Erecting a Safe Space: “Queer A‘POC’alypse”

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By Gregory Stewart

One day I received a Facebook message inviting me to perform at a spoken word show for queer people of color. A friend of mine who attends Brown University with me and was also studying in Amsterdam had asked me if I’d be interested in performing and then gave my name to one of the event organizers.  I identified with the term and write spoken word poetry, so I was intrigued to say the least in terms of who exactly fit into the social category of queer people of color in Amsterdam as well as what assumptions and meanings the term had. Coming from a liberal arts university back in the United States, I was used to the term but I recognized that the meanings wouldn’t necessarily transfer over.

Soon enough I received a Facebook message from one of the event’s planners. We arranged to meet on an upcoming Thursday. I met with Ashley at the Coffee Room at Kinkerstraat 110 at approximately 13:00. We recognized each other immediately after I parked my bike. After introducing ourselves, we both got tea and decided to sit outside.  We began to chat and she told me that the spoken word show was part of a whole night for queer people of color at the Vrankrijk. I was interested in the fact that she seemed so eager to create a safe space for queer people of color. From what she described it didn’t seem like there were any spaces for people who fit into this category in Amsterdam. This starkly contrasted with my experiences being in college. At Brown, I’ve always found myself around people who identify as queer people of color and many spaces on campus are regularly both literally and figuratively considered safe spaces for queer people of color. I was more than willing to offer Ashley my help in constructing such a space. I offered any and all assistance I could with the event in addition to performing during the spoken word portion.

I also mentioned to Ashley that I was looking for something to do a project on. Thus I decided to focus my research on the creation of this night for queer people of color.  Ultimately I sought to unpack the experiences of people of color in Amsterdam and what brought them to seeking safe spaces like the one Ashley had apparently found at Vrankrijk, which became the fieldsite for this study.

Vrankrijk

Vrankrijk is located at Spuistraat 216, not too far from Dam Square, the city center. Ashley had invited me to a meeting with the rest of the event planners at which they sought to hammer out the specific details of the event. Upon arriving at the location, I parked my bike and decided to walk up and down the street since I had arrived a bit early.  The street is filled with cafés and coffeeshops; not a very busy street, but definitely one that would be popular with tourists. Finally, I entered Vrankrijk and immediately pulled out my phone to take a snapchat of a sticker on the door to the actual place. The sticker was a list of the terms racism, sexism, and homophobia, and they were all crossed out alluding to the fact that these were not allowed in the space. I opened the door. To my right were some couches and chairs arranged like a living room setting.  To my left was another room with a stage. In front of me there was a bar. All throughout the space was political propaganda: stickers, posters and paintings that alluded to terms like racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, capitalism and other oppressive structures, deeming them inappropriate in some way.

Vrankrijk was built in 1875 and used as a carpentry workshop. In the late eighties, the property was squatted in the hopes that affordable apartments would be constructed. By 2002 proceeds from benefit concerts, loans and bonds eventually afforded the property an operating license. The property was then closed in 2008 after an incident involving a visitor being assaulted by a volunteer and resident. Finally, Vrankrijk as it was reopened in 2012 is the one that currently stands today. In addition to the bar, concert hall and discussion space previously described, there was also a residential area above.

Vrankrijk is most notably a political, social and cultural space also historically associated as an alternative space for squatters. But it is currently no longer squatted. Different collectives that are structured by anarchist principles organize different events and weekly programs. According to the official Vrankrijk website, some of these events include a punk night on Friday and a vegan food event followed by a queer night on Wednesday.  Other evening events include a DIY workshop, a hip-hop night and a disco night.

“Vrankrijk is the historical center of the Dutch squatters’ scene […] founded in the late 80s, [as] a place for political activism, live music, dance parties, discussions, a political home for people who are looking for orientation of the mainstream” (Sollmann, 2015).  It’s safe to say that Vrankrijk is deeply embedded in politics of protesting hegemonic discourses. The history of the space as well as its current form set the stage for the emergence of this night for queer people of color.  The event planners I interviewed were most closely associated with the queer nights on Wednesday, but had both gotten involved initially volunteering at a benefit for a refugee group, called We Zijn Hier.

