By Elaine Kolp
When I was younger, I was not likely to consider myself a bisexual. Instead, I most often identified with one side of the spectrum or the other, depending upon with whom I had most recently been involved. In 1999, I was definitely identifying as gay and I had that in mind that August when I visited Amsterdam. The main purpose of my trip was to meet up with my brother and his family and travel with them to Hungary to see the total solar eclipse that was to cross Europe on August 11th. But I had an extra few days, and I wanted to see this great city where my ancestors might have lived (my last name being Dutch), and that had such a reputation for openness.
I had decided that I would stay in a gay hotel and do gay things. The Internet was already in the travel business, and I made online reservations at the ITC Hotel, which was reasonably priced enough for my budget. It turned out to be a fine old house located on the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s circular canals. I was in a tiny room under the eaves, up two flights of stairs, with a bathroom down the hall, but I have always had a bohemian streak, so I was content.
On my first full day in the city, I went to the Westermarkt, a square on the bank of the Rozengracht Canal. This park is the site of the Anne Frank Museum, the house in which Anne Frank and her family were hidden for more than two years before being betrayed to the Nazis. After I toured the house, I went to the Homomonument right next to it. It is a plaza of three interlocking pink triangles, with the point of one of the triangles formed by steps extending into the canal. The association of museum and monument is deliberate, since during World War II people accused of being gay were rounded up and had to wear pink triangles in the concentration camps.
This monument, and the Pink Point GLBT information booth right next to it, was a surprise to me. Even though I come from New Orleans, which has a reputation for being a liberal, gay-friendly city, it is still a US city, and harbors the same prejudices toward gay life that can exist anywhere else in the country. The flamboyant drag shows in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras are counteracted by grim, silent men marching through the streets on that day carrying crosses and “Repent!” signs. There could be no Homomonument there, or anywhere in this country, and an information booth like Pink Point would be picketed and vandalized. I was glad to see that these places could exist so openly in Amsterdam.
The next day, which was a Friday, jet lag had caught up with me. I managed to get to the Rijksmuseum with its famous Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings, but then came back to the hotel and stayed the rest of the day. I had wanted to go to at least one of the gay bars I had heard of—especially Vivelavie, an iconic lesbian bar—but I didn’t. I was too shy and too tired. Friday night would have been a good night to go to a bar. I am still sorry I didn’t go.
I had one more day—Saturday, August 7th. It was not something I had realized, but the first weekend of August is Pride Weekend in Amsterdam. That morning, I began to hear talk about a parade. It turned out to be the Pride boat parade, and it was to come down the Prinsengracht, right past my hotel. It was (and is) a flotilla of decorated boats, with the crews being people representing various gay bars and other groups. Despite gray skies and dull Dutch rain, the parade began. I stood on the hotel’s front steps with my gay but very staid hotel proprietor, to watch it. There was the boat float for my bar Vivelavie, with dancing ladies and high-energy music, and many similar floats. Suddenly a boat with a big penis as a prow ornament came floating by. There was a ripple of laughter from the crowd, but the hotel proprietor gasped, “Mein Gott!” and turned beet red. I guessed that it was because I was standing next to him. I decided to leave my perch and went off to wander through the crowd¸ admiring some of the spectator’s costumes, which included a group of drag queens in full Dutch-girl outfits, complete with wooden shoes.
My Amsterdam visit ended the next day. I got up early and took a tram to the station to catch the train for Vienna. My brother picked me up at the station there, and I went to meet my sister-in-law and niece at the apartment where they were staying. I changed gears and became a not-veryout sister on a family trip to see a solar eclipse.
Postscript: This past May I took a trip to see another solar eclipse. I went to Albuquerque and stayed in a Travelodge, and did not do gay things. Instead, I simply did what any eclipse chaser would do: I found a good spot by the side of the road and watched the sun with my eclipse glasses and pinhole camera. I still think of 1999 as one of the best years of my life. My trip is part of that, but there was also the pre-Millennial excitement, the prosperity and optimism of the Clinton years, and the general innocence of those days before September 11th. For me also, at the time, there was the apparent clarity of being gay, of thinking I would know what gender I would be attracted to next—a clarity that was lost forever the next year, when I became interested in and dated a man for a while. I had to accept the fact that I was bisexual and would always be that way, and learn to accept whatever clarity could be found in that self-identity. It has been a long journey.
Elaine is a New Orleans native living in the Tennessee mountains since Katrina. She is a bookkeeper by day and a writer by night.