JailHouse CPH is nestled below street level on a picturesque street in the Copenhagen city centre. Prison bars are fitted to the window and inside it’s dimly lit, but the popular LGBTQI spot is far from gloomy. The interior feels fun and cosy, and decorated with flowers, handcuffs and a rainbow flag. In the evenings, it buzzes with energy.
Manager Niels Holm explains that two brothers, “one gay, one straight,” opened the bar and restaurant 14 years ago, and later sold it to their mother, a retired psychiatrist looking for diversion.
“Jailhouse has a lot of significance for the gay community,” says Holm, who leans across the bar while wearing the bartender’s uniform – a police outfit.
“With the décor, there is an element of fetishism. But mostly, it’s just a place where people go to have their daily drink and their daily gossip.”
Still a way to go
Holm is a known personality in the gay community – “Everybody knows me, I’m like a Z-list celebrity,” he jokes – and has worked at Jailhouse since moving from Aalborg to start a Master’s degree four years ago.
At Copenhagen Pride – which celebrated its 20th annual Pride Parade last month – Holm rode on Jailhouse’s float under the tagline “love is not a crime”. It sported a banner that listed every country where homosexuality is still criminalised.
This is hardly the case in Denmark, which has historically led the way for increased LGBTQI rights. Denmark was the first country in the world to recognise same-sex unions, and the first in Europe to allow individuals to legally change their gender without a medical intervention. The first successful gender reassignment surgery also took place in Denmark.
But Holm is worried that the gay community, and the broader Danish population, have become complacent about LGBTQI rights both at home and around the world. There is still plenty of latent discrimination that needs to be addressed in Denmark, he argues.
“What I can’t fathom is how, whenever pride rolls around, you get people complaining about why there isn’t also a straight Pride Parade,” says Holm. “You have every day of the year – we only have one.”
As a gay man, Holm says that there are still ways in which the current system doesn’t leave him feeling like an equal to his fellow heterosexual Danes. He points out that he’s not allowed to donate blood, even though he does not have any sexually transmitted diseases. He argues that this stems from an implicit assumption that the blood of gay men is “dirty”.
“A lot of mainstream Denmark is not aware of the rights that the gay, or broader LGBTQI, community don’t have. Not necessarily from a legal perspective, but through general discrimination or stereotypes in our society.”
Not just glitter and dancing
That doesn’t stop them from participating in the Pride Parade, however, which drew almost 200,000 people this year. But Holm is cynical about its burgeoning numbers.
“Gays are very fashionable right now, so Pride attracts major sponsors like 7/11. We’re like the new black,” says Holm, pointing out that ten years ago the event was chiefly sponsored by the actual community, mostly the gay bars.
“Now, we have big travel agencies sponsoring it. Meanwhile, all the political parties want to have a float and say ‘it’s okay to be gay’. But they don’t really preach it. You’ll later see them on TV, some of them saying horrible things, not realising that young people are listening and feeling bad about themselves.”
He worries that people – both gay and straight – get so caught up in the glamour of the celebration that they forget about the fight for broader LGBTQI freedoms, especially beyond Denmark.
“It’s all about glitter and dancing. And of course, it should be a party. But I don’t see a lot of the participants actually owning up to what they are celebrating,” he says.
“You don’t have to be an activist every single day, but it feels as if people forget that pride is actually a demonstration.”
LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) refers to a broad group of sexualities and gender identities that have traditionally been considered non-normative. Each face their own particular struggles and challenges.
While Holm feels that the gay community is visible in the media, he worries that the representation of LGBTQI people is limited to either “fashionable” gay men, or gay people who carry the hallmarks of cisnormative, heterosexual people.
“We do see gay journalists, actors and singers, but they’re very ‘normal’. To be accepted, they either have to act very mainstream, or be a camp character. Meanwhile, a young man can find it hard to walk down the street in a dress. People have difficulty dressing in genders other than the ones society labels them as.”
Holm also criticises Denmark’s reluctance to embrace gender-neutral language.
“Why can’t we use the term ‘chairperson’ instead of ‘chairwoman’ and ‘chairman’. What is it to you? It is so important to acknowledge that gender is a much more complex and fluid thing than our binary categories,” he says, adding that it’s especially problematic that this type of conservatism is also present within the gay community.
“It’s ridiculous that we have been fighting to get out of boxes and now we are putting each other back in them.”
Earlier this year, Amnesty International launched a campaign, in collaboration with the trans community, to address rights violations faced by trans people within the national health system. Yet Holm is worried that the fight for trans rights hasn’t been taken up by the gay community. He wants to see more solidarity, given that gay Danes understand what it is like to be discriminated against as a result of binary assumptions about gender and sexuality.
“A lot of the people I meet at this bar and other bars don’t take the trans fight seriously. It should be a community here, they should take it up,” says Holm.
“I wasn’t part of a gay community until I moved here, but today I am a big part of it and I know a lot of people within it. And the more I get to know them, the more I realise that everyone seems too content with the status quo – and it’s heartbreaking.”
We’re interrupted by Holm’s co-worker, asking for advice about where to place a flower arrangement, and the tone shifts from grave, to light-hearted banter. Holm glances around at the windows lined with metal bars and throws me a smile.
“It’s a gay bar. Even though it’s a prison, we still have fun.” M