Lesbian history and lesbian visibility in photography and the visual  arts in Belgium.
by Lieve Snellings

The following does not pretend to be a historic or scientific account, and it certainly isn’t THE true story of lesbian history and visibility in Belgium. These are personal considerations, based on my own experience, the conversations I have had, and the texts I have read on the subject …

A brief historic overview of Belgium

Stimulated by her ideas on emancipation Suzan Daniel founded  the first gay and lesbian group in Belgium in 1953: the CCB (Centre Culturel Belge / Cultureel Centrum België). Within a year she withdrew from the group due to disagreements with some of the men. The CCB became more self-centred and turned into a mere association of friends.
During the 60s they established contacts with the COC in the Netherlands and found new allies in some university professors (Steven De Baetselier and Jos Van Ussel).  This added a renewed social involvement to their self-centredness.
In the early seventies the legendary TV programme “Zo zijn” (Being that way) settled itself in the collective Flemish memory by the coming-out of Will Ferdy (a well-known Flemish singer).

Splits , personal conflicts or influences made one organisation come forth from the other. Federations were founded, withered away, and rose again. At the end of the 70s, and in the early 80s Belgian “holebi’s” (gays, lesbians and bisexuals) took to the streets, mainly in resistance to art. 372bis of the Belgian Criminal Law. This article laid down that the age of consent for homosexual contacts was 18 years, in comparison to 16 years for heterosexual contacts. In 1985 the article was dropped from the Criminal Law.

On the “Roze Zaterdag” (“Pink Saturday” or Gay pride) of 1992 the press was presented for the first time with a list of demands.  This list was adjusted in 1996, 1999 and 2000.  Despite the current government’s initial promise at their instalment that all would be seen to very soon, the major demands have not been realized yet : an anti-discrimination law, and the possibility for gays and lesbians to get married.
Since 1996 the name of the Roze Zaterdag was changed into “Belgian Lesbian and Gay Pride”. The current (militant “pink”) Equal Opportunities alderman of Brussels saw to it that for the first time “holebi’s” can celebrate and pronounce their demands in the heart of this dazzling city on 5 May of this year.

In 1996 the “vzw Fonds Suzan Daniel”, a gay/lesbian archive and documentation centre was founded. 

What about the lesbians?

Even though it was a woman who founded the first Belgian gay and lesbian group, active lesbians were very hard to find during the 50s and 60s. And during the 70s and 80s most women chose to dedicate their energies to the feminist cause. Collaboration with men did not run smoothly. Lesbians reproached the mixed (actually gay men’s) groups with being too male-centred, and with not recognizing them. The social difference between the sexes was just transposed onto the mixed gay movement. Lesbians joined in better with feminists, they pulled the women’s movement, founded women’s houses, and started to organise in lesbian groups (some of which within the women’s houses).

Yet the relationship between lesbians and the women’s movement was not entirely unproblematic either. There was a certain fear that lesbian visibility would scare off the “ordinary housewife”. As long as lesbianism was a private affair, straight women have nothing against it, but they will not come to a Gay Pride.  After years of internal struggles lesbian themes were finally included in the programmes of (inter)national Women’s Days (11 november – 8 maart).

In 1985 a bilingual “Lesbians Day” took place in Pitet.  For some participants this was a hard confrontation. On the one hand there were lesbians who were politically active in anti-military, trade union, or third world movements. At that time the entire country was in an uproar due to the actions of their group “Women’s solidarity”. This group struggled for the release of 3 women from Leuven (jailed for spraying graffiti when the pope visited Belgium) and demanded a change in the law on preventive custody. On the other hand there were the “Radical lesbians”, mainly from Brussels and the French-speaking part, who refused to collaborate with men, and who condemned any woman who did. According to the posters they put up, men were the enemy and should be executed or castrated.

Two years later, in 1987, some women founded the “Lesbisch Doefront” to organize a Lesbian Day every year.  On this day lesbian and bisexual women can meet each other, have informal talks, get to know different organisations, attend workshops and lectures, see lesbian movies, listen to music, poetry and literature, or visit an exhibition.

Lesbians together with gay men and bisexuals

The decline of the 2nd feminist wave, the personal evolution that politically active lesbians went through, the appearance of a new generation, the birth of a myriad of mixed gay and lesbian sports clubs, the realization of a shared struggle, and a shared reason to celebrate… created a tendency to collaborate. It’s still not always easy, but the will is certainly present, and most importantly: the younger generation takes mixed groups for granted.  Some of the older lesbian groups still argue about whether lesbians from mixed groups should be allowed to participate in a lesbian network. But most of the lesbian groups have started to collaborate with mixed groups, groups of parents…
In the early 90s most groups also started to include bisexuals in their names, the FWH (Umbrella organisation of gay groups in Flanders and Brussels) began to include them in their name and in the subtitle of their magazine, and the collective term “holebi’s” became popular.
Even the Lesbian Day, although still focused on lesbians, opened its doors last year to everyone. Apparently the times are changing and a new culture is emerging.

What is that culture like ? 

