The Demise of Amsterdam Lesbian Scene: Why Do We Still Need Lesbian Bars?

By Violet Domínguez

Collage by Veronika Bejczy

Is the lesbian scene in Amsterdam dying? Despite the city priding itself as the LGBTQ+ capital, lesbians and queer women continuously describe Amsterdam’s queer scene as male-dominated, as well as lacking in spaces for them. The closure of various lesbian bars such as Sappho and Bordó in 2010 and 2014 respectively, only strengthened this belief.

Already in 2016, VICE magazine published an article, which points to the increasing demise of lesbian pubs in the Dutch capital. A year later, the widely recognised and highly regarded bar Vivelavie closed down. This leaves Amsterdam with only two bars which are self-proclaimed “women-focused” – Bar Buka and Café Saarein. This contrasts with the amount of spaces catered towards gay men, such as Club Church (which only accepts non-men on Thursdays), Queen’s Head, De Lellebel, Taboo, Prik, Web… 

One of the main issues concerning the lack of places that specifically celebrate sapphics is said to be linked to the fact that Amsterdam has accepted and normalised queer identities in mainstream nightlife. Finding rainbow flags around the city is a simple task, and Amsterdam’s ‘gay street’, Reguliersdwarsstraat, has become the party destination for people of any sexuality. Some fear the street is becoming too ‘straightified’, as queerness becomes more acceptable to a straight audience, and commodified. This kind of acceptance has come to mean that LGBTQ+ people are allowed to live truthfully almost anywhere, undermining the need for specifically catered spaces. AUC student Leo Hervada, first-year Humanities major, refers to this phenomenon as Amsterdam’s “commercialisation of the queer community”.

Lola Edobor, 38, owner of queer bar Pamela, understands queerness as a political stance rather than merely a sexuality. Edobor strongly believes in the importance of providing queer spaces and, as a lesbian, explains how she prefers queer-minded spaces to those solely focused on a specific sexuality. 

Open since January 2020, the bar Pamela had to close two months after its debut as the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced. It survived due to the venue’s  “creative ideas”, and the fact that the community “showed up” after its reopening, Edobor says. She is unable to describe the response from the LGBTQ+ community: “There is nothing like it,” she says. 

What prompted Edobor to open Pamela was a sense of a lack of spaces that “fit [her] vibe”. There was Vivelavie, but in her early thirties, she felt as though it was for an “older generation”. She also believes that her bar is different as she is not preoccupied with just the labels of “gay” or “lesbian”. As she sees it, “queer is also how you stand in life. It’s political. I don’t think gay or lesbian bars are like that. Queer bar is more… like a certain way of thinking.” In an interview with the brand Patta, she further elaborated: “people assume that the queer community likes the gay bars that you see in Reguliersdwarsstraat. That is not the case: these bars are certainly not made for everyone. So, there was and still is a big gap to fill.” 

Even within queer communities, there exists a discrepancy between the mainstream and the underground, with certain political outlooks being considered more ‘radical’ as those who affiliate with them are more active in the fight for LGBTQ+ justice and equity.

However, Edobor believes that the difficulty in developing places such as Pamela begins with the search for locations, especially those that require a “liquor licence”. Since Amsterdam is extremely expensive, those who can usually afford to open a business are “cis white guys” that will usually “go for a mainstream concept”. This way, less “basic” options might be swept to the side quicker due to their costly nature, and the probability of creating less revenue. At Pamela, she says she now experiences no struggles because of its “mixed” nature. Moreover, she believes a women’s bar would be harder to maintain since “the lesbian crowd is limited” and they go out less.

She is not the only one to share this belief. Marianne van der Wildt, 41, the owner of lesbian Bar Buka, agrees that women generally drink and go out less than men. “That’s why it’s quiet here sometimes, but that’s the choice I made,” she admits. Bar Buka is a small but charming venue said to be the #1 lesbian bar in Amsterdam, as stated on their website. Its high ranking is most probably due to the fact that it’s the only one labelled as such (the other “women’s café”, Café Saarein, says to be “queer-minded” although it still attracts mostly queer women).

Van der Wildt says she opened Bar Buka after finding out that Vivelavie closed. Being a frequent visitor herself, she noticed that people were already on the lookout for the next lesbian bar. Finding a place was “not a real struggle for her” as in 2019, after a year of searching, she found one on Albert Cuypstraat. Although categorised with a slogan “where girls meet”, Van der Wildt also vouches for places that are open to anybody — “buka” means “open” in Indonesian.

