Looking for a safe space for women, creating a hub of women’s activism

In 2018 lesbian bar Saarein celebrated its’ 40-year anniversary. With a big party they celebrated this unique anniversary. Saarein is the only lesbian bar which has survived that long in Amsterdam. A lot of lesbian women are living in and around Amsterdam, but somehow bars and clubs come and go. To celebrate the unique longevity of Saarein we wanted to talk to someone who helped get the bar started.

We spoke with Carla Schrama. Carla lived in Amsterdam during the time the youth culture and women’s movement in the 1970’s and 80’s blossomed. And she played a crucial role in establishing bar Saarein. We talked with her about the years leading up to Saarein, the early years of Saarein and some aspects of the cultural impact of Saarein in Amsterdam and even The Netherlands.

Finding a place for gays, women and lesbians | 1968-1977

Carla grew up on the island of Texel in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her family lived on a farm on this island in the north of The Netherlands. In 1969 she moved to Amsterdam to study Welfare Services on the Social Academy, the University for Applied Social Sciences. She arrived in Amsterdam in the middle of the Flower Power years, with its’Hippies, Provo and youth counter culture. 

“It was a time of sexual liberation and young gay people and students wanted to be at the forefront of this liberation. Many universities had Student committees for the advancement of gay rights. Also Amsterdam had one. We combined our forces into a federation of student committees. The first aim was to get rid of anti-gay laws, but we also wanted to get rid of the idea that being gay or lesbian was a psychiatric disease. For us being gay or lesbian was healthy and normal and didn’t need any cure or treatment! And we also campaigned for self-acceptance and coming-out.”

While Carla explored the city in the days people knew it as the magic center of the world, she started to date Margriet. While they were dating, there weren’t many places for them to go as a couple. 

“The student committee for gay-rights transformed into the Amsterdamse Jongeren Aktiegroepen Homoseksualiteit (Youth Action groups Homosexuality Amsterdam), this became an open organization for young gay people. Very revolutionary at that time, because for the first time the distinction between students and non-students was abandoned. The monthly dance parties at the AJAH in the student society Akhnaton of the University of Amsterdam were very popular. But after a while those volunteers advocating LGBTQI+ rights and informationmoved over to the national organization COC. The focus at COC at that time was more about the organization itself and not so much on the personal aspects of being gay or lesbian, like love and coming out. So Margriet and I decided to move on to other activities. The parties at Akhnaton however went on for quite some with DJ’s becoming famous

“Because of the anti-gay laws of that time, it wasn’t possible for young gay men and women to become member of the COC (the Dutch LGBTQI+ organization) and visit its’ social nights. Zoos was a separate organization for young gay people and the only place for them to go. Zoos was linked to Pann, originally a socialist oriented national organization. It was mostly a place for young gay men to meet. Margriet and oneother girl were the only female members of this club of around 100 people.

Akhnaton – working with and for young people

“Meanwhile I finished my studies and was able to start working at a youth club called Akhnaton. This was originally the aforementioned Catholic student organization. But ‘times were-a-changin’ and so were clubs like Akhnaton. Together with clubs like Paradiso, Melkweg, Kosmos and many others they turned into social clubs for young people. With a new national subsidy for social youth activities, these clubs were able to be a hang-out for youngsters and organize social and cultural events.

“Akhnaton was in de midst of this new movement. And as a young 23-year-old trained cultural worker, I got to lead a team of between 20 to 25 people. It all sounds rosy and idealistic, but it was sometimes tough work! These open youth centers attracted all kinds of people: still young students, young women who were liberating themselves, but also gangs of young men who wanted to be Hell’s Angels. In those days drug dealing got quite common. And each one of those centers had its’ own so-called house-dealer who dealt in soft drugs. In that way, we tried to keep the hard drugs out of the youth centres. Things could get quite tense at times with all these different groups and sometimes young, aggressive men. As a young woman I quickly learned how to deal with these situations without it getting violent and nasty.

“Zoos organized events for young gay and lesbian people in Akhnaton. But after a while the Akhnaton staff decided that as an open youth center all events should be open to everybody, also the gay/lesbian evenings organized by Zoos. I didn’t agree at all with this opinion, especially because straight young men regularly sought out the confrontation with guests at Zoos events. I thought that every group had the right to their own identity and a meeting place to express that identity. But I was outvoted and had to resign myself with this policy. 

“The thing was that it went well with the new strategy of the gay movement at the time, especially of the AJAH, not to be visibly gay anymore. The idea was that by not being visibly gay, we could all integrate and not be discriminated no more. That being the case, what annoyed me even more, that it was always about boys and men. Although a lot of the volunteers in Akhnaton were young women, there was never much room or space for girls and women visitors, let alone lesbians.” 

Having to move house

As a student Carla had been living in the same house as Margriet. Margriet’s parents owned the house and the family cleaner also cleaned this house. On the outside they were just two friends sharing rooms in the same house. But one day the cleaner found one of the notes that Carla and Margriet wrote to each other. 

“It may have been a little day-to-day message on the note, but the language was such that it was clear we were more than just friends.” 

The cleaner brought this note to Margriet’s mother, who was not amused. 

“So, we were forced to leave the house and look for a new place to live, because we wanted to stay together.

“Luckily the floors above the Akhnaton youth club were empty. And the old Catholic men of the society who owned the building were willing to rent it out to us to live there. It was still under construction however, so we had to rebuild the place to make it livable I still lived there while working at Akhnaton.

“I started to organize events for and by (young) women in Akhnaton. Rosa King was one of the performers at these events. However open and women friendly I tried to organize the events in Akhnaton, they were still mostly mixed. And at the same time the youth scene changed: the old hippie culture disappeared and the punk scene started to grow.”