Culture encompasses more than Art.  It is about who we are, which values and standards we share with others, how visible we are or dare to be to each other, and to ourselves … 
People need a sense of security, a sense of belonging, recognition and acknowledgement, they long to lead a valuable and valued life, they long for a “home”…

Culture is important in the sense that it supports us in our search for our identity: as individuals, as a group, and as individuals within the group, towards others, in society…
In “holebi”-culture however, it is mainly gay men who are visible. Is this related to the relationship between men and women within mainstream culture?  Most likely it is.  The financial position of gay men looks much brighter than that of lesbians. Does this financial security make gay men more occupied with themselves? Do lesbians have to invest too much in survival?  Does being “men” arm gays against feelings of inferiority, lack of self-confidence and insecurity?

How visible are gays and lesbians ?

In a gay and lesbian bookstore the difference between how gay men and lesbians relate to images becomes obvious immediately. Tens of gay photography books lie about, and sell so good that the shops can survive on them. Many gay men like the “beautiful-boy” images, the erotic images.
This seems to be different for lesbians. In the bookshop you hardly find any “beautiful-girls” books. Lesbians are said to be more concerned with the inner self… Or do they only appear to be?  After all, women do not buy photography books like the Lesbian ConneXion/s catalogue either or books with photographs by Gon Buurman…
Do other things play a part? Aren’t we afraid of our own visibility? Aren’t we scared to be “caught”?
It is striking, for instance, that lesbian photographers are less likely to come out: it’s only one aspect of their lives, they are (doing) so much more… As if declaring that they are lesbians would degrade their work, even before it is being showed, being seen. And maybe they are right. Maybe they do get less chances when they come out.
Yet, lesbians ask for images: to recognize themselves, to be acknowledged, to find a right to exist, to find their identity, to acquire the right to be visible in that existence.

Lesbian images in Flanders

On the Lesbian Day of 1995, lesbians were asked to have their portrait taken in a studio Hilde De Bock had set up. We would make a lesbian photograph series that could not be denied, people would see how many we are …  The response was amazing. People were queuing all day long. I realized for the first time how important it was / is for lesbians to have images of themselves.

On the Lesbian Day of the following year Hilde exhibited some of the pictures (a selection of which are also included in Lesbian ConneXion/s). I myself also exhibited my work on this day: in a pink triangle of 4 to 3.5 metres, I presented 48 pictures from my lesbian existence.  It was titled: “potterie, een blik op lesbisch leven” (a view on lesbian life).  The response was breathtaking. These were not images of American or Dutch dykes, but of ourselves, of women we knew personally. The work drew a lot of attention and lesbians expressed recognition and acknowledgement.

In that same month the series by Hilde De Bock, was exhibited in the shopping centre in Gent. It was titled: “Magic women, a selection from an overview of women in the year 1995, in all their beauty and totality”.  The pictures of couples, however, were deleted and there was no reference to lesbianism, or to all the lesbians who had queued all day to have their portrait taken.
Hilde is annoyed by the label “lesbian” photographer. “They immediately put you in a certain limited sphere. About 60% of my work is about lesbianism,” she says, “but I can also do other things. It feels like being a fly that’s stuck to a flycatcher.”
Are people unable to look through the “lesbian” label? Do they immediately, without having seen the work, equal it with culturally insignificant, mere activism without cultural value?  Does the fact that lesbianism is devalued in society, make its art inferior? But you can hardly ascribe this opinion to Hilde De Bock, who is openly lesbian and who works for a gay and lesbian magazine.
The returning question why one should declare oneself lesbian keeps intriguing me. When I exhibited my work on Bosnia, I was never asked whether this was all I could do, or why I declared myself an anti-militarist… Also, my work concerning self-defence never elicited the remark that men are being harassed too…

November 1996 I exhibited my triangle “potterie” at the Flemish Women’s Day.  There I did not receive any negative remarks for declaring myself a lesbian photographer or for showing lesbian images. This might be due to the fact that lesbians had struggled for years to be visibly present during the Women’s Day.

Glb bookshop “’t Verschil” (The Difference) permanently exhibits gay art in its bookshop-café.  In the consecutive exhibitions they also see to it that lesbians are represented.

Meanwhile the same dispute keeps recurring with every Lesbian and Gay Pride: “The images presented by the media have nothing to do with us. They only pick out the extravagant queers, and those do more harm than good to the cause. We don’t want to be part of that…” Apparently diversity still remains hard to deal with, even within the movement itself. What can influence these responses?

March 1999 Lesbian ConneXion/s came to Belgium.  64 lesbian photographers from 14 European countries showed their view on lesbian existence. A large lesbian cultural programme accompanied this exhibition: photography workshops, lectures, performances, and a multidisciplinary lesbian art exhibition titled “Uit de Kast” (“Out of the closet”). Moreover, the annual Lesbian Day took place during the same period on the theme of visibility. Somehow nearly all lesbian groups in Flanders and Brussels were actively involved in the project and even with mixed groups the project was well received.
The prestigious St. Pieters abbey was put at our disposal by the City Council of Ghent and the Flemish Government subsidized the project.

