What do our tours consist of?
In this section we present the philosophy of our tours, which was published in 2017 in a magazine (*).
The detailed article offers a clear picture of the various stories (herstory and history) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex communities or people that L-Tour brings forth during the tour through the streets of Brussels.
L-Tour, as a lesbian association, organizes lesbian and rainbow tours to raise awareness about the history (herstory and history) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, etc. people and communities in the capital of Europe, Brussels.
What is the story behind the tour?
Since the end of the 1970s, when lesbians arrived from the provinces or from abroad to go out or ‘tour the city’, I seized the opportunity to explain to them what existed or had existed for lesbians in Brussels, in relation to what existed or had existed elsewhere. There were only a handful of us and we were interested in everything. Before the internet, information was mainly conveyed through written documents, postal mail or publications. As telephoning abroad or travelling was expensive, direct contact was thus valuable and appreciated, and when lesbians came, we would organize an evening get-together to share information, and many would come to listen. We exchanged information on our respective countries, but also on the rare groups or individuals active elsewhere in the world; we analyzed the achievements of the struggle and its victories, the difficulties and points of collective struggle to be led. At the time, details of the existing initiatives were held in a single address book. It was only over the years that associations and events multiplied, eventually filling international guides, which I continued to supply with information.
There was a particular dynamic that I lacked, which I further clarify and explain throughout the tours. I wanted to relaunch a lesbian association with an international scope, based in Belgium. Due to a series of factors, organizing tours was the first step in this process.
Following the presentation about Artemys given at the Colloquium on Homosexual Memories, I was contacted by Dominik from the cycling club Cactus, who had attended the colloquium, to organize a Queer Bike-Tour in May 2013. Historians Mathilde Messina and Wannes Dupont were also invited, and together we informed participants about sections of LGBTQI+ history in Brussels.
Very quickly, other tours followed. On Mathilde’s initiative, we created a lesbian-themed walking tour in autumn 2014 for the Maison Arc-en-ciel’s (now RainbowHouse) L-Week in Brussels. Having heard about this project through its tourist office Visit Brussels, the Brussels-Capital Region asked us to create a tour for lesbian media journalists from across Europe who had been invited to comment on the launch of a European premiere, Girls Heart Brussels, created at the initiative of the office of Bianca Debaets, Secretary of State of the Brussels Region (Equal.Brussels). Still run and being continuously developed by Jessica Gysel, editor of the magazine Girls Like Us, an entire weekend is dedicated to enabling lesbians and women to discover places and events organized by lesbians and women in Brussels.
This dynamic also allowed me to invite lesbian associations, during the International Lesbian Film Festival, Cineffable, in Paris, to Brussels. The Lesbian Coordination of France, as well as La Lune Noire of Strasbourg, one of the first French associations to welcome lesbian asylum seekers, came to assist with the tour during L-Week. A name was needed to organize registrations for the guided tour and continue the project, so in September 2014, the de facto association L-Tour started. Delighted with the success of the formula, Visit Brussels then supported, within the framework of Pride 2015, the realization of our LGBTI+ history trail for the general public. And since then, it has continued to grow exponentially.
Presenting the L-Tour project
The guided tour covers the achievements and thoughts that evolved from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present day, and includes information that dates back to the 17th century. Cosmopolitan Brussels thus serves as a springboard for our local, national and international history. The tours are carried out for specific projects (lesbian festivals and events) or otherwise, such as the 2016 discovery tour dedicated to asylum seekers at the initiative of CHB’s Rainbows United (RainbowHouse). They are requested by LGBTQI+ associations for their target groups (Alter Visio for young people, Bear Pride Belgium,…), or regularly by the RainbowHouse in Brussels (Network Day, annual events, Nederlandstalig Overleg,…). RainbowHouse has grown to about sixty associations, including L-Tour.