Marianne Van der Wildt, the owner of Bar Buka. Photo by Violet Domínguez

In Van der Wildt’s opinion, “lesbian bars can only survive with lesbians,” she says, making a very strong case of just how much customers matter, and the ways in which they make up the space; “If people start complaining about there [not being] so many lesbian bars, then I think they should take a look in the mirror and see if they are supporting all the initiatives.” She also explains that she heard some other complaints about her bar having a young crowd, or barely any black people. Changing this should be an easy task, she thinks, but all she can do is rely on her clientele. “Ask your friends to come out. If you want all the people, then ask your girlfriends to come,” she invites. 

Despite knowing that lesbians can freely go out to other straight bars without being judged, she thinks that bars like hers are still important for those who want to surround themselves with “like-minded people”. And on the perceived lack of spaces for lesbians nowadays, she adds: “If there were enough I would not have started Bar Buka, that’s for sure. I think it is possible to have more places like this, but it all depends on the women themselves.”

Bar Buka also collaborates with many queer organisations, as she is very open to events planned by guests.”If someone comes up with an idea and we have the space and date free, then it’s fine”, she says, and that is how evenings with LezlinkUp came to be, where groups of queer women came together for an uninterrupted hour of lesbian drama, watching American show The L Word together every week.

Sophie Kitchen, 25, the creator of the collective LezLinkUp, first started the group in August 2021 in order to “meet girls organically”. The process of dating through apps like Tinder and Hinge, which are generally said to be another one of the reasons why gay bars are disappearing, was getting too “time consuming” for her. She also explains that she felt as though “queer women and non-binary people were just invisible on the scene. I didn’t know where to find them, and bars and parties felt super dominated by guys.” She further remarks on the  difficulty of “infiltrating the queer scene”. Kitchen then created a WhatsApp group chat with the help of friends and past Tinder matches, which is slowly but steadily growing into an extensive community with over 420 participants in the chat and more than 2150 followers on the collective’s Instagram. 

Through these sites, she is able to organise events and meet ups such as The L Word watch parties, and provide an inviting space for people who share interests and ideas to come together. Additionally, LezLinkUp holds more upbeat events, such as parties at clubs like Paradiso, Sexyland and Club NYX.

In response to the belief  that queer women go out less, which has not been backed by expert knowledge, she admits that it does seem like “queer womxn go out less than their gay male or straight female counterparts.” She speculates that “queer womxn can just get so cosy in their relationships” and “start trading Club Nyx for Netflix,” as she sees nightlife to be “centred around sex”. Still, she finds ways in which LezLinkUp can appeal to all parts of a community by “embracing space for queer womxn to socialise and go out in non-sexually loaded ways,” but at the same time “ensure the safety and empowerment for queer womxn looking to explore their sexual selves and desires” as well as “supporting the interesting ways in which polyamory has surfaced among queer couples in Amsterdam who might still seek hookup-centric parties.” 

Café Saarein, (perhaps Amsterdam’s #2 Lesbian Bar), is a small and cosy place like Buka. The difference: it is said to cater to an older audience. It is one of the first recognised lesbian bars, opening in 1978 and accepting only women until 1999. To get a taste of Amsterdam before the 2000s, and Saarein in its heyday, The Herring reached out to 53 year old Joyce Koppies and her longtime friend, Israeli musician Ellyott. Ellyott, who lived in Amsterdam between 1988 and ’89, composed music for Rebel Dykes, an acclaimed documentary on London’s 1980s underground lesbian scene. Koppies has lived in Amsterdam since 1987, making visits to London in order to visit other ‘Rebel Dykes’ and friends.

Ellyott describes Café Saarein as one of the “very few places for dykes to go out”. However, as Koppies and Ellyott lived as squatters at the time, she recalls getting some “dirty looks”. She also confesses that she found it “quite boring, as we were very young and quite obnoxious”.  As they were activists who were also part of the S&M (sado-masochism community), Koppies also remembers not feeling welcome, and being “ridiculed”. So instead, they would mostly organise their own parties at squats or “squatter cafes.” Koppies thinks back to another women’s only café that she formerly volunteered at, Orka La Rose, now closed, which had some similarities to Saarein. She explains Orka La Rose as a “squatters cafe with a political activist tone”, used as a meeting place before and after protests against apartheid, racism, squat evictions, environmental pollution, women’s rights and gay rights. She adds that the clients were mostly international and poor. In contrast, Saarein was for women who were “more Dutch, had jobs and a little more money to spend.”

