black tulips, painful museums and invisible dykes

I am back in Canada after a week of adventures in Amsterdam with Boi L. So. Much. Fun. I travel a lot, but I rarely vacation, so this was a special treat indeed. And what a cool town to vacation in.

Let’s see, a few highlights. Be warned that this is going to be more of a fun travel post than a thoughtful intellectual one – entertaining I hope, but not necessarily brain food. Read on if you like candy. Oh, and I’m not going to bother talking about the hot black dress I bought (oh, I just did! darn), or the general art museums we visited, or what it was like to be present when the Netherlands won the soccer game (so much orange, so much yelling…), or the utterly headache-inducing weirdness of going to “coffee shops” that were actually public marijuana dens, or whatever. Let’s keep to topic, shall we?

***

First of all, Amsterdam is full of gorgeous people. Everyone looks healthy, everyone bikes around town instead of using cars, and everyone dresses extremely tastefully. Plus, they have great shoes. Wow! So good.

The odd thing, though, is that with a handful of exceptions, I didn’t see any queer people. Was this because queerness is so fully accepted that nobody feels the need to culturally identify via dress and hairstyle? Was it because we were in the wrong parts of town? (It’s really a tiny town.) Even the so-called lesbian bar was empty but for the grouchy-looking male bartender. I wasn’t convinced.

I’ve got nothing against the idea of widespread queer acceptance, but I have to admit I really like having enough of a queer culture that we have some recognizable visual signifiers with which to identify one another. Honestly, had I wanted to hit on anyone, I wouldn’t have known where to start, and the noticeable absence of anything resembling a butch or a trans person was nothing short of bewildering. Do they simply not exist there? Or is queerness just so banal that there’s no need for community identifiers? I’m stumped. All I know is that in one of the world’s most queer-friendly cities, we felt like the only dykes for miles around. If a little oppression is what it takes to build an interest in queer community and culture, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Okay, I know that’s a sacrilegious thing to say, but really, I’m not that thrilled about our utopian queer future being populated exclusively by L-Word lesbians whom I can’t tell apart from straight girls. When we spotted a cute blonde gal with a funky haircut and a few facial piercings, Boi L suggested we tackle her and bring her home with us, and I actually gave the matter some thought before saying no. Good thing we were able to make our own fun one-on-one!

***

I must devote considerable space in this post to the Black Tulip, Amsterdam’s leather-themed hotel. Actually it’s more like a rather large bed-and-breakfast, and I hesitate to use the word “themed” because that makes it sound like a cheesy Disney park when really it’s a gorgeous and tastefully decorated space that just happens to include well-made dungeon equipment in every room. It also has glass cases in the breakfast room featuring products for sale, such as anal lube (they have a no-Crisco house rule, as apparently you can’t get the smell out of the sheets – who knew?), floggers, ball gags and various other cool accoutrements. I had to hold back from buying a sinister-looking posture collar with very elegant metal bits on it. The design was rather reminiscent of a medieval torture device I saw not long ago, and was quite gorgeous, but the cost was… well, rather reminiscent of medieval torture. Yowch.

Anyway, Boi L and I showed up at 6 p.m. and asked for a room for the night, not realizing how small the place would be. They gave us the only empty room in the place, which came complete with a multi-strap bondage chair, a sling over the bed with four removable restraints, a metal trapeze, a leather bedspread (now that was a first for me, very pleasantly heavy to sleep under), a jacuzzi, and a wonderfully designed desk chair – a leather-covered high-backed chair with O-rings embedded at the top of the back and at two points on each side of the (solid) bottom. In essence, if I’d had a collar and some rope or chain handy, I could have attached Boi L by the ankles and neck to the chair, leaving her completely able to perform desk-related tasks (with good posture no less) but unable to stand up and move. It was the one point in the weekend when I wished I’d brought work with me, just for the pleasure of having her do some of it for me thus bound. Ah well.

The best part is that we were conceiving of our stay as a one-night splurge, but for various reasons – renovations completed unexpectedly early, cash payment, general kindness on the part of the owners – we wound up getting such a good deal that we stayed for three nights. We switched rooms for the second two, so in addition to all the fun of the first room we also got to enjoy a second room with vaulted ceilings and lots of exposed brick, plus a large and extremely solid dog cage installed on the second “floor” of the room, basically the section above the bathroom. It was bolted into the ceiling and wall and accessible by a ladder, and it didn’t budge a millimetre even when I rattled it with all my strength. Yowza.

I couldn’t help but grin when I noted that the rooms each contained a little black leather-bound book that, in addition to information about breakfast and check-out times and how to access the wireless network, were full of very straightforward information about the local leather bars and the general hotel rules – keep the piss scenes to the bathroom, close the curtains when playing so you don’t scare the passersby, and so forth. To see this sort of information presented in an utterly nonchalant manner just made me happy.

