Brit in Berlin: Gay Pride — The Dutch know how to do it

By Camilla Leathem, PQ Monthly

3 August 2012, Gay Pride weekend in Amsterdam has begun. Amsterdam is beautiful, and boasts an impressive array of quirky and colourful shops and bars. What I had failed to consider before embarking on my metrosexual Berlin-Amsterdam city-hopping exploits, however, is that Amsterdam is also the size of a slightly larger than average village.

The main city thoroughfares in Amsterdam are the width of a garden path in Berlin, and play host to a frantic battle between pedestrians, car drivers, tram drivers, and public enemy number one: the cyclists. Walking around the city on my first day, I found myself in the headlights of several trams. (Not for long: irate tram drivers are equipped with bells which make your heart leap so violently that your body automatically jumps out of their way.) An elbow here, a bike wheel over your toe there, I soon grew dubious about the logistics of the Gay Pride events, which were bound to draw thousands of non-Amsterdamers onto the already circus-like scene.

My anxiety proved unfounded. As contradictory as it may seem, the main Pride events were oases of easy-going fun.

First stop: the Girlesque party at Paradiso. I’ve been to my fair share of women’s parties in Berlin, and had started to think they were all the same. Wrong. What Berlin lesbian parties do wrong, the Dutch Girlesque party gets right; and where Berlin lesbian parties succeed, the Dutch Girlesque party effortlessly surpasses them. Admittedly, I observed this party through the eyes of a Berliner, so my report can only be highly comparative, but the basics are: Dutch women know how to dress, Dutch DJs know how to play music, and Dutch party organisers know how to organise a party. Berlin, you have much to learn. Where the German capital seems to think that music and somewhere to move your feet constitutes a party, the Dutch capital won’t open the doors to their lesbian parties until the lighting displays are ready to flash, the live band has done its sound check, and the pole dancer has arrived.

My only complaint about the whole evening was that if you crossed the threshold to go outside, there was no return. Which meant that smokers were segregated off into an unventilated smoking room. Highly tactical and educational really, as I’m sure a considerable number of the puffing women who experienced that room will never touch a cigarette again after being forced to get up close and personal with their own stench.

Next stop: the Amsterdam boat parade. Anybody who subscribes to my colleague’s opinion that “Gay Pride is always the same wherever you go” should take a trip to Amsterdam, where the Pride parade takes place on the canals. There’s something very special about hoards of LGTBQers dressing up as Dutch maidens, Betty Boop, and Peter Pan, or not bothering to dress at all, and performing an impressively coordinated dance to house music on a boat on some of Europe’s quaintest and most tranquil canals. Berlin-Amsterdam comparison point: noticeable absence of police. That is, unless you include the policeman patrolling the canals in his dinky police boat who, realising that he too was the centre of attention, began to film the crowds with his iPhone.

Back home in Berlin, I started to wonder why I wasn’t left feeling stressed and exhausted after sharing just a few square miles with hundreds of thousands of people who all wanted to party. I think I have the solution. Of elite UK universities, they say that in Oxford, the university is a part of the city, and in Cambridge, the city is a part of the university. This is how I conceptualise Gay Pride in Berlin and Amsterdam. In Berlin, the party is a construct inserted into two districts of the city for one day a year; the motto: if you’re gay, you’d better hurry up and go and party now. In Amsterdam, Pride blends into the city; it is less of a constructed tradition than it is a way of life. Pride does not “start” and “end” in Amsterdam, neither geographically nor chronologically, but subtly engulfs the whole city. No hecticness, no pressure to party like a gay while you can, just contentment to let it roll how it rolls.

Comparing the German and Dutch Pride weekends alone is enough to substantiate the conclusion that the infamously liberal Dutch mind-set really has left the infamously conservative German mind-set far behind in its uncomplicated acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life.

Camilla Leathem was born in a miniscule seaside town in southwest England, studied English literature and German in London, and is now pursuing a German language PhD in Berlin. Likes: Germany, German, and the Germans, pigs, and secretly analysing people when they’re not looking. Hates: pasta, flat shoes, and techno music.