External initiatives exist for those (e.g. trainees from the European institutions) who wish to discover this renowned European capital from a different angle. The tours continue to be promoted and requested by official bodies such as Visit Brussels (e.g. in 2015 for the 25th anniversary of the European lesbian volleyball competition organized by the BGS in Brussels, or in 2016 within the framework of IDAHOT by the Dutch Embassy and the Permanent Representation to the European Union). Finally, the tour has been open to the general public since 2015 as part of Pride month in Brussels.
The tours are very successful and generate a lot of interest. An average of 20 to 30 people attend each tour. Registrations can exceed sixty, as they did at the L-Festival organized by RainbowHouse in 2014, for a bus with 50 seats. In order to be able to respond to the dizzying increase in registrations, Pride tours are now spread over the entire month of May. We have long since surpassed 1,000 participations across all the tours we have given.
The languages used are French, Dutch and English. Participants come back because each tour is gradually, over time, enriched with new facts and information, due to research, points of interest or spontaneous testimonies, new events or news items, which in turn become historical elements during subsequent tours. Often organizations who request a tour learn a lot about the history of their own organization: origin, evolution, pre-existence of similar initiatives, etc.
Excerpts from media interviews shed light on our story while conveying very strong messages of potential change, such as the one given by our Belgian ‘supermodel’ Hanne Gaby Odiele about the operation she underwent when she was 10 years old: “I am proud to be intersex but I do not accept the idea that this kind of surgery is still performed today without the children’s consent”. I seek to maintain a basic framework, with a diverse range of information, to satisfy as many expectations as possible.
Particular emphasis is placed on the visibility of communities that are still a minority within society, or the movements that are supposed to represent them (lesbians, ‘women’, communities of ‘immigrant origin’, people with ‘physical challenges’, …). The tours often take place on foot or by bus, a formula that allows us to get to our access areas and sites of importance to the LGBTQI+ movement located outside the center of the capital, such as Ixelles and Schaerbeek.
What are the tours like? What are its characteristics?
The capital’s particular setting allows us to reveal the tangible elements, facts and places where events have taken place, and thus to reveal and share our history, in and out of the movement, by specifying ‘who’ did ‘what’. The analysis is distilled as the tour unfolds. Question marks, ideas, thoughts or reflections expressed by people or associations, which can also be antagonistic and thus show that history is not linear. Thus each participant not only forms her or his own opinion, but above all advances in the questioning of what seems to ‘exist in itself’, and succeeds in shaking up the feeling that things are neutral. This journey through time and space makes it possible to discover that there are as many opinions and life choices as there are people. And that history is not homogeneous, that it is intrinsically the opposite, quite heterogeneous, diverse and plural.
a. Societal content
The tour reveals the jagged evolution of morals, laws and rights in Belgium, and explains the periods of repression or decline, as well as the victories. The places in Brussels where these decisions were made are included, such as our government located on Rue de la Loi, and also the Palais des Académies where at the end of the 19th century, during a congress of criminologists, the Belgian delegation decided not to criminalize homosexuality. Belgium experienced only a short period of strict legal repression from 1965 to 1985.
b. What participants expect to hear: the successes, Belgian, European or international ’firsts’, that have occurred in Brussels…and present it in an unusual way
The approach is intended to be realistic and will clarify that certain glories are actually… ‘seconds’. Belgium was the second country in the world to extend marriage to “homosexuals” (after the Netherlands). Marriage is a very rich critical thematic vein of the tour as it is revealing of our society. Also, Belgium was the second country to have a “gay” head of state (in the geo-politics of the last two centuries). The analysis continues in order to reveal the unstated: a more unexpected ‘first’ being that “the first gay Head of State”, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir (Iceland, 2009-2013), is a lesbian. Furthermore, the tour reveals that in 2013 there were three lesbian/gay Heads of State in the world, all of them in Europe, including our Prime Minister Elio di Rupo (2011-2014) and the current Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, who started that same year. At the Pride of May 2015 he announced that he had just gotten married, thanks to the law extending marriage to “homosexuals” that he had just introduced in his own country, making his husband of Belgian origin the first male First Lady. The fact that he is the first ‘man’ in history to officially assume this role of representation and pose alongside the ‘wives of’ is certainly not unrelated to the fact that he is gay.