The Research

The primary motivation for this study was to understand how and why spaces such as the night for queer people of color are constructed. I wished to unpack the meanings and implications that underpin the creation of a night for queer people of color at Vrankrijk. While I focused largely on the planning that went into creating and preparing for the event, I was also interested in how the event’s creation reflected larger sociopolitical climates of Vrankrijk as well as Amsterdam. I wanted to know how the experience of being a self-identified queer person of color in Amsterdam led individuals to places like Vrankrijk and subsequently led to the creation of a night solely for queer people of color.  Finally, exactly what did such a night mean to the people who had created it as people who are marginalized and are actively protesting their perceived marginalization within the context of larger society?

My methodology for the study was twofold: interviews and participant observations. I interviewed two of the event planners: two young women named Ashley and Isaza, aged 25 and 26, respectively.  My interviews were conducted when and where it was conducive to the schedules of the subjects. Ashley and Isaza are both students in their final year of university so their schedules were quite busy. I interviewed Ashley at Vrankrijk and Isaza at her university, VU University Amsterdam. Interview questions mostly revolved around their involvement and understanding of Vrankrijk as well as everything that went into the creation of the event in terms of preparation and goals. Furthermore, I attempted to find out how the event was positioned in relation to their personal experiences in Amsterdam.

I also attended one meeting before the event took place and one meeting after. As someone peripherally involved with the event as a performer, I was able to ask questions and observe the dynamics and issues that arose during these meetings. I ended up not being able to perform at the event due to a scheduling conflict I realized all but too late.  Thus my data on the actual event is limited to the notes taken in these meetings and interviews, which include accounts of happenings at the event. Finally it should be noted that racialized and gendered classifications of the individuals discussed in this paper are based upon my perceptions of race and gender, which are of course informed by my social positioning as a black cisgendered man and my experiences with such constructions of race and gender in America. Race and gender are obviously both complex social constructions that have less to do with inherent characteristics and more to do with structuring the lived experiences of people. When I insert racialized and gendered descriptors of individuals I reference from the meetings, I do so with the intent of undergirding perceived racialized and gendered dynamics at play. But do note that my perceptions are in no way indicative of how these individuals construct their own racial and gender identities for themselves.

Conceiving the Event

Initially, the idea of having a night for queer people of color arose during various serious and casual conversations between individuals involved with Vrankrijk’s queer nights on Wednesday. Although it had been brought up before, this was the first time it was legitimately translated into something concrete. The organizers, who included Ashley and Isaza, began planning the event as early as October 2016, a process which included figuring out the logistics of the event as well as clearing the event with Vrankrijk’s core collectives.  It was decided that the event would be a casual event with spoken word performances followed by dancing and music on the evening of Thursday, November 12, 2016, at 8 PM. A Facebook group and official event page for the event were created, both entitled “Queer A’POC’alypse.”  Eventually a manifesto describing whom the event was for was produced as well.

Simply put the purpose of the event was to create a safe space for queer people of color in the form of a night of sharing and socializing with each other. Yes, Vrankrijk already had programming for the month of November themed “Decolonization,” which held hour-long conversations about topics like white privilege, the importance of spaces for people of color, and intersectionality. However, Queer A’POC’alypse was about something slightly different. In the event’s manifesto the following was written to explain why the event was being organized:

To build community among the diverse array of People of Color who are queer.

To encourage creativity among each other, to explore identity in ways that prioritize our histories, stories, struggles and ways to be.

To go to a space where “where are you from?” is not really “How exactly do you not belong?”

To foster a space where we seek identities in relationship to our own values and desires and not in response to the dominant culture.

To create a sense of awareness about our work and contribution to the struggle.

To heal and support each other in healing from the experience of exclusion, discrimination and the various challenges we face in our different and complicated lives.

Primarily the event’s goal was to build community by creating space for queer people of color. Both Isaza and Ashley mention there being few spaces for people of color in Amsterdam, let alone spaces for queer people of color. Ashley in particular related this lack of community to feelings of isolation in Amsterdam, particularly with respect to navigating Dutch culture. Isaza recalled a moment during a queer festival during which she first experienced a safe space for people of color:

“The first time that I experienced something like that I was at […] Queer Stand and we had a POC caucus and I really had no idea what that was […] All the POC people, we came into a room and sat there and talked about how […] the festival went and there was a lot of crying and people opened up and there was like a lot of problems […] I also got pretty emotional just talking about certain things and it weird because I usually would not do that.  It just felt like this was the place you could actually do that.”

