Marian Lens is one of the LGBTI+ pioneers of Brussels. For years, she was the owner of the only feminist-lesbian bookstore Artemys, and worked hard for the creation of the Brussels Rainbowhouse. She is also the driving force behind the L-tours: walks that cover the LGBTI+ past of the capital. At the end of 2019 she launched the website l-tour.be, which is a living archive of the city’s Rainbow past. Plenty of reasons to have a chat with her about rebellious lesbians, frightened academics, and Americans looking for a Brussels bookstore!
Bruno De Lille: You give guided tours on the Brussels LGBTI+ history; were you born and raised here?
Marian Lens: No, I grew up in Waterloo. Nowadays this is known as a municipality for rich people, but at the time it was a modest sleeping town inhabited mainly by Belgians for whom Brussels was too expensive. My parents came from Flanders (even though my father’s family was originally French-speaking) and became French-speaking by establishing themselves in Walloon Brabant. But my mother tongue is actually Flemish: when I’m tired my French tends to have all the typical Flemish mistakes. In this way I feel related to the real Zinnekes even though I wasn’t born in Brussels.
B.D.L.: What made you end up in Brussels?
M.L.: My studies. I wanted to go to Leuven but as a girl my parents didn’t allow me to study that far away from home. That’s why it had to be ULB, the nearest university. My brothers were allowed to choose, which I thought was very unfair. That was already the case when we were teenagers: there was a good atheneum in the neighbourhood but it was mixed. My brothers were allowed to go there, but I wasn’t because my parents didn’t want me to be in the same classroom with boys. So they sent me to a school that wasn’t as good. I liked studying and was very angry about this discrimination.
While studying at ULB I even had to get home on time every night, which made it difficult for me to go to activities or lectures. So the rebel in me woke up. I didn’t want to be hindered any longer. That’s when I announced at home that I was bisexual, which turned out to be something they absolutely did not want to accept. And so, at the age of 19, I left my ancestral home.
“My brothers were allowed to go to a mixed atheneum, but I wasn’t because my parents didn’t want me to be in the same classroom with boys. So they sent me to a school that wasn’t as good. “
I then looked for work to pay for my studies and make rent. I was often very lonely. Now there are social media platforms where you can get to know people with whom you have a lot in common, but back then you had to talk to ‘someone who knew someone’ and who wanted to introduce you. It was hard.
B.D.L.: How did you finally get to know the Brussels LGBTI+ community?
M.L.: By chance. As the subject for my thesis on sociology, I chose ‘Contradictions in Feminism’. I was a feminist but as a lesbian I didn’t feel welcome in the feminist groups at the time. They were very hetero-focused and actually hostile towards lesbians. I think they wanted to prove so hard to society that they weren’t ‘hating men’ that they found us lesbians to be a nuisance for their image. Even so, I knew from my experience abroad that things could be different.
And then I found ‘Le Feminaire’, a small group of lesbian feminists (named after a book by Monique Wittig, a French-speaking lesbian writer). That evening I stayed until the last bus. I recognised myself in them, I found a family there. Later that year we renamed the group ‘Lesbianaires’ because we wanted to make it very clear who we were and what we stood for. We questioned all sexual categories.
“That someone openly dared to talk about gays and lesbians was uncommon.”
I then changed the topic of my thesis to: ‘About the social construction of being man/woman’. I explained that the male-female difference is not a natural difference but a social choice. Lesbian activists in the U.S. were also working on that, but here it was new. I’m still proud to have been one of those pioneers. The gender struggle, which we unfortunately still have to pursue, is a continuation of this.
B.D.L.: How was that thesis received at the university?
M.L.: They were afraid of it. The fact that someone openly dared to talk about gays and lesbians was already uncommon. Attacking the whole male-female balance went one step further and that was very difficult for them. I had done my research very well so they couldn’t sack me. But my professors didn’t stand up for me, I wasn’t allowed to do any follow-up research, and I was told bluntly that I would never be able to build a career at the university. Unfortunately, that has been the case. Don’t forget that gender studies at our universities are still a recent phenomenon. In the 1970s, the minds were not at all open for it.
B.D.L.: Where did you find work?
M.L.: Nowhere. I didn’t find a job. It was crisis. I couldn’t pay my rent anymore, slept left and right in unheated mansards, did some undeclared jobs, gave piano lessons to beginners: basically anything to survive.
“It was my anger that saved me: I didn’t want to give them the pleasure of destroying me.”
I drew my strength from my contacts with the lesbian group: I knew I wasn’t alone. Loneliness is dangerous. And I admit that at that time I was thinking of suicide. At a certain moment I even wrote down the reasons why I wanted to go on and why not. It was my anger that saved me: I didn’t want to give them the pleasure of destroying me.
So I thought “tant pis, then I’ll do it myself”. With the second-hand books I had bought, I opened a second-hand bookshop in Ixelles. I didn’t get any subsidies; I’m from the generation that put its own money into these kinds of projects. I received some financial support from another feminist bookstore – De Dulle Griet in Leuven where I volunteered – and from some friends and acquaintances. It wasn’t enough but the help was very welcome. I also tutored to make money to start the bookshop. And we regularly organised parties which sometimes raised more money than the sales of the books themselves.