Surprising the audience in this way, underlining the fact that there are ‘firsts’ that regularly turn out to be something other than what we had initially thought, is also a way of bringing out what is always invisible in a story that is still too often one of dominance. It is astonishing that the history of lesbians, of ‘immigrant’ communities that are already often multi-generational, of people who extract themselves from heterosexual norms, to name just a few of the population’s minority groups, is not always more emphasized or recognized in the 21st century. This is what this tour also wishes to address: to show the public, the decision-making individuals, that this is a story that turns out to be one of shortcomings as well. Indeed, why is the next world ‘first’ not better known? At the Palais des Congrès du Mont-des-Arts in 1976, 2000 (a large number for that time) lesbians and women coming from about forty different countries formed the Tribunal for Crimes against Women. It was on this occasion that the newly formed International Lesbian Front spoke of the “persecution of lesbians” and also proclaimed the political idea, novel for its time, that “forced heterosexuality is a crime against women”.
c. The geo-occupation of our capital
The geo-occupation of our capital reveals, on the one hand, locations where associations have established themselves and collective events took place to advance demands and social changes, and on the other hand those where our protagonists used to live.
The downtown area is by far the richest in terms of evocation. Going through the three phases of displacement of the ‘gay village’, or rather the concentration of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ places in the city center, in particular by following the evolution of its bars and cafés, allows us to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century Galerie Royale Saint-Hubert, when Brussels was considered to have the most ‘lesbian and gay’ places in Europe. During the first half of the 20th century, the cafés were concentrated in the square of the Rue des Bouchers towards the Grand-Place. Later, they moved to the other side of the Grand-Place to assume their current quarters towards Lemonnier and Anneessens, via Rue du Midi.
A key place in the city can be at the same time a pretext for a rainbow-colored chronology. Before it had the beautiful glass roof that we see today, the Galerie Royale Saint-Hubert was an alley with a bad reputation because of its “peculiar crowd”. Up until the 1980s, you could go to lesbian and gay bars there whose numbers and bells you had to know beforehand to be able to access them. In 2015, the Bears celebrated Belgian Pride in the chic Théâtre du Vaudeville. Parts of the movie The Danish Girl featuring a ‘trans’ lead character were filmed in the Galerie shortly afterwards.
Ixelles has also been home to various associations and events. Television broadcasting centers, such as the BRT and RTB, launched the first ‘homosexual’ programs, initially in Dutch in the 1960s, then in French in the decade that followed. The 1980s saw the Eliane Morissens affair and the broadcasting of Antenne Rose’s programs by radio, followed by others on free radios. Place Flagey vibrated during a large feminist demonstration. And the Chaussée d’Ixelles, contiguous, has been home to two important associations. In 1985, it saw the birth of the lesbian bookshop Artemys. From there I inform participants that Sister Sourire was a lesbian and that she went to the association Infor-Homosexualité located further down the road. I then reveal that our Singing Nun had, with Dominique-nique, the first ‘world hit’, a phenomenon in the field of song. I finish off and wrap up by talking about the lobby organisation ILGA-Europe’s recent move to the commune.
Thanks to the Suzan Daniel Fund, we can let it be known that Suzan Daniel – who regularly came to Artemys from 1985 onwards under her name Suzanne de Pues – created the first lesbian and gay group in Belgium in 1953: the “Centre Culturel Belge” (Belgian Cultural Center). The fact that she was very quickly ousted by gays who “did not want to be led by a woman” is also part of our history. The group was created and launched in Schaerbeek. Half a century earlier, the too little-known George Eekhoud lived there, author of the novel Escal-Vigor, “one of the first to approach homosexuality from a positive angle, which earned him a resounding lawsuit in 1900 that led to a great act of solidarity by Belgian and foreign authors”, including André Gide. His great love, over several decades until his death, was Sander Pierron, a lithographer from Molenbeek-Saint-Jean.