Safe spaces for marginalized groups like queer people of color can be extremely comforting and healing. This is precisely what the planners of the night for queer people of color were seeking to accomplish with the event.

Additionally, the lack of community for people of color in Amsterdam is paralleled by experiences of racism and discrimination, but as yet there is little discourse about these issues in the larger Dutch society. Ashley cites this as another vital motivation for creating a safe space for people of color to discuss these issues because:

“The Netherlands especially [is] a society in which race is not really talked about and racism is seen as something that […] Dutch society [has] overcome.”

Ashley alludes to the denial of racism as being a hegemonic racial discourse in the Netherlands that erases the lived experiences of people of color. A night for queer people of color would ultimately afford these individuals the space to express themselves and share their narratives as a way of reclaiming agency in a society that marginalizes them.

Labeling the Event

The event’s title, “Queer A’POC’alypse,” is a play on words, but ultimately indicates that the event is for queer people of color. This was fine with the people who were planning the event as they each had their own understandings of what the term meant and identified with the term. Nevertheless, labeling the event as such presented a set of issues in terms of differences in whom they wanted to attend the event and how those invited to the event might understand the term queer people of color themselves. Ultimately, a manifesto was produced outlining whom the event was for and what meanings the term queer people of color implied.  The discussion around labeling the event revolved around meanings associated with the terms people of color and queer.

People of Color. If there was one thing that all the event planners were in absolute agreement on it was that the event was for non-white people. Thus the term “people of color” was utilized and understood as just this. However, the term being borrowed from an American context that actually historically has to do with color as well as race and ethnicity, is less accurately representative of race and ethnicity politics in Amsterdam.  Still the term was employed out of a lack of another readily accessible term for a Dutch context alluding to something similar. Regarding defining the term, they wrote the following in their event manifesto:

By people of color, we acknowledge that this phrase is loaded with both meaning and ambiguity. This is not about ‘color.’ It’s about the way particular cultures, ethnicities and complex identities have been erased by the invention of race.

Essentially, the term alludes to those who are excluded from the social category of Dutch on the basis of race and ethnicity. The manifesto also indicates that it expects individuals to the whole to self-identify. Both of my interview subjects fit into this category. Ashley was born in the Netherlands but had been raised in Aruba. She had lived in Amsterdam for the past six years. Isaza was born in Venezeula and then immigrated to Aruba. She also had lived in Amsterdam for a short period of time: four years.

Queer. There was less clarity about the usage of the term queer in terms of whom they wanted to attend the event. Many of the event planners identified with the term and wanted to make it clearly communicated that queer people of color were hosting the event. But they also recognized that the term “queer” might not be a term that people are familiar with and didn’t want to exclude those who didn’t identify with the term. Regarding the term, they wrote the following in the manifesto:

There are many ways that people define queer. Queer can be an expression of sexuality and an expression of gender. We hope that queer includes a political orientation that affirms the complexity of life, gender, desire, love and identity.

Accordingly, the event title “Queer A’POC’alypse” was chosen with the subtext of the event being a queer space for people of color. In essence, the term held two related, but separate connotations. The first connotation is the one cited in their manifesto alluding to an umbrella term for expressions of gender and sexuality. This relates to the use of queer as a personal identity that has to do with acknowledging the limits of gay and lesbian identities (Harr, 2008). For example, Ashley identifies as queer because she “dates across the gender spectrum,” which doesn’t necessarily fall neatly into a gay or lesbian identity.  The second connotation relates to queerness as a tool of political subversion. Queer theory, which grew out of queer politics, holds an understanding of identities as key to social movements, but also culpable of reproducing marginalization in terms of ignoring difference within single identity groups (Harr, 2008). Thus a politically queer identity indicates an understanding and acceptance of identities that are “anti-identitarian” as Ashley described or that subvert the idea of an identity as a complete and coherent descriptor. In this way, queering the space was an attempt at making space for non-normative gendered and sexual identities but not necessarily excluding those with normative identities.