November 1999 we once again organized a multidisciplinary lesbian art exhibition in collaboration with the City Council of Leuven: “Uit de kast komen, een eigengereide corridor d’amour” (Coming out of the closet, a self-willed corridor d’amour).  The accompanying flyer read: “Eleven women artists express the theme of “visibility” in their own manner, with their own medium: painting, drawing, poetry and language,  monumental art, photography…  The expressions “to come out of the closet”, “being closeted”, inspired the artists to express through “the closet” the often painful process of coming-out. What becomes visible when leaving the closet is exhibited here : “inner experienced art in many forms”.

December 2000 till end of January 2001 the “Roze Huis” (“Pink House”) in Antwerp opened its exhibition space with the lesbian photographs of Ann Haesaerts.   The House intends to organize exhibitions consecutively, in collaboration with “Villa Lila” in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Why are lesbian images so important ?

The mainstream (movies, magazines, newspapers, TV…) still contains very few images of lesbians. In order to develop a positive self-image it is of major importance for lesbians to find examples they can identify with.  By offering exhibitions and this broad cultural programme, by offering images that express the diversity of lesbian women – couples, singles, those still in the closet or out on the roof, motor dykes, mummy lesbians…,  by showing parts of their daily lives, their fantasies, their relationships with children, mothers, sisters, by showing how they party and do sports, by showing their friendships, their sexual and erotic relationships… we wanted to contribute to the enhancement of a sense of self-respect and self-esteem in lesbians. We think it is supportive to enable lesbians to visually express their diversity. “THE” lesbian life-style or “THE” lesbian life do not exist. There are so many shapes and so many experiences. For instance each photographer in Lesbian ConneXion/s presents her own view, her own colour. There are so many different images, so many different hues. Some of them confirm prejudices, others debunk them…

Once the world will konw who we are

With 2000 visitors during the 3 weeks Lesbian ConneXion/s was in Gent, this exhibition was the most crowded in the St Pieters Abbey.
A lot of lesbians, but also lots of not-lesbians found the way to our lesbian photo exhibition…  Once the world will know who we are, is the subtitle of the exhibition…  Well, we opened our doors and windows and people did accept our invitation… this creates connections…

A straight woman, now Minister of Environment in the Flemish Government, wrote in our guest book “big congratulations ! The photos are touching, innovative and most of all : they open up a world that unfortunately for many people is weird and unknown”.   As far as we could see there were not many other notes of straight people, but they all were on this same line.

But in the lesbian world the emotions rose to fever pitch

It is very interesting to read the guest book.  It reflects the emotions these pictures raised in Flemish lesbians.  Some felt open to the differences in the photos and this exhibition was a support for them.  Others couldn’t see or didn’t dare to look at the diversity, or couldn’t allow or accept that these images were showed.  Some, in my opinion were violent and intolerant.
The Flemish culture is very different from the one of the Netherlands. Here everything is more covered up, we’re not used to so much…  Anyhow, you can say this project did miss its aim.  Due to our way of organising the project, lots of lesbians were involved, and the photos launched such contradictory emotions, it was a mass discussion…

Social oppression leads to inner oppression.  We have been fed social prejudices.  Why else did we, and still have difficulties with accepting our being “different” ?  When we don’t want to feel this inner terror or want to soften the pain a bit, we can become excellent “self” oppressors : “We are “normal” and in fact we are part of society and we’re not drop-outs…  Those who don’t wear the correct clothes and especially those who don’t behave as they should do, the ones who look different than women are supposed to look… those are the weird “manly women”, the freaks society dislikes so much. We are totally different…”

I planned to comment on the notes in the guest book.  But then I chose to  give an partial overview of it so everyone of you can make her own comments.  Maybe this is a challenge  to go on with this discussion.

Some personal objections

Before I started writing this text, I was convinced about the need for Flemish lesbian images (recognition and acknowledgement).
Now I’m convinced about this other need: we have to bring a diversity of images.  Why do we have such difficulty with the butch part in ourselves ?  And also with our femme part ?  And then we don’t even talk about these other difficult parts in our lesbian existence: hermafrodykes, transvestites, transsexuals, she/he’s…
I don’t ask for tolerance, neither social, nor individual.  I just want equal rights and possibilities, a place under the sun and in the rain, the right to exist.  I believe we first of all have to give this right to exist to ourselves.  After that (or in fact at the same time) it will be easier to claim our rights within society.

It is my personal belief that we have to allow ourselves to confront the contradictions within ourselves, so we can always “find out” more about ourselves, become stronger, don’t need to be afraid of some images of our group, of ourselves.  This is the only way to grow, to free ourselves of our internalised oppression and to connect with others in solidarity.  My experience tells me that photos, visual arts, are important to support this process.

Of course, if you want to really enjoy the rainbow as a miracle of nature, one should not be afraid to see all those different colours and their connection to one another !

 

published in "Lesbian ConneXion/s Reader" , Queer Arts Festival, San Francisco 2001

february 27,  2001
Lieve Snellings
Translation : Marleen Pas

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