The 1930s saw the victory of world cycling champion Elvire De Bruyn (1934) at Parc Josaphat. At 23 (in 1937), she changed her name officially to Willy, and underwent medical treatment for a “sex change”. A little further on, the 1970s saw the flourishing of homosexual communities, including that of the Biches Sauvages (Wild Deers). Some of its members would create the first archive center in Belgium (the second lesbian archive center in the world after New York). I was part of the collective when we decided to display our political identity more openly by changing the name of the association Le Féminaire to Les Lesbianaires.
d. A style/philosophy: to inform but also to challenge and make people think, through irreverence and humour or the unexpected
The subject of marriage is important for romantics or in the context of legal rights. However, divorce statistics are immediately brought up, which makes it possible to satisfy a great number of people, including those who are anti-marriage, and it is much more realistic, the ‘price’ of a freedom that did not always exist. Gays and lesbians would set up a residence downtown so that during their wedding celebration they could take pictures on the City Hall’s balcony overlooking the beautiful Grand Place.
Opposite this is the museum that exhibited ceremonial clothes offered to the city for the Manneken Pis. At present, a museum devoted to this purpose that is located near the diminutive statue contains the outfit confected by gay French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier for Pride 2015. To counterbalance this image that is considered by some to be too ‘people’ or normalizing because of the lack of criticism of the phallic symbol, I ask who knows what the Manneken’s first gay attire was. Very few know that it is a pink condom that was placed on the statue during an Act Up event. The condom is obviously not conserved in the museum…
And the sequence that follows recalls another, older, historical fact, linked to Duquesnoy Hiëronymus de Jonge, the son of the sculptor of the statuette, who in 1654 went on trial in one of the last sodomy trials in the territory that later became Belgium, for having raped two boys. But it is the statuette of Jeanneke, also a symbol of the city with its typical Brussels name, which is more pleasant to visit and also happens to be more in line with our history. Created by a foundation, it recalls the story of clandestine activity, the fight against cancer, aka the ‘gay cancer’ or AIDS. It is located in Impasse de la Fidélité, which has been home to several lesbian and gay cafés and bars throughout the 20th century.
e. The tours’ structure revolves around specific themes
Depending on the interests of participants or requested itineraries, each theme can be integrated at any time during the tour, either from the angle of approach or chronologically. Thanks to its multiple facets, the ‘trans’ question can be evoked as early as Schaerbeek or the Galerie St-Hubert, as we have just seen. ILGA, which has its headquarters in the European quarter near Schuman, has a secretariat dedicated to it. In literature, Belgian writer Anita Van Belle, a lesbian, has written a very beautiful short story entitled ‘Tape-dur’ about ‘trans’cending norms.
The case of Elvire/Willy De Bruyn being an exception, the angle of the laws relating to ‘trans’ people show that they began in 1980 by allowing people to choose the “opposite sex”. It is only very recently that the obligation to have surgery, which was linked to it, was eradicated, namely thanks to the work of the association Genres Pluriels which has literally made it a rallying cry, whose specific demands made in 2016 were supported by RainbowHouse Brussels and Pride. Pride in Brussels is one of the few in the world to remain so politically engaged.