Interestingly, the Black Tulip is reputed to be a gay-only hotel, but they’re not – certainly the bulk of their clientele is made up of leathermen, but they’re quite friendly with the dykes and the straight couples too. The owners were very happy to have rambling discussions over breakfast about the relative merits of poppers, the advantages of various types of butt lube, the local dyke scene and the state of affairs for in the kinky hotel business. I detected no fear of the vagina dentata on their part. Thoroughly charming.

***

Of course the shopping was much fun. There was something particularly enjoyable about having earnest Dutch leathermen run around to find us the right size of chest harness for Boi L in two stores. Or maybe I just enjoyed seeing her in leather chest harnesses. No, it was the running around too. Good service is lovely whether I’m paying for it, or someone else is, or we’re getting it for free. It was also much fun to spend time underwear shopping for Boi M – hey, we wanted to get a souvenir for him, all the better if it was one we could both enjoy too!

***

And then there was the Sex Museum. I’d been warned by several people that it’s not very well curated, and they were right – it’s not. But it was still a fascinating visit. On the downside, they’ve got some pretty cheesy stuff, such as a life-size model of a man that whispers “psssst!” when people walk by his little alcove and then proceeds to open his overcoat and flash them. Really – the real thing is irritating enough, I hardly need a robotic version.

In addition, their plaques are poorly translated into English at times to the point of absurdity; their collection is highly eclectic and inadequately laid out, such that you need to crane to see things at times; and their curatorial standards are definitely sub-par. I was unimpressed to see that, for example, some of their archival photographs were mounted on what appeared to be construction paper and framed in cheap dollar-store “frameless frames.” And I was utterly appalled to note that smoking is permitted inside the museum. I just about cried when I found myself coughing on someone’s cigarette smoke as I peered at a set of original prints of Bettie Page photos – the idea of the nicotine interacting with the objects and the art and slowly killing them was just awful.

On top of all that, some of their information contradicts even the most basic knowledge of sexological history. For example, in their “Marquis de Sade” room, a brass plate tells us that sadomasochism takes its origins in the United States, while blatantly ignoring the fact that the very room where this plaque is located is named after the Marquis, whose French (not American) name is at the root of the term “sadism” in the first place, just as Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s name (also not American) is at the root of “masochism.” De Sade was writing about sadism before the term was even coined – helloooo!? And I don’t even want to start talking about their brass plaques about transsexualism and interracial sex. Gak.

All that being said, I took great pleasure in spending a couple of hours wandering through a building that was so stuffed with historical objects dealing with the topic of sexuality. They really do hold some treasures there, including original erotic photographs from the very first days of photography, peep-slide machines from the early 1900s, and erotic objets-d’art dating back to the Roman Empire. They also have a section devoted to bestiality, with photos posted from modern-day bestiality porn – women (always women, no men) interacting with snakes, eels, pigs, horses and cows. Wild. Bestiality is really not my kink, but it was fascinating to see it presented in all its graphic glory right alongside pics of bondage and excessively large breasts, as though it were just one more facet of human sexuality. It made me realize that until that moment, I’d never actually seen real-life images depicting bestiality. The closest I’d come was seeing some of Michael Manning’s art featuring dogs and horses. Wild. (So to speak.)

We didn’t get the chance to check out the Amsterdam Dungeon or the Torture Museum, two other maybes on our list of fun and pain-themed things to do. Ah, just one more reason to go back again!

***

We also enjoyed the challenging experience of watching an Argentinian film (i.e. Spanish-language) with Dutch subtitles. The film was XXY, a recently released and highly acclaimed feature film about an intersex teenager – I’d seen part of it already for Inside Out, so knew the basic storyline, and I speak Spanish, and Dutch isn’t too hard to figure out, so we decided to give it a shot. It was definitely fun to try and decipher what was going on – the Argentinian accent is quite thick and the dialogue was rapidly spoken, but we managed to catch most of it. It’s an excellent film and I’d highly recommend it – doubtless it’s making the festival circuit right now. Very cool.

***

On our last day, Saturday, Boi L and I took a train to Brussels, since we were both flying out of there early Sunday morning. We decided to skip booking a place to stay, and just stay up all night instead. Somehow this led us to a 24-hour pub on the outskirts of a very sketchy area of downtown Brussels. At about 4:30 in the morning, a rather imposing and somewhat drunk woman marched up to our table, pointed a finger at Boi L, and demanded rather loudly (in French) to know, “Are you a girl?” Boi L said yes. She pointed at me and asked the same question; yes again. “Well, then, you come dance with me!” She grabbed my hand and yanked me off the bench, and proceeded to very skilfully lead me around the cramped floor of the pub in some form of Latin dance. By the time the song ended I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe, and so was Boi L. Really, it was a very fun evening, for all that I breathed more smoke in those five hours than I have in the last two years combined.

