As we exited the central train station to step into the city of Antwerp for the first time, we felt immediately wrapped in the colorful embrace of a multitude of rainbow flags. We have been to a fair number of gay pride events over the past two years – four last year and five this year which we later learned was unimpressive compared to the ten plus pride events another American expat living in Germany had attended this year – but we have never seen a city so decked out in rainbows before. You really would have thought Rainbow Brite and her gayer-than-unicorns-sidekick-horse, Starlite, had been hired to decorate the city. This, of course, put smiles on our faces as we entered Antwerp having been invited by the Flanders tourism board.
Why are the rainbow flags so important in a city with much more to offer than a simple flag on a historic building or in a random frituur shop? It’s because the flag means something very important. When we see a rainbow flag displayed at store, in a restaurant, above a bar, or outside someone’s apartment, it says to us “You are welcome here.” It tells us that we do not have to worry about our safety, our rights, or how we’ll be treated in general. Whether the people who display a rainbow flag are gay or not themselves, they are stating that they are not only “okay” with the gay community, but really saying “We want them in our establishments, in our city, and in our homes.” So to see a city that so blatantly proclaims this in every nook and cranny of the streets means a lot to us and to every gay traveler that visits.
Now I can’t say how Antwerp is for the gay community on any given day of the year because we were there for two very specific and very gay events, the 2013 World Out Games (WOGA) and Antwerp Gay Pride. So of course the city was as gay friendly that weekend as it was ever likely to get this year, but I think it gives some great insight into what you could expect it to be year round.
We kicked off the Pride celebration with the opening party which was outdoors with a full on strobe-light dance floor. I was impressed with the outdoor party (especially that beers were only 2€) even though others I was with had seen similar outdoor parties in other parts of Europe. Of course Spain (where we live) enjoys it’s outdoor parties too, but I had just not seen one under a bridge like that and really appreciated the backdrop. We kept it an early night though because the following day we had our first taste of the 2013 World Out Games in Antwerp.
For those who aren’t informed of this event (and to be honest we weren’t either until now), the Outgames is geared toward LGBT athletes and overseen by GLISA, Gay and Lesbian Sports Association, focusing on sports, culture, and human rights. Of course, staying in line with the ideals of the LGBT community, all participants are welcome without regard to sexual orientation. The World Outgames are held every four years while the Continental Outgames are held during the intervening years. The first WOGA was held in Montreal in 2006 and the next will be held in Miami Beach in 2017.
The only event we really took time to watch was water polo. I know, choosing the one involving speedos… how *shocking*. We were later disappointed to hear that same-sex dancing was really the impressive competition to see. Same-sex dancing still sounds odd to me, though I’m sure we would have enjoyed it because I was obsessed with “So You Think You Can Dance” for a number of years. That same night was also the official WOGA party “Let’s Get Physical” but unfortunately we skipped it simply because we were near Red and Blue, an extensive, thriving gay club with occasional live performances. We had an incredible night dancing to a performer we didn’t know but were happy to pretend was Lady Gaga and sipping on the Flemish-owned Duvel.
Saturday was the main event with Antwerp’s Gay Pride Parade starting around two in the afternoon. It was a well organized, high energy, not overly crowded event. Well, at least I can say that of the first fifteen minutes that we observed. While taking pictures and enjoying the music from all the floats as they passed by, one of them asked if Auston and I wanted to join theirs for the duration of the parade. Our answer, “Hell yes!” So we spent the rest of the parade on a float with a bunch of Belgian strangers headed toward the Pride Park.
The whole weekend was wrapped up perfectly with a performance by Loreen at the final WOGA party appropriately titled “Super Gays” Saturday night. We stayed a couple hours longer than we wanted to just to see her. In true diva fashion, she took the stage around three in the morning after everyone had waited hours for her. But she definitely made it worth our while and was the perfect finale to a very gay weekend in Antwerp. By the end of the weekend we realized that although Antwerp is a moderately known city often bypassed for Brussels in a moderately visited country that’s often overlooked by its more prodigious neighbors, its ability to appeal to the gay community as a travel destination is impressive and something we won’t soon forget.