Berlin’s Lesbian Party Scene Is Changing
A tide has started to shift in Berlin. Earlier this year, the booking agency and party series Mint ceased its activities as a booking agency and series of parties, workshops and events devoted to promoting female-identifying artists. Although Mint never explicitly identified itself as a lesbian party, its closure triggered reflection in Berlin’s gay and queer underground techno community. Despite the German capital’s reputation as one of the best clubbing cities in the world, does it provide a hostile climate for lesbian parties? Why do gay parties successfully attract hordes while those that cater to female-identified and feminist aims seem to struggle more?
Meanwhile, a crop of queer-identified parties has taken root in a clubbing landscape that’s traditionally been dominated by gay-male clubs and parties. Perhaps this is partly because old divides between genders and sexualities have started to break down and new coalitions are forming under intersectional causes and outlooks. We caught up with Mint co-founder Ena Lind to discuss these developments and set the record straight as to why Mint ended.
First I want to ask you how Mint started.
Zoe Rasch and I started Mint four and a half years ago in 2013. Back then Zoe was my booker. I had been organizing different kinds of queer and underground events in Berlin and other cities in Europe and America. Zoe had just stopped DJing and she had a mainstream lesbian party in Berlin. With Mint we were trying to create a network for women, a platform for women to perform, do workshops and inspire each other. We felt that was missing in Berlin. Before Mint, I had two regular parties: one was called Bend Over, which went on for six years, and the other was called Soap and lasted for one year. My biggest passion was my project Bend Over. It was a sex-positive queer party with sub-projects like a magazine, workshops and exhibitions. Mint had a very different focus.
Was it easy to get people to come to Bend Over?
Bend Over was a really successful party. I think what people appreciated about it was that it wasn’t focused only on sex-positivity, nor only on music. I tried to combine the two. I booked really good DJs and put a focus on a quality sound system and technical equipment for the performers. But it was just as important to me to consider how the venue worked for a sex-positive environment. And I always tried to include art in some way. When I started the project in 2008, there wasn’t much else like it happening: a place where those things come together. Now there’s so much more like that going on in Berlin.
I got a different impression when I spoke to the crew behind one of the current Berlin queer parties, Room 4 Resistance. Luz Diaz said “a lot of lesbian/femme parties and spaces in Berlin have shut down: Mint; Dyke Fight; Milkshake, The Club…”
I don’t really see it like that. I think there have always been parties popping up and then dying out. It comes in waves, and I see a lot of movement right now. Milkshake was maybe 10 years ago, and when they closed they were still a very well-attended party. Dyke Fight came later. And the reasons these parties close isn’t always about failing to find an audience. The struggles are sometimes internal, personal, political…but all we see is that the parties are gone. That said, there were never plenty of lesbian bars and parties, and the ones that have existed were and are struggling. The last lesbian bar in Berlin, Serene Bar, closed two years ago. And there are a bunch of lesbian parties that have been going on for many years. They might be rather mainstream and not queer or very political—but they do exist. I see queer and lesbian parties in general as coming in waves. People continue to inspire each other.
So in your eyes there was never a “golden era” for lesbian parties in Berlin?
Well…no. Maybe that’s what is coming now. I think new things are about to happen. When we announced that Mint was done, I had a bunch of young people contact me to say, “Can we meet up? I have this idea for a project, and I would like your insight.” I also see that cis-men are teaming up with women and trans folks more. It used to be so much more segregated. It seems like gay cis-men are more open about and to feminism. But obviously there’s always the opposite, too. The way I see it, development always happens in both directions.
Do you feel like the idea of discrete, separate spaces for gay men and lesbians is breaking down and now there are more inclusive queer parties?
It feels like it.
That fits with ideas about gender identity and sexuality that have become more mainstream over the past 20 years or so. The idea that gender is socially constructed makes gay-male spaces and gay-female spaces obsolete or difficult. But I also see that Berlin’s trendiest parties are still mostly gay-male rather than lesbian or queer. The big names are Homopatik, Buttons, Herrensauna and Cocktail D’Amore, for instance. And while there are popular queer parties, like Room 4 Resistance and Gegen, few specifically and exclusively identify as lesbian-oriented. That makes me wonder if queer and lesbian women are missing something without having a space that’s explicitly devoted to them, or if it’s better for the queer movement in general to open things up and work together.
Yes, good question. In my opinion it is important to have both. We need the movement to come together. But I think it is still important to have those exclusive spaces, even though I’d like to believe that there will be a day when we don’t need them anymore. But some people need spaces with more women* than cis-men around them in order to feel free.