This angle and that of extending marriage beyond heterosexual couples raise the pertinent question of still resorting to the notions of ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are always mentioned on identity documents or during official non-medical administrative procedures. A field of questioning in which Brussels is also a precursor: from the “fluidity of ‘genders’ or ‘genders in plural’ claimed by these latter groups, to the analysis and research into the abolition of the construction of binary and dichotomous categories known as ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, and by extension that of hetero-sociality, launched by radical lesbians during the years 1979-1981 in Brussels (and in a few other countries).
f. The importance of direct contact
The tours start or end in locations linked to our history. These places are, at times, horeca-friendly or managed by members of our communities, or the BIP, Maison de la Région, thanks to the support of Visit Brussels. If this last option comes as a surprise, the analysis shows that it is in fact a real political statement that is strongly recognized by the authorities of a society. Previous generations experienced stigma or had to live in hiding. It should be noted and remembered that, in many countries, the authorities remain repressive.
The tour always ends over a friendly drink, usually at the RainbowHouse which is located in the heart of the ‘gay neighborhood’. This provides an insight into the many associations currently active in Brussels, Belgium and internationally.
Why is it important to take the tour?
a. To make our her/his/story known – memory work
In the 1980s and 1990s, history circulated with difficulty but in a better fashion, as it was more concentrated and our ties and connections were more direct. If we refer to the story of the RainbowHouse’s creation, less than 20 years ago, I am surprised to hear that it is frequently attributed to male homosexuals who arrived years later, or to a relatively large bilingual coalition. In truth, six associations started the project in 2000, all Dutch-speaking, including one bilingual lesbian association, via the Holebi Overleg Brussel. One lesbian, Hilde De Greef, a member of the founding lesbian association, remains the only permanent link between then and the present day. At that time, we worked a lot to rebalance the numbers of gays and lesbians and stimulated the associations who sought to achieve diversity to really work on it. As a result, Fuchsia was created to harmonize an unfavorable relationship with the lesbian community. We also cemented our investment in this project as a lesbian association by establishing a quota as a tool for social change, establishing a compromise at a 40-60 ratio. The project rallied French-speaking associations at the request of the young openly homosexual alderman in charge at the time, Bruno de Lille (who would later be Secretary of State from 2009 to 2014), as a condition for obtaining a house.
b. A more accurate work of memory that reflects a diversity of experiences of discrimination, even oppression, and therefore a diversity of opinions and analyses within the movement.
It is often the history of gay men alone that is taken into account; generally white gay men with a specific profile. They are the ones selected as subjects by the media and certain official bodies, or in research works and literature. Letters other than the ‘G’ often appear only anecdotally, sometimes in a stereotypical way. In accepting Visit Brussels’ request to cover a “gay” story, I thought it was an opportunity to offer all the stories that are never recounted, including those of lesbians or bis, trans, intersex, and anyone else who defies straight standards.
c. Often there is also a general lack of critical and analytical thinking inside and outside the movement…and a new generation that wants it by proclaiming “You are my hero” – the tour as a source of inspiration and transmission for social change.
These tours have revealed that we had to skip several generations before regaining that special sense of pride, the recognition of our strengths. What impresses them is what we have done, and the fact that we did so by ourselves. Also, listening and appreciation are both at their peak and demonstrate a lot of respect. What these generations long to hear is what others over the last 50 years still don’t want to hear. To know about our history, everything about it, in all its dimensions, including dissenting opinions and conflict.
Many female students want to take their ideas further but confess that they are not supported at all in doing so, or not supported enough, nor taken seriously. Worse still, they even risk endangering their future. Naturally it reassures and makes them feel good to see that this is all possible. Necessary, even.
The profusion of analyses and nuanced details impress and reassure, because they counteract a simplifying and regularly erroneous vision of history and realities. On the internet, the first few elements, the most recent (less than 15 years old), and the most found become the only explanatory elements, often without any genuine verification. In academic circles, Masters degrees are gradually being reduced in terms of time (a few months of research, instead of 2 years) and content (some do not exceed 50 pages). When I show magazines dating back from the 1980s and 1990s, lesbian journalists are blown away by their quality, diversity, quantity, internationalism and thickness.
What kind of feedback do you receive? How has the tour evolved with time?