The Door Policy

Having decided whom the event was for, the next issue that arose was how exactly to manage entry at the door in terms of who would and wouldn’t be allowed in the space.  Essentially what had been decided was that individuals were to read the manifesto, which would be posted at the door of Vrankrijk. This would provide them with the opportunity to decide if they thought the event was for them, having read about its goals and definitions. Since the event was a queer space for people of color, demographically speaking, the majority of event attendees had to be people of color. Otherwise, simply based on numbers, the space would not be a space dominated by people of color.

While there were a couple of individuals who had qualms about allowing in people who identify as queer, the majority of attendees were staunch about denying white people entry. Their worries seemed to allude to previous experiences in which white people enacted racist behaviors or said racist things to individuals, although no one mentioned any specific instances during this meeting. At the next meeting, however, an incident was brought up that occurred at a previous event under November’s theme of decolonization. The theme was purported to focus on issues of race in Amsterdam with discussions and speakers. Apparently, at one of these events, a person of color was accosted and strangled by a white person. Subsequently, after being kicked out of the event for enacting physical violence, the individual was allowed to reenter the space. Although indeed a rather extreme example, cases like these seemed to undergird the persistence of individuals to enforce a strict door policy with regard to white people.

Additionally, a dark-skinned man named Lucius with what seemed like an American accent chimed in that if the event is for people of color, then no time or energy should be devoted to dealing with white people at all. He reminded everyone at the meeting of how emotionally draining it usually was in cases of having to explain to white people how they were enacting racism. Isaza also talks a bit about this, using a term called white fragility, which she describes as follows:

“Whenever you talk about racial issues [and] the white person [gets] very emotional […] and then there’s no way to have a proper conversation there […] and then you end up consoling them.” 

Lucius didn’t want the event attendees having to deal with this inside during the event, nor at the door. Someone also mention how even entertaining the possibility of white people at the event held the potential to alter the dynamics of the event in terms of catering to the needs of white people as opposed to those of people of color. The bottom line was that white people shouldn’t be allowed in and that someone needed to police this at the door. The planners seemed less concerned with allowing those who didn’t hold a queer identity into the event, which indicated the ambiguity of the identity’s politics.

Finally, there was one white person at the event who lived in the residential area above the bar who offered to spend her night at the door dealing with white people. She understood the event’s goals and considered taking on this responsibility an act of solidarity as a co-conspirator, a term related to ally, but slightly different and more intentional.  Likewise, the planners thought it necessary to include a statement in the manifesto, particularly for white people to read:

We acknowledge that people of traditional European descent (white people) are a part of the broader, queer, anarchist and other communities that we are a part of. This is not a night that is about exclusion. This is a night that is about Queer People of Color and our priorities. Demographically, we are outnumbered and we ask for solidarity in our attempt to allow the space to be focused on our struggles, lives and priorities.

This meeting and specifically the insistent discussion on the door policy undoubtedly reinforced how important it was for the event to prioritize the needs of queer people of color.

Pushback Following the Event

After the event had taken place, some of the occupants of the residential area above the bar called a meeting with the event planners. It should be noted that all of these individuals from the house who attended the meeting were visibly white. Prior to this meeting, the collectives held a meeting to approve the creation of a collective centered on people of color, based on the event. The motion had passed and the individuals involved in the event were now apart of an actual collective of Vrankrijk. This follow-up meeting was called to discuss how the collective would function moving forward.

Some of the house occupants still didn’t understand and agree that white people should be barred from nights for people of color. To start with, these concerns indicated some confusion about what was written on the event’s manifesto, which was in English. For example, an older man from the house stated that he didn’t understand how “[asking] for solidarity [from white people]” meant that they shouldn’t be allowed to attend the event. This particular confusion highlighted the English-Dutch language barrier in terms of the rhetoric of identity politics. I was the only non-Dutch speaker at the meeting and had to have a young woman next to me translate his contributions. I gathered that from a framework of Dutch, solidarity’s translation to standing with in Dutch was not an effective enough translation.  Someone added that solidarity could also mean knowing when to take a seat and not be present. Ashley then asked if it would be more transparent if the manifesto were translated into Dutch by a native speaker moving forward in order to mitigate future confusion. Another woman from the house proposed that it should be included in the manifesto that Vrankrijk stands in solidarity with the collective of people of color in relation to the night. This would bolster the meanings associated with solidarity, but also speak to the role of white people in relation to the event, which lent itself to the next prominent issue.