Another thing that might be interesting to consider is that there might be way more women* spaces than most people know of. Maybe women* are more protective of their spaces, and it’s less about growth—as it is with the gay-male parties you just mentioned—than it is about safety and privacy. With Bend Over, that was definitely an issue. The more popular it became, the more problematic it was to keep it a safer space. So I could have made more money making it bigger, but I decided to end it because it moved away from the agenda.
I do think Berlin is missing parties that aren’t focused on men, that aren’t made by men and for men—even if women are “allowed” there too. For me, queer spaces are missing, and when I use the word “queer” that implicates a focus on feminism.
There are probably people who would rather go to a lesbian party than a gay party that says, “and you can come, too!” Did you get a different crowd at Bend Over, which marketed itself as feminist and queer, than you did at Mint, which did not?
Definitely. They had different crowds because they had very different agendas. Bend Over was about creating a space for marginalized people, making each other feel welcome and comfortable with their sexuality and bringing art and performance into it. The idea of Mint’s parties was to present women DJs to a bigger audience, because back then I saw a problem: nobody sees us. When I take a cab with my record bag and the driver says to me, “Why are you carrying around a record bag?” I think, “It is 2013”—or whatever year it happens to be—“how do you not know that women DJ?” And then I thought, “Maybe we’re not changing anything about the overall picture if we exclusively play in closed-off spaces, which are necessary.” But back then I was at a point where I felt that there was a need to go out and show the world that we are here. I know women who say, “I do not play at straight parties. I only play at queer parties because that’s where I feel safe and comfortable. I do not want to deal with sexist shit.”
The idea of Mint was to have a big party for a mixed audience that includes the people who we felt needed to see women DJing the most—and they aren’t always the people you’d want to party with. So there was definitely a challenge inherent in the concept. Throughout the four years we did Mint, our biggest challenge was to decide who we wanted to cater to. We constantly struggled with how much of a safer space we wanted to create at the parties versus our mission of making the party big enough to get our message out to people who would not necessarily go to parties where women DJ.
It sounds like the approach with Bend Over was to build a community “by us, for us.” On the other hand, Mint tackled the idea that sometimes that approach to activism hits a dead end, so the community has to reach out to and interact with wider society in order to change it. Was it a struggle for Mint to commit to that strategy, or was the main struggle that your branching-out tactic wasn’t working?
I guess you’re right that it was hard to commit to the strategy. We always had a clear vision, and branching out was Mint’s vision from the beginning. But I am still myself, and I like to feel safe, and I want to create spaces for people who I like personally. And if they didn’t feel comfortable there, then I didn’t either.
So there were times when Mint didn’t feel totally comfortable to the people it wanted to serve—women and queer women, for instance—because it also aimed to reach out to a wider audience?
Yes. Well, to be realistic—when you work in nightlife, you always run the risk of having people’s boundaries crossed. It’s impossible to create a 100 percent safe space for everybody. Something that feels good to me might feel offensive to you. But the more you engage with people outside of your community, the higher the risk of clashing becomes. We did have certain incidents where female-identified people informed us that cis-men were staring at them in a way that didn’t feel good to them—things like that. That’s always a struggle because you can’t see someone at the door and know that they’re going to cause problems inside. And at Mint we didn’t want to be as exclusive as we might have been with another party. Eventually we realized we had to change our ideas of how we could create a good atmosphere. We had many conversations with the venue and we had talks with the door staff before and after the club nights.
With the workshops and the other projects we ran as Mint, we never had a doubt that we went the right way. The people attending were the ones we wanted to reach. The feedback was great.
Since you started Mint in 2013, more feminist activity in dance music has developed—which is related to what you said earlier about how there are more feminist and queer parties in Berlin now. Did you feel like that was already in the air when you started Mint?
Not that much, no. Maybe it’s hard for me to say when I started to notice that similar projects were also happening outside my bubble. But around the time when we started Mint and a bit later, there was definitely a big change: suddenly the media was really open to the topic, and all these other projects started popping up—or at least became more visible. And then I look at what grew out of Mint alone: people who started making music at Mint’s beginners workshops started to release on labels a year later; new crews and party projects started and so on.
That’s Mint’s lasting legacy, then. The first time I went to Mint, it actually didn’t occur to me that it was a lesbian party until I got there. Why did you decide not to market Mint as a lesbian party?
Well, it wasn’t a “lesbian party.” Queer people felt addressed just by the lineup. It’s great when it happens naturally, but I was annoyed at the fact that, as soon as you have a party where only or mostly women play, people automatically assume it is a lesbian party. When you have a lineup with all or mostly men, they’d call it “a techno party” or “a house party” or whatever the genre. So we focused on the music when we communicated about the party.
When and why did you decide to end it?
