LENS, Marian : Historical evolution of the lesbian movement in Flanders from the 1970s onwards, in : Chronique Féministe (Université des femmes), Féminismes et lesbianismes, n°103-104, juillet/décembre 2009.
The purpose of this article is to provide an analytical overview of the lesbian groups, coalitions and key events that allowed a lesbian movement to emerge in Flanders, and which shed light on its evolution from the 1970s to the present day . Some points of similarity and differences between the lesbian movements in Flanders and in the French-speaking part of the country will also be developed. They will allow a better understanding of why the respective movements have evolved differently in the two Belgian communities.
The conclusion will offer some food for thought for the future and for an alliance or cohabitation with other movements.
I. The emergence of autonomous lesbian groups in Flanders
What are the facts (events) and motives evoked by the groups concerned that allow us to understand the evolution of the Flemish lesbian movement?
From the end of the sixties, autonomous lesbian groups started to appear all over the world. They hatched large movements to question society , and the difficult role and position that lesbians occupy in it.
In Flanders, it was at the end of 1974 that the “first autonomous lesbian group” was created, Sappho (1974-81; Ghent), that is to say, an entity that “clearly profiles itself as lesbian”, independent from women’s groups and homosexual groups . A dozen groups followed, from the end of the 1970s to the mid-1980s:
Liever Heks (1978 – 79), Liever Eva Brussels (1978 – 79 ;), Turnhoutse Lesbische Vrouwen (1978 – 81), Mytilene (1978 – 81 ; Lomme), Catal Hüyük (1980 – 82), Paarse Peperpot (1983 – 88 ; Brussels), Lesbische Vrouwen Brussel.
Their average lifespan was relatively short, from 2 to 5 years, with the exception of Atthis (1978- ; Antwerp) which is still active today and is thus the oldest lesbian association in Flanders, Timas (1979- ; Bruges) and Linea Rosa (1984 – 93 ; Ghent).
1985 and the decade that followed saw the emergence of a new wave of lesbian groups:
Chatterbox (Antwerp), Artemys (1985 – 2002 ; Brussels), Lesbies Doe Front (1985 – 98 ; Ghent), VrouwenOntmoetingsRuimte (Ghent), Lesbisch Archiev (Ghent), Dames Kaffee (1993 – ; Turnhout), Lesbisch Kunst Salon (1993 – ; Ghent), Heus Poteus, Impuls (Aarschot) ;
A large number of them are still active: Labyrint (1988- ; Louvain), Lilev (1989- ; Hasselt), Gehuwde Gescheiden Lesbiennes (Antwerp), Aksent Op Roze (1991- ; Ghent), Goudou (1991- ; Bruges), Halle Lesbienne (1992- ), Moïra (1995- ; Roeselare), De Nymfen (Kortrijk), Vieux Rose.
As a result of the economic recession and the backlash  it brought to the democratic world in general, feminist and gay movements underwent a crisis, experiencing multiple defections and conflicts. The reactionary tendencies of these movements were reinforced, and expressed in particular by an exacerbation of lesbophobia within the former and machismo (male chauvinism) within the latter. Minimized or rejected, many lesbians would distance themselves from these movements or leave them.
The persistence of the difficulties encountered with these movements considerably increased the longevity of autonomous lesbian groups, as well as their size, and ensured that most of them still exist today.
All these organizations share a very dynamic nature. Most publish a journal and have a headquarter. These spaces are social (reception, meetings, café, annual parties), cultural (literary and visual arts exhibitions), and recreational. They also act as springboards for discussions that regularly lead to political lesbian actions, most often conducted with other lesbian groups.
Impuls and Artemys also provide full-time professional activities for lesbians and women. The former provides training and supervision, the latter is a specialized bookstore and cardshop. Initially, lesbian groups were formed as de facto associations, with the exception of Artemys, which was legally established as a non-profit organization . The language spoken in these groups is Dutch. Brussels and Halle, partly due to their geographical location, had a bilingual group (in Dutch & French), Halle Lesbienne, and a multilingual group, Artemys (in Dutch, French & English).
Flanders, sufficiently covered geographically with lesbian groups, which are representative of the majority of existing lesbian tendencies, will then have no new wave of lesbian group creation.
Only a few groups would still be formed after the year 2000, more restricted in size and in their objectives (cultural or logistical support for an event), notably Fuchsia (2002- ; Brussels) and Folia (Ghent).
