In early May 2018, behind a jumble of corroded neon signs touting a long-departed Greek restaurant, a group of artists and activists opened something Brussels hadn’t seen for 15 years: a lesbian bar, run by and for the city’s lesbian community. At a time when lesbian bars in Europe and North America are disappearing, Mothers & Daughters is pushing back with a pop-up bar. But calling it a bar doesn't really do it justice. As they say themselves, Mothers & Daughters is “an art space, a safe, inclusive, feminist, queer, lesbian place – run by lesbians, queers and feminists for lesbians and their friends”.
Mothers & Daughers
Mothers & Daughters was originally the brainchild of the women behind the magazine Girls Like Us, including the magazine’s founder and editor Jessica Gysel, Katja Mater, and Marnie Slater; it has since expanded to include Alice Versieux, Byrthe Lemmens, Delphine von Kaatz, Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, and Robin Brettar. It is Slater, a new Zealand native and artist who lives in Brussels, that I’m sitting with at a rickety, second hand table in what used to be the dining room of the restaurant, excitedly talking about the pop up project with a passion undimmed by six hard weeks cobbling it together.
The Girls Like Us collaborators had been mulling over the idea to open a bar on and off for a couple of years, until people at Brussels’ Beursschouwburg performing arts theatre working on a feminist festival approached them in 2017 to run an event.
Beers by and for women
They had other ideas. “We said no, we want your bar,” says Slater. “And they were very naïve and generous to say that for three nights in December, ‘You can have our bar and make it into your bar’.” As a result, over three nights in December 2017, Mothers & Daughters was born.
Many of the ideas they came up with for this first iteration have followed them to the new bar in Brussels’ St. Catherine neighbourhood. Such as their desire to source beer, wine, gin, and coffee beans that are made by women: “I mean, it has been something we had to think about, but it’s not impossible at all”. Fulfilling this brief, beers from Amsterdam brewery Butcher’s Tears are available on tap and by the bottle, alongside more recognisable Brussels staples (admittedly made by male-run breweries) like Brasserie de la Senne and Boon.
Paying for your privilege
Their decision to have two menus also stems from this first pop-up experience; menus A and B are identical in all ways except price. On each menu is written:
"At Mothers & Daughters this pricing system is based on the documented gender gap in Belgium of 30%. If you have a privileged position that means your wages, and access to opportunities and documented work are positively affected by your gender, sexuality and/or ethnicity, then choose menu B."
Unable for legal reasons to make this menu system compulsory, they “…came up with a voluntarily menu that based on your own perception of your privilege you could decide which one you would choose. It’s not only cis white men who choose this menu, women actually will volunteer this menu because they want to give something extra to this organisation, because they can.”
And how has the menu gone down with customers? “So far it’s been, I think it’s been one of these things, a very small number of people will be offended or find it a ridiculous idea, but generally it gets people talking.”
The impact of gentrification
Their three-night stint at the Beursschouwburg showed them that there was a clear demand for a space like Mothers & Daughters in Brussels. The city’s last lesbian bar, The Gate, closed in 2003. There have been club nights and events, but the absence of a bar for the lesbian community is a reflection of a wider trend of lesbian bars disappearing across Europe and North America in the last decade.
Slater attributes this disappearance to a couple of issues. Gentrification is one. “People, and especially women who earn 20-30% less than men, tend to go out and disperse, so having a localised venue in the centre is no longer viable. And rents go up of course.” She also highlights the impact of dating apps, which have changed the way we meet each other, in every community.
Access to investment - "women do not necessarily have that network"
A third, major factor, which Mothers & Daughters have also had to deal with, is access to investment and start-up capital. As she says herself, “I don’t have anyone in my network. I have a very female focused, queer and gay focused network, and I don’t have anyone I could turn to and say ‘Give me 20 grand!’ It’s a huge factor…. women do not necessarily have a network of people at that investment level of income.”
That is why, once the organisers of Belgian Pride got in touch with them to repeat the pop up bar for this year’s festival, a subsidy from Brussels’ state secretary for equal opportunities Bianca Debaets was essential in covering their start-up costs while they went about looking for a suitable venue.
Two months of searching landed them at Le Castel de Rhodes, a dilapidated Greek restaurant at the heart of Brussels’ old fish market neighbourhood that has been shuttered since the mid-80s. Their decision to rent the space, the façade of which is still cluttered with the rusting neon signs of the restaurant, was partly a matter of rent, but also of location; they made a conscious decision to stay in the centre of town, close enough to, but not in the midst of, the main drinking strips.
"The toilets hadn’t been flushed for 35 years"
“The whole building had been shut, literally, for 35 years,” says Slater “There was an amazing amount of work. I mean, the electricity must have been installed in the 1950s, and the toilets hadn’t been flushed for 35 years.” There were some unexpected delights, under the accumulated layers of dust: “The ceiling speakers still work, they’re original. We plugged in the amplifiers and just stood there in complete shock because they’ve been out of action for 35 years.”
That ceiling, a matching stolid wooden bar, and a floor-to-ceiling white tiled kitchen are what remain from the building’s past life. Everything else has come together through donations and second hand sources. Like the patio tables and chairs. Or the revolving glitter ball hanging at the back of the bar.
A six week renovation effort followed, buoyed by an expanded organising team – “not just for the labour but, we’re three cis white lesbians we need different people with different people with different communities and different priorities” – and a community of volunteers and tradeswomen willing to donate their time and skills to knocking it into shape. “It’s weird because in my mind in Brussels tradespeople are generally all men, and then you kind of go through this invisible wall, and you arrive in a space where they are all women.”
With the renovations completed, the bar was installed in the old dining room. The white-tiled kitchen, with most of its piping fittings still intact, is home to an exhibition called the Brussels Almanack Lesbian, about the story of lesbians in Belgium told through voices from the lesbian community.
The importance of inclusivity
The double-height drive-in entrance houses a second-hand pool table and a ramp at the door to the bar, for people with accessibility issues; 35-year-old Greek restaurants in Brussels are just as unaccommodating to wheelchair users as the rest of the city. The ramp is part of a concerted effort on the part of Mothers & Daughters’ organisers to be as open as possible; this is a bar for lesbians, but it is also more than that.
The neighbourhood around them has wrestled in recent years with the stop start gentrification of central Brussels, with shops and traditional shops being replaced by bars and, increasingly, independent chain restaurants. It was not a given that the arrival of Mothers & Daughters into this abandoned space would be universally welcomed.
“The neighbours, the residential neighbours are a little worried,” Slater agrees, but “the business neighbours are super happy. I mean the businesses either side of them have had a dead building next to them for 35 years!” The widow of the building’s previous owner still passes by to collect her post every now and then, and is excited to see what Mothers and Daughters are trying to do.
"This is a place we want there to be"
That Slater is constantly badgered by customers about making the bar a permanent fixture is testament to the desire within Brussels’ lesbian community for just such a space. The organisers are however reluctant to make any commitments beyond these two months. After all, they still have all-consuming day jobs as artists, designers and magazine editors.
It might not have to be them, if Mothers & Daughters encourages one of their patrons to emulate them. As Slater says, “I think the response from the community says that this is a place we want there to be.
“It’s just whether there’s somebody out there who can back that up with investment.”