Boiler Room Festival in Amsterdam showcased a more experimental and radical side to LGBTQ+ culture in the Netherlands, a society with a long history of exploiting gay rights in service of racist ends
Today, Boiler Room is broadcasting footage from the three-day festival it staged in Amsterdam last November. Each night showcased a different side to Dutch club culture, with main stage of the closing event being curated by SPIELRAUM, a queer techno collective based in the city. The line-up featured DJs from the Netherlands and across Europe, including Yah Yah, Ketia (co-founder of a Lisbon-based trans DJ collective), Afra, KI/KI, and Animistic Beliefs, a Rotterdam-based duo who incorporate live performance and an array of international influences into their music. The Netherlands is famous worldwide as a gay-friendly destination, Spielraum’s event showed a different side to its queer nightlife, more experimental, diverse and politically charged. When you consider the complicated history of the Dutch LGBTQ+ community, it becomes clear that this cultural shift is necessary and long overdue.
As much as anyone, Animistic Beliefs – Linh Luu and Marvin Lalihatu – embody the new queer culture emerging in the Netherlands. The duo both grew up in south-east Asian households and communities, which has shaped their sound. “In our recent work, we’ve been using a lot of instruments, sounds and text that traditionally have been used in Moluccan and Vietnamese music, like gongs, Tifa drums, tahuri and more. Some of these instruments we have made ourselves, with the help of other people in the community,” says Marvin. Their music is informed by ‘animism’, the belief that everything on Earth – every object, creature, instrument and place – has a spiritual essence.
This idea is the driving force behind everything they do. “For us it is also about shedding light on these diverse and abstract beliefs all over the world,” says Marvin. “A common theme is taking care of nature within a balance, instead of a hierarchy. When it comes to our planet and land, many voices are left unheard, especially those of indigenous people. Their inclusion is particularly important because of the vulnerability of indigenous lands to climate change and the potential model of sustainable land management that indigenous groups could provide. Additionally, a significant amount of global biodiversity is concentrated in territories where indigenous people live. Ancestral and indigenous communities contribute next to zero toward carbon emissions, yet they are the most vulnerable communities to climate change.”
Techno is an excellent platform to express these ideas, precisely because it’s so accessible. When I watched the duo’s set in November, in a cavernous warehouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam, it became clear that their philosophy is not merely abstract or aesthetic. It was frenetic and incendiary; closer in atmosphere to a punk gig than your average techno night, with Linh half-rapping, half-screaming down a microphone. “For us playing live is just really fun because it keeps us busy constantly and we improvise, so we get a lot of dopamine while creating in the moment,” they tell me. At the SPIELRAUM event, the element of live performance added a real sense of electricity, something charged and unpredictable.
The Netherlands is becoming an increasingly generative home for alternative queer culture. In Rotterdam, there are a number of queer collectives, such as KLAUW and Queer Rotterdam, both of which run club nights and community events. “The ones we feel part of are very diverse and cute. There are people from all over the queer spectrum and a lot of POC too,” says Linh. In Amsterdam, SPIELRAUM, along with nights like Orphic and De Reünie, is helping to create a more inclusive and musically ambitious queer techno scene. But while the Netherlands is internally renowned as an accepting place for the LGBTQ+ community, the reality is more complicated.
In many respects, the country’s reputation as a bastion of gay rights is well-earned: one of the world’s first ever gay rights organisations was founded in Amsterdam in 1946, from which point onwards the Dutch state adopted a relatively pragmatic, tolerant approach towards both homosexuality and gender identity. In 1985, it became one of the first nations to introduce legislation that allowed trans people to legally change their gender and, in 2001, it became the first nation to legalise gay marriage. In terms of social attitudes, it typically ranks among the most accepting in the world. This forms part of its national identity: liberalism and tolerance are conceived of as quintessentially Dutch values.
