this group also influenced theories of social and gender construction for the likes of Judith Butler.

I ask Jibriel how he negotiates being gay and of colour, a question that takes him aback for a moment. “Wow…” he responds. “I don’t really know where to begin. I mean, you feel the discrimination. You feel it everywhere. Even in gay white spaces. And when I don’t feel the discrimination I sometimes feel awkward around that particular ‘educated white liberal gay.’ The one who tries to relate with your struggle. They idolize your oppression. But it makes me feel objectified through my suffering.”

Jibriel comments that trans individuals are often at the “lowest of the low” on the socio-economic ladder and as a result often resort to drug abuse. He continues: “but to be honest, I feel like drug use is an epidemic in the gay community in general. I guess people feel they need to numb themselves.”

Ahmed, originally from Kenya, and recent Law graduate in NL, tells me more about why he likes attending My Crush: “the gay scene in Amsterdam is predominantly white and you don’t see a lot of people of colour in many of the usual gay spaces. Also, as a person of colour, you may encounter prejudice or fetishization. So it’s a relief at times to be in an environment where you are the norm.”

However, when I specifically ask how he responds to my Jamaican friend’s comment that My Crush is a place free of fetishization, he replies ambivalently with: “yes and no.” According to Ahmed then: “Yes because you are more of the norm and less exoticized. No because media influences tend to be pervasive and even black people, due to such exposure, can easily fetishize other black people (think of a Ugandan fetishizing an Afro-Carribean man due to the thug archetype prevalent in porn or a Black Dutch guy projecting the Mandingo stereotype on West Africans).” He admits after though that it is “generally less prevalent and/or done in a more respectful manner.”

The organizers of the event, who express a sense of flexibility in regard to their sexual orientation: “not wanting to be labelled or put into a box,” tell me of only positive experiences of tolerance in NL in regard to LGBTQ issues. The Netherlands has a reputation for such tolerance, being the first country to legalize gay marriage, and also funding numerous gay pride events globally. Yet trans and gay men of colour appear to experience more issues of discrimination than their white counterparts. They not only have to deal with issues of homophobia, but also those of racism. Such issues of discrimination are even present within the gay community, with many gay people voting for the extreme right-wing racist party of Geert Wilders (PVV).

The main Dutch organization that deals with LGBTQ advocacy is the COC, founded in 1943. But it has been criticized for its white washed approach to such issues, and lack of gay people of colour. As a response to this, the organization “Strange Fruit” was formed to cater to the specific needs of gay people of colour.

Addisu, an Ethiopian gay man that has resided in NL for two years, tells me that issues of asylum for gay men of colour should be taken more seriously. Commenting that it can sometimes take years for those who fear homophobic persecution in their home countries to obtain the right permits in NL to work and have a fulfilling life.

Ahmed elaborates on this, not only for gay men of colour in NL, but globally, stating that: “I don’t see people like me often represented in gay media. I don’t think particular struggles (especially health issues) of gay people of colour tend to be taken into account as much as those of gay white people, which is why (for example) HIV rates are higher among latino and black gay men in the US than white people. Dating is an interesting phenomenon as a gay person of colour, with Dutch men displaying a variety of attitudes towards us. I’ve been told everything from “you’re not like other negers” to having my boyfriend referred to as a “domme neger” (dumb negro/nigger) for rejecting a white/Turkish man’s sexual advances.”

Interestingly enough, however, Ahmed tells me that ultimately “gay men of colour can often be more racist to each other than white guys are to them. According to him, “you may find that there’s little dating between Turkish, Moroccan and Black men, while all three groups are more likely to either date within their own group or date White men.”

My Crush certainly fills a void present in NL, offering gay people of colour a space to be culturally liberated and less exoticized. Whilst the Netherlands can still boast an exceptional level of LGBTQ tolerance, it still has room left to cater to the specific needs of gay people of colour.

photos by Desiré van den Berg