II. Some points of similarity between lesbian movements in Flanders and in the French-speaking part of the country:
1. Schools of thought
In the lesbian movements in the northern and southern parts of the country, all schools of thought existed and covered concepts that were poles apart.
On the one hand, an essentialist analysis is expressed in which the very existence of “sexual genders” (men, women) is not fundamentally questioned. The political concern is then to achieve parity between these entities. The main element that would link these units is also considered natural (biological): heterosexuality. Homosexuality, “masculine” and “feminine”, is covered by the concept of “sexual orientation”, more specifically reserved for what remains of the domain of a behavioral particularity of biological origin. The notion of “equal rights” follows the same logic as the notion of parity, but between “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals”.
In contrast, radical lesbian materialist analyses consider human categories to be constructed (social), along with all other structures that emanate from society. Heterosexuality is not a natural “sexual choice”, but an imposed – and therefore constraining – institution whose objective is to freeze the links between the constructed categories of gender (“man” and “woman”). An entire hetero-social system (social, economic and political structures) is elaborated in favor of the dominant “class”, that of “men”.
The objective here is therefore to eliminate all biologized and racial categories, as well as the structures and coercive mechanisms that reinforce them . Between these poles exist a multitude of thoughts, including that of the queer movement, which wants to blur sexual genders without wanting to make them disappear.
2. Lesbians are a disturbing force in the feminist and gay movements.
Questioning has been a fundamental part of lesbian history since the 1970s. While lesbians are particularly active in all social movements, what place do lesbians have in these movements, and in particular in the feminist and gay movements?
On 5/11/1994, the homosexual federation FWH  organized a congress, and gathered the protagonists of the three main schools of thought of the lesbian movement in Flanders around the theme “Lesbians, at home in which movement?” .
Lesbians who felt that they belonged primarily to the social group of “women” found that – logically – their place was within the feminist movement.
Lesbians who felt close to those with a “same-sex preference” had joined the structures of the gay movement.
However, the insights they brought from their already long experience in these two movements is very critical. In 16 years, since the previous FWH conference in 1978 where these same questions were asked, the situation had not changed much in favor of lesbians.
And their conclusion “wouldn’t it be better to develop an autonomous lesbian movement?” mirrors that of radical lesbians, who had long been acting in this direction.
Because they were forced to admit that the situation was still rather bleak:
1. a) Lesbians faced a prevalent machismo within the homosexual movement and a lesbophobia that was either latent or declared within the feminist movement . They were considered within these movements, and within mainstream/straight society, most often as cumbersome chapters and appendices.
b) Lesbians were not represented in activities or writings, nor included as interlocutors in panels (invisibility). When they did appear, it was episodic and they remained under-represented.
(c) Lesbians faced hostility, ostracism, or exclusion from groups . In the best of cases, organizations pushed them back to specifically appointed spaces, lesbian spaces, which were the only ones that welcomed them permanently.
d) Subsidies were not awarded in proportion to the number of lesbians who were in these movements, or they were simply diverted in the sole favor of the dominant categories of the group.
There was great perplexity or anger about these movements that they had been in solidarity with or thought they were part of, but which persisted in ignoring their own realities and difficulties.
Lesbians were demanding a fair return on their substantial investment in these groups and a place in organizations that they had largely contributed to creating and developing.
How can these movements resort to techniques of dominance when they themselves are victims of sectarianism by living the alienating situation of being only a chapter of the dominant group of “heterosexual adult white men”.
Why are they, in turn, unable to afford a substantial platform to all their members? Why do they not seek to integrate all their members into the groups’ daily thinking and functioning?
Heterosexual women in the feminist movement and men in the homosexual movement behaved as though they belonged to dominant entities: the “gender of men” and “heterosexuality”, constructions from which lesbians are effectively excluded.
In the name of the General, they position themselves as the Norms to be reflected upon, the reference entities, the Subjects.
If homos or hetero-feminists, in their particularity, consider themselves to be representative of the movement’s universality to which they belong, why shouldn’t another minority entity be entitled to the same thing?
The specificities of the Flemish context help to clarify and explain why these questions would be debated very regularly between all the schools of thought within the lesbian movement. This allowed them to share this sense of belonging to the same community of interests.