‘ When it comes to our planet and land, many voices are left unheard, especially those of indigenous people’ – Marvin Lalihatu
But while it may appear positive on the surface, this national self-image has caused its own problems. The Netherlands is arguably the birthplace of a particular strain of racism and Islamophobia, one which legitimises itself through appealling to liberal values. The early noughties saw the rise of Pym Fortuyn, a far-right politician and openly gay man who railed against migrants and Muslims, partly on the basis that they posed a threat to the gay community. By creating a dichotomy between the Dutch value of tolerance and the backwards conservatism he ascribed to Muslims, Fortuyn pioneered a strategy that later would be taken up by racists across Europe and the US, including our own EDL and Donald Trump. Although Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002, (by an animal rights activist concerned about his rise to power), he left behind a powerful and corrosive legacy. To this day, far-right politicians like Geert Wilders still make a display of defending gay rights as an inviolable aspect of Dutch identity, which is really just a pretext for demonising Muslims, clamping down on immigration, and promoting a narrative of civilisational war between the east and eest.
These tensions within Dutch society tend to be discussed as a conflict between LGBTQ+ people on the one hand and migrants on the other. Within such a framework, queer Muslims, migrants and people of color are rendered invisible. The popular image of the Netherlands as a great place to be queer might be true up to a point, but its culture of liberalism does not benefit the community equally - which is unsurprising, considering how frequently the very notion of ‘gay rights’ is weaponised against its racialised members.
“I think we have got this reputation for being open-minded at because we were the first country to legalise gay marriage, we sell weed and have this amusement park level red light district,” says Marvin. “But in reality there’s still a lot of xenophobia, I’d even say it’s rampant. Being gay, trans, a migrant, a woman, disabled or a minority in any way is still harder than being a straight cis white man and people are being discriminated against on both a social and institutional level.” A recent report by the European Commission found this to be true, concluding that discrimination within housing, the labour market and the police force were endemic. This underlying racism came to a head in 2020 with the debate over the tradition of Black Pete, a dark-skinned companion to Santa Clause which the Dutch African community typically considers to be a racist sterootype and a hangover from the slave trade (not to mention the attendant practice of white people dressing up in Blackface.) The campaign to end this tradition - while ultimately somewhat successful - was met with a furious backlash among Dutch conservatives, who were loath to relinquish what they saw as their rightful cultural inheritance. To say the least, the necessity of a nationwide debate over whether Blackface is acceptable seems at odds with the Netherland’s image as a liberal and forward-thinking place.
Like many nations in Europe, the Netherlands has suffered a tough decade of austerity, spending cuts, rising homelessness and poverty. “We are now facing so many crises in Dutch society that the feeling of not being able to relate to society anymore is not just something that applies to the most vulnerable people. It has also reached the middle class – hence the rise of populism and anti-migrant ideas,” Mike, an urban researcher and SPIELRAUM regular who I met at the festival, tells me. While the issue of gay rights has been weaponised in service of those ends, he still believes that the LGBTQ+ community offers an avenue for resistance. “It is built upon questioning conventions and equal rights for everyone, which I think makes it easier to deal with changes in society,” he says. “I think these club nights are a place where people can experiment with who they are and want to be, partly outside the conventional life and society.”
When I ask Animistic Beliefs how they’d like the queer scene to change, they tell me, “It’s often very focused on white gay men, and we still feel very out of place in these spaces. I would love to see more spaces being created for younger qPOC initiatives to grow in.’ While the SPIELRAUM event at Boiler Room was not entirely composed of artists based in the Netherlands, it does show that there is an exciting and alternative queer scene blossoming in there, one which goes beyond the stale cliches about tolerance which have been co-opted by the right. Hopefully, the exposure afforded by one of the world’s most influential club culture platforms will allow these artists to flourish even further.”
However political their vision might be, Animistic Beliefs don’t want their music to be defined solely by identity. “It can be very annoying for POC to always have to explain themselves. It seems like we always have to have some kind of struggle, concept or story in order to be listened to or acknowledged,” they say. But at the same time, they are proud of their heritage and want to champion it. For all that the Netherlands has its tensions, they believe that the climate is steadily improving. “When we first started out we had no role models who were like us,” says Linh. “That seems to have changed a lot over the years and we feel very proud of being a part of that shift, especially here in Rotterdam.” There’s still a long way to go, but the Netherlands might be inching closer towards the progressive identity it has always claimed.
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