Ultimately, issues with the door policy reflected perplexity over how Vrankrijk as an inclusive community would navigate having a night that was exclusionary to white people in the future. Despite disagreement about the door policy, the members of the collective were adamant about it being crucial to ensuring the success of future nights for people of color. The man who raised the issue of solidarity also said that he’d received a number of phone calls from people upset about the door policy. The argument was raised that these individuals were used to Vrankrijk being an inclusive space, rather than an exclusionary one. Also, it was argued that white people should have space to understand how their actions are racist. In response to this, a dark-skinned man named Peter stated that asking people of color to explain how they’ve been oppressed is like asking a victim of sexual assault to explain to the perpetrator by whom they’ve just been violated. Peter went on to reference the historical context of Vrankrijk as a place that was indeed exclusionary not only to individuals who enact sexism and homophobia, but also in an effort to centralize and further anarchist and feminist goals.

Ultimately, it was still argued that people upset over the event should have some sort of forum to hear about the particular politics of the event. Another woman from the house suggested the creation of some sort of panel for the event planners to discuss these issues with distressed individuals. Ashley agreed to some sort of event like this and offered to speak at it, but added that is was a request that not everyone was necessarily emotionally available for. Someone also mentioned that there already was programming surrounding issues of race that people could attend if interested. Nevertheless, this particular forum regarding the night for people of color was settled.

Politics of Place and Identity

My findings can be analyzed through the frameworks of the relationship between the politics of place and the politics of identity in addition to processes of carving out and claiming space. First of all, it is vital to contextualize the “Queer A‘POC’alypse” and the subsequent discussions within the social and political place that is Vrankrijk, which can be understood as a social center. Chatteron discusses social centers effectively as spatial foci for political activism:

Social centres, first and foremost, aim to be territorially grounded projects and, for the participants, politics happens in place.  They are described through various motifs such as platforms, safe spaces, bases, incubators, and shelters which reveal a desire for groups to anchor themselves and find meaning, safety and visibility. (Chatterton, 2010)

Although Chatterton’s analysis of such social centres uses data based on an anti-capitalist space, the understanding of how individuals create spaces within physical places most certainly apply to Vrankrijk as well. Historically, Vrankrijk has been associated with politics in Amsterdam starting with its origins as a space for squatters. Not that the place in itself is political, but rather the individuals who have interacted with Vrankrijk have made space for politics. The squatter scene is considered to be an alternative scene, an umbrella term which queer also falls under, according to Ashley. As Chatteron discusses, politics are embedded within the practices that occur within place. Through involvement with the different collectives and the work they do, individuals involved in Vrankrijk are shaping their politics, especially as they network with others in the space.  Through this lens, then, the cultural and social practices within Vrankrijk are inherently political as well.

The subcultures that have interacted within Vrankrijk have paved the way for each other in a historical sense within the particular framework of ‘alternative.’  In this way, people who identify as squatters or queer have been able to feel welcome within the space of  Vrankrijk. In terms of maintaining the space as a place where various subcultures feel welcomed, Vrankrijk has developed a culture around certain rules that make the space safe, so to speak. Ashley alludes to some of these as to why Vrankrijk is different from other spaces in Amsterdam when she says:

“The politics of the space really speak to me in the sense that bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated – and also and insofar as you can create a safe space – this is as close as it gets for me.” 

The rules that stipulate the prohibition of oppressive discourses like racism, sexism, and homophobia are embedded in the people who volunteer at Vrankrijk as well as in the stickers and images on the walls inside. These rules are enforced, or supposed to be at least, when they are broken in order to maintain the safety of the space.