III. Differences with the reality on the French-speaking side of the country: a more united Flemish lesbian movement that is representative of all its schools of thought, more autonomous lesbian groups and larger events
1. Flanders’ lesbian groups are a lot more diverse
In the highly institutionalized country of Belgium, the state’s branches are very strong. At the start of the 80s, subsidies were mainly distributed in the French-speaking part of the country. Lesbian groups in Flanders therefore had to ensure their own financial backing.
Their approach to socio-political realities would thus be more pragmatic, more aware of economic realities. As the groups encountered the same difficulties to resolve and went through similar experiences, the lesbians within these groups were better able to appreciate and respect their peers.
When the subsidies were put in place, they were redistributed more equally by the authorities in Flanders than in Wallonia or Brussels, where the policy of “all or nothing” prevailed . The consequence of this policy was that only one huge association benefitted, to the detriment of a greater number of groups and a greater diversity of structures and tendencies.
In Flanders, as the subsidized associations were smaller or medium-sized, they did not compete with each other and continued to better represent the social fabric and maintain their geographical distribution over the territory.
2. All schools of thought are recognized within the Flemish movement.
The most radical schools of thought, even if they perturbed the most moderate, were never excluded from the lesbian movement. There would be recurrent calls for interventions on radicalism or “separatism”.
3. Numerous coordinating bodies and collective lesbian events
Thanks to their regular contact, lesbian groups took part in common initiatives, launched collective actions, and came together in coordinated groups (in relation to objectives) or networks (political movements) that coexisted or succeeded one another.
All the factors mentioned, specific to the northern part of the country, fed into each other and enabled an extremely dynamic lesbian movement to establish itself and organize large-scale events, notably the annual Lesbian Day and a lesbian conglomerate consisting of all the lesbian groups in existence in Flanders.
IV. Strengthening the identity and autonomy of lesbian groups in Flanders through collective action
For several years, many lesbians tried to talk to their ‘female’ and ‘male’ “allies”. Already in 1978, a conglomerate made up of several lesbian groups was created, Cocolev (‘coördinatiecomité lesbische vrouwen’ ; 1978 – 81). Its objective was to obtain more visibility for lesbians at the Vrouwendag, the annual Flemish feminist day, through a brochure they distributed there. Fewer than ten years later, Lesbies Doe Front was created to demand more space there. But due to the small number of concessions obtained, they decided shortly afterwards, in 1986, to launch the Lesbiennedag . This great annual lesbian meeting day, notably inclusive of all lesbian groups, remains to this day the largest lesbian event in Belgium.
At the end of 1984, given lesbian groups had distanced themselves from the homosexual federation due to its “hatred of women” , the LOL (Landelijk Overleg Lesbiennes; end 1984 – 85) emerged to set up a contact group for lesbians and to form the outline of a pressure group in relation to the federation. The exclusion shortly afterwards of the only paid lesbian activist, an active member in the LOL, from the FWH signalled the end of the group.
In the 90s, the time of simple discussions was over.
“Only Artemys and Lesbies Doe Front have consciously and consistently distanced themselves from the feminist and gay movements.” On the other hand, Lilev exceptionally tried to achieve cohabitation with feminist and homosexual groups .
The other lesbian groups, half of which came from the homosexual movement and the other half from the feminist movement and maintained irregular contact with them, wanted to strengthen their attitude towards them. Thus, a lesbian lobby was energized within the FWH (VrouwenRonde; 1992 – ).
Large-scale actions followed and the groups’ lesbian identity was gradually, and unequivocally, displayed to the outside world.
In 1992, Artemys launched a large international lesbian campaign: Lesbian Power! It advocated for the diffusion of lesbian ideas through all possible channels, with a focus on lesbian interlocutors. This campaign (flyers, special pages in the magazine distributed nationally and internationally) would have an important impact within lesbian movements in Belgium and abroad.
That same year, a book was published, Thuiskomen  by Majo Van Rijckeghem. It was a lesbian bestseller in Flanders, but also an annoyance to the lesbian movement because the rare lesbian activism it evoked was stereotypical. And at this historical stage of their movement many lesbians would not accept this anymore. Nonetheless, the pleasure of a locally published book ensured that it was carried by the whole Flemish lesbian community.
Because the marked presence of lesbians was going to disturb the women who passed through Labyrint, which had emerged as a “women’s” organization following its first three years of existence, the association decided in 1991 to “dedicate itself to lesbians”.
