Ten years Antwerp Pride, ten years ‘love united’: how in Conchita’s name can you summarize something like that? By talking to the man who has been at the front, of course. We look back with ‘Mr. Chairman’ Bart Abeel, the heart and soul of the best Pride of Western Europe and beyond.
‘We build bridges in the city’
Bart, you’re there since the very beginning. What was the initial spark for this event ten years ago?
Antwerp Pride is actually created around Navigaytion, a well-known boating festival organized by Red & Blue. After the first edition, the organizers looked for further financial support. The city listened, but there had to be a broader framework provided than just a commercial event. After the EuroGames in 2007, a small group of us sat down together: people from the nightlife scene, but also politicians and from the tourism department of the city. We agreed that there is so much talent and motivation in Antwerp, but nothing would come of it unless we all joined forces. That was where the idea came to organize a Pride.
You have immediately led the event?
It’s gradually grown. The first year I was asked to take the role of spokesperson. In those early days it was not yet Pride as we know it today. The first editions consisted in fact of all kinds of parties: Navigaytion, coupled with some smaller events such as lectures, and so on. At that stage there was still no parade. It was at the third edition that we took the decision, still modest at that stage, to organize the closing event at the Market.
Gradually Navigaytion disappeared from the picture.
The edition in 2010, was the first without Navigaytion. Then with the removal of tobacco sponsorship amongst other, it was financially too difficult. I think the end of Navigaytion was a turning point in the history of Antwerp Pride – when we were in fact forced to explore new directions. We have once organised a White Party, and later the Wave. It was in 2012 that we had a parade for the first time through the city center. It’s really gone step by step.
When did politics get involved in the story?
Actually, the political world has been onboard from the very beginning. The first meeting I went to myself was at the office of former Alderman of Culture Philip Heylen. Philip and his fellow colleague Ludo van Campenhout have always stuck their necks out for us, including supporting the EuroGames – a first time for the city – and later the Outgames.
What would you describe as the ultimate kick of the past ten years?
The success of the World Outgames 2013 has given us a big boost. Since then, all of Antwerp has come to like it. We also emerged internationally. We have even be named one of the 10 best Prides in the world thanks to the hard work of the tourism department. Also, a very active and vibrant LGBT hospitality industry in our city has contributed to the appeal of our Pride. What strikes me though is how the support for the Pride in the city has blossomed over the last three years. It started with the LGBT organisations and then businesses found each other. Now it involves the academic and cultural worlds, museums and clubs. The police has clearly endorsed it, as have the media and almost all political groups. I can say that we have succeeded in the mission we have set ourselves ten years ago, namely not just a gay pride, but especially the Antwerp Pride; a connecting factor between the various components of our society.
Antwerp is the most multicultural city in Belgium. Do we involve sufficiently the immigrant communities?
The Muslim -and Jewish community are still somewhat curiously looking at us from a distance. Recently I had a conversation with an 18 year old from Antwerp with Moroccan roots who was thrown out by his parents. A very wise boy. I asked him if Antwerp Pride makes a difference and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’: “This is an incredible steppingstone, even in our community we see more and more openness thanks to the Pride,” he said. So it really brings down barriers. That’s tremendously good to hear, especially from that generation. Last year and because of our focus on LGBT refugees, we were able to mobilize these specific target groups.
When we say Antwerp Pride, we also say: FESTIVAL.
Indeed! During the Pride weekend everybody walks around with a great big smile. Even friends from the Netherlands who are accustomed to the Canal Parade in Amsterdam, never skip us. Because it is one big family party, they say.
What was your coolest party time?
Super Gays, the party with Loreen performing after the World Outgames was very memorable and Boy George performing at the WOGA closing party. The first Wave at the old Customs Building, with a legendary DJ set by Sharon O’Love, who is now a fixture on our Pride. The annual opening party at the Draakplaats, where it seems that every Antwerp LGBT person passes by, is also a must each year.
Which artist you carry in your heart?
Apart from my own musical preferences, we can not ignore Conchita Würst. We had the divine inspiration to book her when no one knew her. Her first appearance in an apocalyptic downpour, will remain engraved in the memory of everyone who was there.
What novelties can we expect this year?
We consolidate, but we also invest in the United Love Festival – the former Wave – on Saturday at Steenplein. Every musical taste has to be catered for there. Expect a spectacular event with a focus on creativity, diversity and cooperation. Our partners Extravaganza and Red & Blue organise a large-scale main festival night. The Closing Party, the ‘closing’ is an hour longer. Also our partner event Antwerp Queer Arts Festival will be bigger. Every year it attracts a larger audience. Without being outspoken militant, but in a friendly and accessible way we address specific problems, such as last year LGBT asylum seekers. For many people it remains a difficult subject.
Will there come a time when Pride will have reached its capacity?
That is not on our minds at the moment. We especially want to continue to build on the public support and build as many bridges between all parts of the city. We have the ambition to be and to continue to be one of the larger and more influential events in the city. And there is certainly still some margin. The Parade for example will be a third bigger this year. That’s not enough. I think that the Pride will grow as more and more people will discover it, more and more people want to be there.
How do you see the future of the organization team, and more specifically your role as chairman?
Nobody is indispensable, that’s true. I am very proud of what we have achieved already. We have managed to keep the organisation financially sound, thanks to a balanced and diverse board. They are also flexible people, because you must remember: we do all this voluntarily. A four-day event, with around 120,000 visitors, a budget of 200,000 euros, that’s quite an undertaking. That volunteer work makes it strong but also vulnerable. After ten years Antwerp Pride has become part of the whole city and of every visitor. I want to keep it that way. Our task now is to prepare the Pride for the future, so that it is less dependent on personalities. This also means that new people should come and be involved. I am well aware that a transition is needed. And let me once again express my deep gratitude to the large group of highly motivated volunteers who are ready every year to get all possible and impossible things done!
Finally, what do you look forward to most this year?
During the Pride, I never touch alcohol, so as always I look forward to my first drink after the Closing Party. (Laughs)