***

And now I am back in town and bringing you back to your regularly scheduled programming. Many posts are a-brewing, and doubtless the impending slew of Pride activities will inspire even more. Ah, summertime!

6 Responses

  1. What an awesome vacation! Lucky you!

  2. Hmmmm. Is it possible that Dutch queers have cultural signifiers with which you are unfamiliar? That would be interesting to find out. Maybe in that culture it’s more about gestures, locations, subtle vestimentary indicators, etc. Did the discussions with the hotel owners shed any light on local queer norms?

    Also, I’m not sure I have a problem with a lack of signifiers. Yes, it is cool to “recognise” other queers. However, I do get tired of the local “queerer than though” phenomenon where there is a new status quo created to which one must adhere to be recognised as queer. When I still had long hair, I could wear all kinds of things like Doc Martens and plaid shirts and still be labeled “straight” because I didn’t have a “butch” haircut. It drove me batty. And now, as I transition toward a male identity and hopefully grow myself a nice beard someday, I fear that many people, including queers, will think I’m straight unless I do very specific, visibly “queer” things. My country-boy, shaggy hair, torn denim and plaid shirt look will not cut it, I’m afraid. I guess I’ll have to get more t-shirts like the one you see in the pic and some that shout out my t-boy status. (I’m not ranting at you, of course, I’m going on a tangent ;) And I will give a more detailed argument in an upcoming post on my own blog.)

    Anyway, that Black Tulip Hotel sounds friggin awesome!! Do you happen to know if anything similar exists elsewhere in the world? It’s good to know that they were open to dykes too, even with their main customer base being gay men. Any idea how trans friendly they are? I know, I know . .. so many questions, so little time.

  3. Different signifiers are certainly a possibility. But I think I perhaps I was too strong in my indication that there were “no” queers. That’s not exactly true. It’s more like we saw just enough to know they exist – and by “saw” I mean recognized by the usual signifiers / generalized gaydar and at times even exchanged the “queer nod” – but given that they do seem to exist we were baffled at how few of them seemed to be around, even when we were in the theoretically gay areas of town. Perhaps it’s just that I expected to see hordes of them, and seeing a small handful kinda surprised me. Perhaps there really were lots of them and they were just invisible to me. I dunno. But the ones I did see seemed to fall within the range of signifiers I’m used to seeing, so those signifiers aren’t completely absent (and no, they weren’t all just tourists).

    Now, the discussion of the “queer look” and its inherent problems (exclusion, invisibility of others, etc.) is a good one to have. Something to chew on for a future post perhaps. For the moment, I’ll just say that I spent years – before getting my multiple ear piercings, if I try to pinpoint it – being fully able to see other queers and yet realizing that many of them couldn’t see me. It was downright disheartening to be taken for straight all the time because I was femme. At the same time, one of the first people to ever recognize me as queer told me that she knew not because of the way I looked, but because of the way I looked *at other women*. So perhaps it’s just a question of the particulars of the gaze rather than the particulars of the gazer. Certainly I’ve met and recognized many people who don’t fit into the standard-signifier box and it’s definitely something in their energy, not their wardrobe, that does it – the wardrobe can simply serve to confirm it from a subcultural standpoint.

    As for other hotels like the Black Tulip – I’d heard of one called Warm Buns near Kingston, so I just googled it, and I came up with a site that lists all kinds of ‘em! How exciting! All of a sudden I am starry-eyed with ideas about future trips. There’s even one in Edmonton! Who knew? Here’s the site: http://www.greatmarketingtools.com/sites/BdsmTravel/destinations.html. Enjoy.

    Oh, and the BT guys didn’t do anything to officially demonstrate any awareness of trans people and issues, but in conversation I brought up a trans person I know (as such) and they didn’t look confused or weirded out. That and their general openness makes me think that while they may need a bit of pronoun education as applicable, they’re unlikely to be hostile in any way.

  4. What a shame I didn’t see that earlier. I do know queer Leatherfolks in NL…
    Maybe you should come next year to the last WALP? I bet the place will be crawling with queers then ;)
    I do know for certain that many from the German SM-Community will be there as it is the only other SM-Conference in Europe besides the Easter-Conference in Germany.

    Anyway, I’m glad you had a good time :D

  5. Thanks, Langundo. As my more recent post indicates, it wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of contacts that we didn’t find any leatherdykes – though certainly more contacts are always welcome! Another time, perhaps. Thanks for the offer. Hey, out of curiosity, do you know why the 2009 WALP is the last one?

  6. Anytime :D
    One of the (main) organizers told me, that it’s time for her for something new. She wants to do smaller but more intensive workshops.
    I’m not sure if there is someone else who will do another conference in Amsterdam instead.

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