In 1993, Goudou asserted itself as a “Lesbiënnewerking”, when it found itself abruptly excluded from the gay structures that housed it. As for Atthis, it was in 1996 that it self-defined as an “organisatie voor lesbische vrouwen” (organization for lesbian women).
The Lesbisch Netwerk (end 1994 – 1997) founded a lesbian network of groups and individuals which met regularly and which would lead, in 1995, to the launch of an annual collective review of all lesbian groups who wished to do so, Gebundeld Zweet (1996 – 2001).
It also gave impetus to an action of political demand addressed to feminists and the outside world during the Vrouwendag of 11/11/95: “Draai niet rond de pot!” .
The political message is clear, “Do not overlook lesbians!”, as well as the leitmotif of the 2000 leaflets distributed and addressed to feminists, “We demand that you think and choose diversity clearly”.
And the press covered the action very positively “Only lesbian protests color Women’s Day” or “Lesbians demand their place in the women’s movement” .
However, the backlash of protest movements continued, everywhere. In Belgium, the movements were inexorably recuperated by the mechanisms of institutionalization put in place by an ex-‘Welfare-State’ (ex-Etat-Providence) which in fact increasingly adopted an ultra-liberal policy. This forced subsidized associations to “restructure” themselves. In April 1995, the Flemish authorities issued a new decree requiring them to regroup. Two years later, in June 1997, Impuls published an article in which it described the “dramatic situation” in which it found itself. The state, which at first drowned out the situation with multiple decrees imposing numerous structural changes on organizations entitled to subsidies, eventually turned off the taps and did not pay out the promised subsidies. Impuls’ call for financial aid would not save its organization, which closed.
But while some associations disappeared, others maintained themselves and subsidized themselves in other ways.
In 1996, the call and nudge from “politicians” came from the cabinet of the Flemish Minister for Equal Opportunities, Anne Van Asbroeck.
The ministry wanted to create advisory bodies , especially for women and homosexuals, which would enable them to give opinions on the situation of their respective social groups.
And history repeated itself. At the end of 1996, Lesbotafel (1995 – 97), the conglomerate of all Flemish lesbian groups that formed on that occasion, learned that feminists had informed the minister that they did not want to sit at the table with lesbians. And despite a letter of protest from Lesbotafel to the Cabinet, the feminists’ wish was granted.
The intensive meetings for the creation of a “homosexual” consultative body would have an equally disastrous outcome for lesbians. As the homosexuals, in constant conflict, were unable to create a delegation, while lesbians, thanks to their history of coordination, quickly managed to form their own, the Cabinet decided not to form the “homosexual” consultative body with the lesbian delegation. That decision was later announced as final.
It is impossible to imagine the reverse scenario. That is to say, a united front of supposedly mixed homos being left out in the cold, because the lesbians were unable to coordinate and organize a delegation to represent them… Simple patriarchal common sense would have allowed them to exist anyway, without the lesbians.
Disgusted, Atthis announced its resignation from the FWH federation on April 17, 1997.
These questions were debated in 1998 at the Lesbiennedag: what relationship do lesbians have with the political scene? Can parties be allies? As for the authorities, what rights and what laws can we expect from them?
At the dawn of the 21st century, lesbians once again received two slaps in the face, lesbophobia and misogyny.
Flanders saw the creation of “Pink Houses” and other mixed projects. But given what they experienced in the very recent past, isn’t mandatory mixing without safeguards for lesbians tantamount to suicide?
Autonomous lesbian groups from Brussels and its periphery succeeded in stimulating the Flemish conglomerate  that founded the capital’s Rainbow House to go beyond the stage of a virtual mix, by submitting as a condition for their participation a statutorily padlocked parity representation of lesbian and gay groups.
What paths should be chosen for the future?
Concluding this article can only be done by asking ourselves questions and pondering the issue at hand.
Will integrating without changing anything one day lead to an acceptable situation? Can we really envisage change in society without asking questions?
1. Integrate into the existing system or continue to reinvent the world?
Is it necessary to integrate oneself in society and extend hetero-social rights to groups that were excluded from them, or is it better to continue redefining new social structures?
In the lesbian movement, many lesbians do not want what many heterosexuals no longer want.