The main reason was that I wanted to focus on my own music productions. Mint had grown so much as a booking agency and event series, so it needed a lot of attention and became very time-consuming. We had gotten to a point where we had to make a decision: did we want Mint to be our full-time jobs even though we weren’t really making any money with it? I really missed making music myself. I talked to Zoe and we reflected on the last four years. We saw that now there were more networks for women and maybe the need for Mint wasn’t as big anymore.
And then there were the challenges with the club nights. For me, the network we had created with workshops, dinners and the agency were the most important part of Mint, but we needed the club night to make it all economically sustainable. And it had gotten harder to book the kinds of acts we used to book. Four years ago, we would always book big headliners along with newcomers so they could have a chance to meet. Since then, a lot of the artists we had booked started getting higher fees.
And something shifted in Berlin: some clubs now ask for exclusivity. That means some artists aren’t allowed to play at other clubs or are hesitant to take bookings so they can leave their schedule open in case a specific club asks them to perform. This shift happened so quickly. Just four years ago the only problems that occurred for us with bookings had to do with scheduling or fees. It was never because someone said, “I can’t play your party because I have an exclusive contract with another club in Berlin.”
Have bigger clubs become more interested in booking women than they were four years ago? That would mean you had to compete with bigger clubs in 2017 than you did in 2013.
Definitely. Some clubs have changed their bookings because of conviction, while others just followed a trend. But no matter the reason, it is a great development. But it made DJs more worried about…
Career advancement moves?
Yeah. People have figured out the rules. “If I take this gig, I’m not gonna get booked by that club, so I’m gonna wait it out.” I know so many DJs who say they really miss playing, because now they only have one gig in Berlin once every four months. And that’s not a great development at all…
Did Mint struggle with attendance? I ask because I saw people saying that’s the main challenge for lesbian parties in Berlin in a comment thread in the Cocktail D’Amore Facebook group. They used Mint as an example.
We didn’t have the problem that people didn’t show up. But the more we opened the party up to a broader audience, the fewer queer people showed up.
The thread where I saw the comments about Mint was about a Cocktail D’Amore party called Pussy Juice. The readers will definitely correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I understood, they decided to use that title for the party after someone complained that there were too many women there—which is despite the fact that it’s notoriously hard for women to get into Cocktail.
I do wonder why so many women want to go to a party where the premise is to exclude them instead of wanting to create their own thing. And why don’t gay men want to go to lesbian parties the same way women want to go to gay parties? I think this is part of a way bigger picture. Where does the cliché that gay men are grossed out by pussy juice come from? That lesbians watch gay porn while gay men don’t watch lesbian porn? Why do gay parties last so much longer than lesbian parties? Why do gay men generally take more drugs than women?
The parties you mentioned have a focus on sex. I’ve had so many discussions about why there are fewer sex parties for women, or why sex is a smaller part of partying for queer women than it is for gay men. In my eyes, the main reason for that is the safety issue, how women are raised and the experiences they have regarding sexuality. But if a party has a sexual context, it’s more interesting to many people. They’re attracted to those parties because there is something taboo or subversive happening there.
I would imagine that it would be harder for women to have sex in public than it would be for men to do so. I can’t imagine a straight man at a gay party in Berlin harassing two men while they’re having sex. But if two girls were having sex in a club—it’s hard for me to imagine that happening without a man bothering them. It’s not as safe for women to have sex in public spaces. What are the necessary conditions to create a space where women feel comfortable enough to have sex somewhere that’s not totally private?
In my experience, there must definitely be no cis-men there. But also so many other things are important, like the layout of the room, the lighting, the people working there and so on. This question of how to create that environment is something I ask myself a lot.
I’m sure that, if you had a party where people knew that women were going to have sex, a lot of people would show up. But then women wouldn’t have to have sex there. Do you think the best way forward for the queer scene in general is to have inclusive parties where all queer people are welcome? Or is it still important to have those discrete spaces?
I have a feeling that it will still be necessary for some people to have those exclusive spaces. I can see that younger women don’t need that as much as older women do. It’s a process. It’s not perfect that gay parties tell women, “You’re allowed to come to our party,” but I do think it’s a step. The next step is for people to meet at those parties and form new networks and create new projects. And then the next step after that is to do what, for example, Room 4 Resistance has done: to have a team of queer women and men create a completely mixed party. Who the organizers are and what they represent determines who will feel welcome at the party.
Do you have any projects along those lines coming up?
I am starting a new party project this winter. It is called Juice, and it’s dedicated to female-identified people but not exclusively. We want to create a sex-positive, inclusive, queer feminist space with good music.
Sound Warrior will release a compilation EP featuring Jenifa Mayanja, Lady Blacktronika and Ena Lind at the end of this year. Follow Ena on SoundCloud here.