Finally, although Vrankrijk is full of individuals with certain political identities, it is also a social space, in the general sense of a place to socialize, in the form of the bar – one that is frequently attended by all sorts of people, who are attracted to the place for all sorts of reasons, which are not necessarily political. In this social space, there is not only overlap of different political orientations, but also of social identities that are less so affiliative and achieved and more so ascribed to them due to their positionality within society. Of course, their political orientations are somewhat informed by their lived experiences as social beings, and it should be noted that both their social and their political identities are being navigated within Vrankrijk. This is the relationship between the social and the political, and finally the cultural, which has to do with the culture of what actually occurs within the space in terms of Vrankrijk being a safe space.

Carving Out and Claiming Space

Given the context of Vrankrijk as a social center and a safe space, a group of individuals still had to carve a particular space within an already existing space in Vrankrijk. This is wholly indicative of the fact that places don’t just exist in vacuums, but have sociopolitical contexts as well. The context of Vrankrijk is Amsterdam, a place with particular rules around who gets to be considered Dutch and who does not. This idea of who is Dutch and who is complex and confusing involves processes of racialization, nationalization, and acculturation of diverse groups of people. It also has to do with the reality of a mostly racially homogeneous national society and a particular history of colonization and modern discrimination. Even though both Isaza and Ashley were to find homes within Vrankrijk in terms of attending to their queer identity, they still felt the need for a more specifically defined space that prioritizes their social status as the cultural other in Dutch society.

The fact that Vrankrijk allowed the event to take place and allowed the formation of the collective for people of color is telling of the potential of spaces like these. For Ashley, this “reaffirms the politics of the space,” but it also is suggestive of so much more. In terms of making claims to space, the event was symbolic of people of color in Amsterdam essentially saying, “we are, in fact, Dutch and we’re here to stay” (Jouwe 2014) – that they too have a right to cultural citizenship. This kind of statement can be empowering for marginalized groups, as it was for the many who attended the event.

Additionally, the event alters the dynamics of the space as well; white people involved with Vrankrijk as well as white people who had intended to attend the event but couldn’t get in had to stop and think about the politics of the event. Whether or not people come back or not to Vrankrijk following the event, they will be forced to reconcile with the existence of a space exclusively for people of color. On this point, Ashley added:

“If that means that people will not come to Vrankrijk anymore that’s actually reaffirming because I wouldn’t want those people in Vrankrijk.” 

This is particularly telling because it shows Ashley claiming Vrankrijk as a space that she not only cares deeply about, but one that she can see herself in, in terms of the politics of the space. This points to a success in the process of carving out and claiming space; when you finally feel like you’ve reclaimed agency in the face of marginalization.

Conclusion

The emergence of spaces like these is extremely powerful. These are the small and localized ripples that can be really disruptive to oceans of hegemonic discourses. The main hegemonic discourse in this case was that people of color don’t belong in Amsterdam unless they fully blend in and make themselves invisible, and that their experiences of racism and discrimination are not real. I personally always take these spaces for granted but they truly are vital.

In terms of looking on the outside into the event and this process, there are so many important differences between Amsterdam and the United States in terms of race and racism. What really was shocking to me was the lack of language with which to discuss issues of oppression. I think that really enables oppression to continue, when oppressed groups aren’t equipped with the discursive mechanisms needed to discuss their issues. Undoubtedly, Vrankrijk’s role as a social center with its own history of politics was instrumental to creating a space for the night’s formation. Through all the diversity of political orientations within the space, the majority of people were able to recognize the event as something that could and should happen at Vrankrijk, which instills hope that spaces like these can be bastions of social change.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Chatterton, P. (2010). So what does it mean to be anti-capitalist? Conversations with activists from urban social centres, Urban Studies, 47, 1205-1224.

Harr, B.E. & Kane, E.W. (2008).  Intersectionality and Queer Student Support for Queer Politics.

Jouwe, N. (2014).  In Conversation: The Netherlands Now: Reflections on the Netherlands Now.

Sollmann, M. (2015, October 15). Vrankrijk – The Squatters’ Kingdom. SpottedByLocals.com. Retrieved from http://www.spottedbylocals.com/amsterdam/vrankrijk/

Vrankrijk Official Website.  Retrieved from Vrankrijk.org

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