B.D.L.: If it is so difficult, why do you do it?
M.L.: Because it was important. Books are ideas. And feminist and lesbian literature was almost nowhere to be found. It was before the internet. De Dulle Griet closed shortly afterwards and from then on I was the only one in Belgium with my bookshop ‘Artemys’. I also sold art cards. Art was expensive and the cards were a democratisation. That worked well; I was one of the largest art card dealers in Europe at the time, and it helped to finance the rest. And so we have existed for 18 years. We are one of the world’s longest-running women’s bookshops, most of which have been open for 3 to 5 years.
But we were never out of the red. So when Amazon and co ruined the bookstore business, I was tired of it. For years, they have sold books at a loss in order to destroy the independent bookshops. And they succeeded: most customers made the switch. What disappointed me most was that even the activists, who should have been able to expose this strategy, started buying their books there. As an independent bookstore, we couldn’t win this unequal battle. I went on for another three years, but then I stopped.
“Books are ideas. And feminist and lesbian literature was almost nowhere to be found. This made it the place to be for many people. That helped me keep the store open for so long.”
Belgians are not readers. If you want to earn good money, then you shouldn’t sell books here. However, I have been creative; by working in three languages, for example, I aimed at a wider audience. I represented the shop at international fairs. Our magazine reached many of the other feminist-lesbian bookshops worldwide. Customers came from all over Europe, and even until 8 years after the store closed I would receive questions from people in the United States.
You could find almost anything at Artemys. I preferred to have one copy of 100 books instead of 100 copies of a book that sold well but could still be found everywhere. Once a black American lesbian came along and told me that I had a larger selection of black lesbian writers than she had ever seen in the U.S. For many people, it was the place to be. That helped me keep the store open for so long. Only the majority of Belgians didn’t see it.
B.D.L.: It must be terrible to have to give up your dream.
M.L.: I was up. I was burned out. It took me 10 years before I found the energy to be active for the movement again. But in a way it’s my passion for my bookstore that brought me back on my feet.
At a certain point the Brussels-based university ULB organised a colloquium on homosexuality and asked me to give a lecture about Artemys. The lecture was well received and a little while later I was contacted by someone who was in the audience at the time. He wanted to organise a Queer Bike Tour and asked me if I along with two other historians wanted to work out a route around the Lesbian and BGTI+ movement in Brussels. A lot of pictures were taken during that tour, and the picture that was most liked (it was the beginning of Facebook) was the one from the shop where we started with Artemys. That appreciation was new to me. I felt that society had changed, that many people, both young and old, were more open to people who didn’t think within those heteronormative boxes.
Then the Rainbowhouse asked me to organise another tour. After that Visit.Brussels came in with a request to set up a Rainbow tour. It was a success every time and has been going strong ever since.
“I felt that society had changed, that many people, both young and old, were more open to people who didn’t think within those heteronormative boxes.”
B.D.L.: Who participates?
M.L.: The audience for the guided tours is very diverse. Many LGBTI+’s who are curious about their history, adolescents who have questions about identity, heterosexual parents who find it important that their children can make their own choice, etc.
I give a nuanced picture during the walks: I show both the good and the bad sides. I make it clear that it wasn’t too long ago that people saw us as sick, I talk not only about the positive changes but also about the LGBTI+’s that are still struggling today and being rejected. My message is: we can change society, so let’s do it. We must not allow ourselves to be pigeonholed; we must continue to fight for a society where categories no longer exist, so that everyone can make their own choices in complete freedom. It’s actually what I’ve been trying to do all my life.
B.D.L.: Are we almost there, do you think?
M.L.: We’ve made progress but still have a long way to go. New stereotypes and new standards are emerging. Sometimes also within our LGBTI+ movement: if you don’t recognise yourself in the ‘L’, the ‘G’, the ‘B’, the ‘T’ or the ‘I’ then you are ‘+’. But what does being ‘+’ mean? It almost seems as if you’re being excluded again. We also have to keep questioning our own view. As long as we do that, there is a chance for improvement.
“We must not allow ourselves to be pigeonholed; we must continue to fight for a society where categories no longer exist, so that everyone can make their own choices in complete freedom.”
Sometimes people tell me, “You want to get rid of all the categories, but you do identify yourself as a radical lesbian, how do you explain that?” It’s strategic: I share the social analysis of that group and they give me tools to tackle discriminations together with them. Because we are more efficient if we join forces. This is also the strength of the Rainbowhouse, for example. My ideal is a society without boxes and categories, but unfortunately we still live in the prehistory of human civilisation as it could be.
More information about the lesbian and rainbow walks can be found on the new website www.L-tour.be. On the site you will also find an LGBTI+ agenda, background articles, interviews and portraits.
This text is a translation of an interview that was conducted in Dutch. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/marian-lens-we-kunnen-de-maatschappij-veranderen-laten-we-dat-dan-ook-doen/