There are no lesbian bars in Brussels. There have been some in the past, but have closed down over the years. And now there is none. In fact, there are hardly any lesbian bars in the whole world. Of the 1,357 LGBTQ bars in the world in 2017, only 36 are lesbian bars.
Some say this is due to U-hauling, i.e. how quickly lesbian women move towards commitment and don’t go out. Others say it’s due to stigmas being removed and lesbians going out comfortably everywhere. Others say there is general decline in gay bars.
Against all these statistics and opinions, here we are! Mothers & Daughters, a lesbian bar has opened its doors in Brussels on 3 May and will remain open for 2 months. A pop-up lesbian bar, an experiment, a breath of fresh air.
The whole lesbian community of Brussels was overwhelmingly excited when they heard of a new lesbian bar opening in town. Lesbians were starving for a place to call their own, for a dedicated space to hang out among other people like them. An indication that the value in knowing there’s somewhere you can go to be near others who understand what it’s like to be a lesbian, should not be underestimated.
And while we would all have been very happy with just a simple lesbian bar, as details of the project started becoming public, and when the bar first opened its doors, we realized that Mothers & Daughters was something much more than a lesbian bar. Instead, it is something extraordinary, where every single aspect has been carefully considered from a conceptual, ideological, political and aesthetic point of view.
The attention to detail starts with the name, which was proposed by Rachel O’Neill, a poet and visual artist based in New Zealand. It had been chosen to reflect situations in which we all might have been at times, where we and our partners have been misread as relatives. This name has been chosen in honour of this experience.
The feminist ideology is evident throughout all the elements of the project. To start with, the project is not-for-profit. The website of the bar says that in the event that a profit is made from running the bar, the funds will be used for paying those who worked there, reimbursing costs incurred by the team, and creating a fund for future projects.
Another interesting aspect is that this is not a project run by an individual. Instead, the idea, management and hard labour comes from a group of friends, all lesbians, activists, artists who all work together, equally, without anyone being the boss, and without any hierarchy. Here are their names: Byrthe Lemmens, Delphine von Kaatz, Jessica Gysel, Joëlle Sambi Nzeba,Katja Mater, Marnie Slaterand Robin Brettar.
In addition to funds from sale of drinks, the project is funded by donations. A crowdfunding platform has been set up aiming to raise 5000 euro to cover at least one part of the costs for setting up the bar. The support by the community has been heartfelt with people donating whatever amount they could, from a couple of euro to a couple of hundred euro. The Belgian government also provided some funding through the Cabinet of Bianca Debaets (Equal opportunities minister). The lesbian community did more than just provide donations however. The last weekend before the opening, lesbians showed up and helped for the final preparations, everyone chipping in to paint, clean the toilets, scrub walls and do any kind of tasks needed. It was a truly beautiful thing to watch, people just helping out, without expecting money or even gratitude for doing so. Just simply considering it the normal thing to do, partaking in something that is theirs.
The Mothers & Daughters project is equally focused on inclusiveness. The word “lesbian” is used on purpose, in order to encourage a reappropriation of the word which is often less visible than male gay love. "Lesbian" is used in this context to embrace all possible forms of love and intimacy between people who identify with the female side of the gender spectrum. The toilets reflect this by not being separated. Instead all toilets are for all genders. It was interesting to watch that, despite this being clearly marked at the entrance to the toilets, in the first few days, lesbians stood in line for the toilets placed to the right (traditionally reserved for women), and only gradually over the days did they start getting used to using all the toilets.
Equality is addressed very directly and effectively in the pricing for the menu. There are two different menus, one more expensive than the other. This is meant to address the documented gender pay gap in Belgium (31.2%, which is the difference between the average annual earnings between women and men). The project team proposes that if you have a privileged position that means that your wages, and access to opportunities and documented work are positively affected by your gender, sexuality and/or ethnicity, the more expensive menu should be chosen. For the rest, because of sexuality, ethnicity and/or gender, the team proposes the less expensive menu. So, while governments, companies, NGOs carry out studies and make pledges on how to address the gender pay gap, the Mothers & Daughters team actually does something about it, something simple, effective and fair. The choice of menu is not imposed by the team, but rather is left to the conscious choice of each one. Moreover, I understand that many had volunteered to work at the bar. Priority was given to those mostly in need of work.
The bar is accompanied by an exhibition, the“Brussels Almanack Lesbian”, which gathers fragments of histories made by lesbians rather than history that happened to lesbians. This material has been uncovered from Belgium's alternative archives and starts in 1953 when lesbian pioneer Suzan Daniel initiated the Centre Culturel Belge, the first gay and lesbian organisation in Belgium. It ends in 2003, when The Gate, Brussels' last lesbian bar to date, closed its doors.Going thought the archives took months of research, given the difficulty of finding the lesbian-relevant information from the various archives, which have been stored under different headings, from LGBT general, to feminism, activism, equality, but rarely simply under “lesbian’. The exhibition is beautifully curated and a photocopying machine is at your free disposal to get copies of materials that interest you. A publication will follow soon. The members of the exhibition team are Jessica Gysel, Loraine Furter andMia Melvær.
And finally, the attention paid to aesthetics is evident throughout the bar in every single detail. Large murals have been painted by Alison Jip, Josephine Reich and Lucy McKenzie. My favourite one is of a female Atlas carrying a huge disco ball on her shoulders. The Tip Jar and Vase have been specifically made by the Belgian artist Nathalie Wathelet. The Koha / Donation Box has been made by artist Jay Tan. The stools for the outdoor space have been built by the Belgian artist Kato Six. A hand-painted sign at the entrance reads “welcome to your local lesbian bar”, while a light-switch at the exhibition space allows you to “press here for more lesbian visibility”. Instead of mirrors, the toilets have boards over the sinks for everyone to pin leaflets on activist and lesbian events. The exhibition space is lit in a dimmed pink/purple light giving it a soft, gentle feel. And finally, a vase with flowers, a different one each week, chosen from a famous lesbian movie, decorates in the most special of ways the bar.
And so, I finish where I started. Mothers & Daughters is more than a lesbian bar. It is a successful attempt to create a project reflecting a truly feminist/lesbian society, an oasis into our capitalist, homophobic and unequal society, a lesson into how things can be. It will be difficult to go back to life without Mothers & Daughters at the end of June. But in the meantime, it certainly contributes to making life more beautiful.
So, thank you to Byrthe, Delphine, Jessica, Joëlle, Katja, Marnie and Robin, and all others who contributed to this.