Why not reject the normative values of the hetero-social family order, such as the notion of the head of the family or the financially privileged inheritance granted to consanguineous, non-chosen members? Isn’t it better to fight for new values? Establishing an elective “family” (that you choose freely), without necessarily having a hierarchy of beneficiaries, for example?
In relation to gender norms, rather than adding limiting categories on identity cards, or elsewhere, isn’t it better to simply remove them?
Thinking otherwise should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a challenge and an opportunity for enrichment, because of the questioning and new solutions it allows.
2. Equal opportunities for minorities in the feminist and gay movements?
It is not only state institutions or civil society that must apply the mechanisms of “equal opportunities”, (in vogue especially in ministerial circles and European NGOs in this first decade of the 21st century). It is also up to gay and feminist movements, which have not yet begun to do so, to carry out a major work of political equity within their own institutions.
Not only must these organizations learn to apply an equitable representation of all the subgroups  that compose it, they must – above all – provide them with the financial and logistical support that is all the more important (more than proportional) for minority groups, to be able to redress the social balance in the long term.
The place reserved for them must be recognized, complete and permanent, as long as the mechanism of minoritization of that social group remains in place.
(Translated from French by Brussel Onthaal vzw, supervised for L-Tour by Tamara; with the support of Equal.Brussels)
 Because of this article’s length, it is not possible to cover everything that happened over forty years.
 Progressive, feminist, lesbian and homosexual movements.
 DE GENDT, L. Lesbiennegroepen in Vlaanderen tussen 1974 en 1994. Lesbiennes thuis in (w)elke beweging ? 15p. (Leuven : KUL, 1995)
 Recuperation mechanisms set up by a reactionary social system that was defending itself.
 The first openly lesbian non-profit association in Belgian history.
 LENS, M. Perspective d’analyse de l’idéologie de la différence dans un système hétéropatriarcal, Bruxelles : ULB, 1981.
 Federatie Werkgroepen Homofilie
 « Lesbiennes, thuis in (w)elke beweging ? »
 LENS, M. La lesbophobie et le sexisme ordinaire au centre de la dérive politique des mouvements lesbiens et féministes contemporains. In CHETCUTI, N. et MICHARD, C (dir.). Lesbianisme et féminisme. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2003.
 A few examples. During the eighties, in Brussels Paarse Peperpot increased its footprint within Homocentrum Brussel, with some difficulty. However, they were forced to leave when attempts to integrate the word « lesbian » revealed it to be an impossible task.
In 1985, the homosexual federation FWH fired a paid lesbian worker. In Bruges, lesbians (who decided to create Goudou) were used by homos in order to boost numbers within the federation, as well as to refinance it, as their members were turning away. In 1993, when homos returned thanks to lesbian energy , lesbian would be thrown out of the federation.
 There are a few exceptions in Flanders.
 « Comité de coordination des femmes lesbiennes ».
 In 1987, it was trilingual and co-organized b.o. by Artemys and Lilev. From ’95 until ’98, Aksent Op Roze or Atthis helped Lesbies Doe Front during the last years of this organization. The Lesbiennedag was taken over by FWH, which had become Holebi- federatie (homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals), obtaining subsidies to organize it, as well as to manage a half-paid worker to coordinate it. In recent years a coordination of lesbians, Folia, has backed it up.
 DE GENDT, Lecture at the FWH Congres on 5 November 1994 at Aalst.
 In 1999, Lilev and Vrouwencentrum would become “with difficulty” one single association and form the non-profit association De Madam. One year later, they shared Het Nieuwe Huis with a homosexual group (one of the few “pink” houses created in Flanders). ‘For many heterosexual women, this (new) step was considered one too many. De Madam was perceived by many as a lesbian center, and it would require a great deal of effort to reinstate a ‘business as usual’ operating system for heterosexual women – welcoming, advice and activities – for them to feel comfortable.’ (De Madam, editorial, Autumn 2009).
 Translated subtitle: “Scene from a lesbian existence (co-edition Epo – A. Dekker, Berchem – Amsterdam).
 Website Labyrint, September 2009.
 Website Atthis, September 2009.
 The expression is very strong, because the word ‘pot’ has a double meaning in Dutch. The meaning plays on the fact that you cannot avoid the subject, and the noun also means ‘dyke’, an underground meaning and self-identity that lesbians are particularly fond of.
 Het Nieuwsblad.
 Holebi Overleg Brussel
 Political and philosophical trends, social groups, specific physical characteristics…