This same discrepancy exists today, as former squats are more “accessible” and “quite cheap”, at least according to former AUC student Kat Ruud, who graduated in 2022 with a Humanities major. Ruud finds places such as squats safer, cosier and more politically involved. Places such as Vrankrijk or the squat in Vossiusstraat provide safe spaces for queer people like non-binary students Ruud and AUC first-year Leo Hervada, though the places might not feel “inherently queer,” Hervada explains.

Understanding the lesbian scene as “dying” would mean that there existed a time where it was alive and flourishing. But even older generations of Amsterdammers — including those who believe that the lesbian scene was better in the past — still express that it was never ideal. Many things were still male dominated, Koppie explains. At the COC Amsterdam (oldest existing LGBTQ organisation), when they would organise parties, Friday nights were ‘men’s nights’ and it was “fully packed”. Koppies explains there was an arrangement to give women Saturday nights as it was “the most popular night”, because “there wasn’t much else for women.” As she remembers it, these nights were “pretty busy, but not nearly as busy as the men’s night.” She attributes this to society’s inclination towards neglecting women. “Society is male dominated […] and then women are being ignored.” The disparity grows within the gay scene, she believes. “Straight people already totally ignore all women. So if you are gay, you are double ignored.”

New ways of perceiving identity and sexuality also contribute to changing the scene. A new term called FLINTA which stands for anyone who is not a cisgender man (Female, Lesbian, Intersex, Non-binary, Trans and Agender), is slowly coming into use. Neither Koppies or Ellyott were aware of this title.

To find out more about the issue, The Herring organised a poll in December 2022, with 25 queer respondents ranging from ages 18 to 31. The participants were mostly AUC students and individuals who joined the LezLinkUp group. They were reached out through social media. Participants mostly identified as cis women who are queer, with some non-binary sapphics and other genderqueer people. The poll resulted with 84 percent of the partipciants expressing a wish to see more places that were FLINTA-only.

Results from the poll

Lesbian does not necessarily entail ‘woman’ for many, and labels such as “where girls meet” or “for girls who love girls”  can make some individuals uncomfortable or feel left out. As understandings of gender and sexuality evolve, heavily gendered language can make other queer people, such as Hervada, feel “less welcome”. In this sense, lesbian places can be considered exclusive by some, explaining why many bars have decided to appeal to the queer community as a whole. Still, participants appeared to nearly tie on their preferences when it comes to the audience.

Results from the poll

Although this could be understood to be due to the high number of cisgender women who participated in the poll, everyone agrees on the need for more lesbian spaces in general, describing the current scene as “hard to find”, in its “nascent stages”, “not enough”, “could improve”or “barely there”. 

Results from the poll

FLINTA-only meetings can also be related to a political stance, though queer platform Fite Qlub, which aims to generate safe spaces for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ people, occasionally collaborates with clubs in Amsterdam to provide (play) parties exclusive to FLINTA people, which can evoke a greater sense of safety. Ruud, who has attended one such party, explains feeling surprisingly comfortable, “like I could’ve been completely naked and still feel totally safe”.

Answers by the correspondents also show that younger audiences nowadays are less likely to have been to either Café Saarein or Bar Buka. It is obvious that young people still perceive dissatisfaction when it comes to lesbian spaces, although there are many quietly fighting against the end of lesbian-focused places. Still, in Kitchen’s words, though “h​​istorically, queer womxn have been practically invisible in nightlife,” it is this fertility, as “the party scene is yet to fully blossom, as it’s still exploring and growing roots,” which makes “looking to the future incredibly exciting”.

From December to March 2023, one can observe a steady growth in queer groups and collectives such as LezLinkUp and queer Club Transmission. Hervada updates The Herring after attending events with these groups, and describes them as “more comfortable and inclusive” than other spaces they had experienced before. Although they “don’t have a definite space and sort of jump around between venues in Amsterdam, they have a set of guidelines they apply everywhere”. The respondents also express very positive feelings towards LezLinkUp, such as saying “it is the first drama free lesbian group, very happy to have them”. The “newer” initiatives (Club Transmission started November 2021) seem to be leaving  a mark within the queer community.

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