The tour is in constant demand. Our public is loyal and there are often requests for us to augment the tour and make it a permanent fixture. It has become an integral or regular part of events (Pride, Girls Heart Brussels), requested over and over by organizations that have already included it in their programs before. Articles on the tour in Belgian and international media (Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, France…) are also often published and don’t go unnoticed. This explains how the slogan “to sell books is to sell ideas” created such a buzz on Facebook, following Laura Eigenmann’s article in the queer magazine ‘Milchbüechli’, distributed in Switzerland. The inspiration behind the article was an interview with her German lover who had taken the tour and really appreciated it.
The tour is slowly but surely becoming a source of information for university research (thematic work, Masters), often accompanied by an interview to obtain additional information or to satisfy other needs (e.g. for associations seeking deeper insights to give their events more cultural substance).
I am solicited to write texts or articles, and even invited to presentations and debates. In 2015, the Flemish Feminist Documentation Center Rosa (February) and the lesbian association Fuchsia (Pride – May) asked me to speak about the ‘Holebipioniers’, taking as a starting point my own militant life, with a screening of some testimonies of lesbians, bis and gays from the French documentary ‘Les Invisibles’. Recently, I was invited to an excellent salon-conference organized by the Arab-Muslim organization ‘Omnya’.
All these are initiatives that I initially wanted to see developed through L-Tour, and which ended up taking place in a different way, like the beautiful energy flows evoked in Indian philosophies. Thematic tours will soon be organized to deepen and detail the mass of information that is given.
At the heart of a very young country (1830) made up of lands that were mistreated, torn away and annexed for centuries between “European” powers, Brussels has often been a place of exile or transit for many artists or politicians. And therefore also for ‘homosexuals’ when the surrounding states promulgated more repressive edicts/laws. Many continued to enjoy passing through or staying there for a while. Verlaine and Rimbaud even came here to live out their tumultuous love relationship, and it was notably from a Brussels prison that Verlaine wrote some of his most beautiful poems. Sarah Bernhardt, ‘bi’ and Jewish, and many other celebrities, walked the streets of Brussels, and used it as inspiration for many of their arts. The tour sometimes also shows where the singer Barbara, adored by everyone, lived in a loving relationship for a few years. The migratory flows of all origins in recent centuries have greatly enriched our heritage.
As we have previously seen, the theme of creation makes it possible to tell more about famous authors such as Françoise Mallet-Joris (and her Rempart des Béguines, the first French language lesbian novel) as well as Marguerite Yourcenar born on Avenue Louise (and her ‘Mémoires d’Hadrien, empereur homosexuel romain’). Steleae behind the Sablon hold extracts from Yourcenar’s novels. It is of course thrilling to say that the first woman to be accepted into the Académie Française was a lesbian.
How do we see the future?
Recording testimonies (life stories, or political actions) began in the form of interviews, so as to constitute a data bank: in particular, the actors themselves reconstructing the LGBTQI+ story. There are also publication projects. More specifically, a book will be published on Artemys, which will be taken as a starting point to reconcile more than seventy years of history of the lesbian and GBTI+ movements, through the stories of the many people who have passed through them. The publications will give rise to the organization of meetings, exchanges, conferences, exhibitions and documentary screenings. Because now more than ever, direct contacts for the exchange of testimonies, information and ideas will be at the heart of the discussions. The same work is planned to deepen research and the analysis of how society functions, more particularly on the relativism of the hetero-social form it has taken, and a reflection on the categories of ‘gender’, ‘sex’ or ‘sexual orientation’. All these subjects form the pillars for the questions that constantly come up during the tours.
(Translated from French by Brussel Onthaal vzw, supervised by Ellie Vandenbussche and Tamara for L-Tour – With the support of Equal.Brussels)
*Originally published under : LENS Marian, L-tour, in: Het ondraaglijk besef / La notion insupportable (Suzan Daniel Fund), no.23, December 2017. For the needs of the website, some data has been updated and the syntax has been simplified.