Finding and building a place for women 1977-1983

In those years Carla became active in the (international) women movement. Via this work she got into contact with a group of women who started a women’s pub. 

“They found a bar on the Spui, not too far from Akhnaton, called ‘Het Schaartje’ (scissors). The owner of the bar gave permission to start a pub for and by women there. I helped out behind the bar a couple of nights a week. It was a real safe space for women, but men from neighboring bars wanted to bother us.” 

‘Het Schaartje’ was located close to a couple of bars popular by straight men, who worked in the (newspaper) offices nearby. Some of these bars, such as Hoppe and De Zwart, still exist today. 

“Visitors from Hoppe and De Zwart regularly tried to get into our café ‘Het Schaartje’. Of course, we wouldn’t allow that. My experience with rough men at my job at Akhnaton came in handy here. Anyway, we were able to keep or move these men out without resorting to violence. But still it was unpleasant and threatening. And soon after we started, the owner of the bar wanted to sell his property.”

How the women found Saarein

The group of women at ‘Het Schaartje’ decided to look for a different vacant pub elsewhere in the city, to turn that into a new safe haven for women without troublesome men at the doorstep. They wanted to form a foundation, just like Akhnaton was organized. Carla did have the necessary papers to manage a bar, so the plan was to employ her by the foundation as the bar manager. But how to get a pub at the right location?

“Via a contact at the Municipal Energy Company Patti, one of the founders of ‘Het Schaartje’ got a tip, that a bar in the Jordaan area might be available. This bar was called Saarein and owned by a widow. The bar wasn’t attracting many visitors anymore and that is what the contact at the Energy company had noticed while doing business with Saarein. A sign of the lack of business was that beer was only sold by the bottle and not from a tap anymore. The widow was called Greet, but everybody called her Saar. Not uncommon in those days in the Jordaan. Her husband’s name had been Rein. Hence the name of the bar: Saarein.” 

How to get money to buy Saarein

The group of women loved the old-fashioned bar, with all its’ beautiful woodwork. And they kept the name Saarein, because they liked it and to honor the former owners.

“Getting the money to take over this bar was a problem however. The banks wouldn’t lend money to a foundation like ours. Luckily Saar/Greet looked up to me as some sort of new daughter. And she thought our group of women deserved a bar like this, so she offered us a deal. She had a big heart.” 

Greet offered the bar to the foundation, but the payment owed to her by the foundation would be a loan from her to the foundation. The money had to be paid back with low interest in five years. 

“Half of this money was the actual price for the bar and the other half was goodwill. That was quite normal in the trade of pubs in those days. Goodwill was basically the fee for the clientele of the bar, which the old owner had built up. But that was of course a bit ironic, since Saarein hardly had any clients! Anyway, it was just as well that we wouldn’t have to deal with disappointed male customers.”

Carla was involved with Saarein for five years. It was a period with ups and downs. 

“For me it was a matter of honor to make it work, that we would pay off the loan to Greet. Shemoved to the nearby beach town of Zandvoort and I visited her a couple of times.” 

Carla Schrama reading a newspaper at the bar at Saarein
Carla Schrama reading a newspaper at the bar at Saarein (c) Gaylinc

The exciting, tumultuous and sometimes difficult early years of Saarein.

So how was it for Carla to finally work in a pub run by and for women? 

“On the one hand it was a period with lots of activities and contacts with the women’s movement, as was the intention of Saarein. A lot of things happened. I was involved in the organization of the national women’s festivals in the Vondelpark. They were huge and brilliant. At the second festival we staged a play about the Amazons trying to conquer Troy, based on the story of Homer. We, the women, on horseback and the children on foot while the story was told, the music played and the smoke bombs darkened the stage!

“As manager of Saarein I also organized the Lido Spring Party with Rosa King, Saskia Laroo and a very young Candy Dulferas the main artists. Plus, a party in Hotel Krasnapolsky with, amongst others, Mathilde Santing, who practically started her career in Saarein.”

Saarein was a real hub for organizing women’s actions, activities and parties. 

“We started up a graffiti campaign in those days. We sprayed the slogan ‘Liever Lesbisch’ all over the city. Translated it says ‘Preferably Lesbian’, but Liever is also a superlative for “lief” meaning sweet!I came up with that slogan, during one of our brainstorm sessions. Later a girl pop group has used this slogan in one of their songs!”

The first step towards Dutch LGBTQI+ Pride

In the second year in Saarein’s existence one of the women, Martha, heard from a friend in Oakland about protests against Anita Bryant. Anita was a former beauty queen from Florida, who had started to campaign against gays and lesbians. The friend form Oakland asked the women of Saarein if they wanted to join the protest.

“Well, we almost jumped on this appeal! We started to organize the first public protest against Anita Bryant in The Netherlands. We organized a march through the city: us lesbians and the young men from the radical gay organization ‘Roze Flikkers’. For the march I had organized some drums from my old marching band on the isle of Texel. We marched along all the traditional gay bars. The sound of the drums made everyone aware of our march. The gay men there peered out of their bars, waved and yelled at us, but were too afraid to join our protest!” 

This march was the first step towards what would become Roze Zaterdag, the Dutch version of LGBTQI+ pride held every year in a different city on the third Saturday in June. 

“Later the traditional gay bars joined the protest against Anita Bryant and organized a big event in the Concertgebouw. During this protest the traditional Dutch torch singer Zangeres Zonder Naam, would sing her famous protest song against Anita Bryant.”

An organizational conundrum

These first five years of Saarein saw an explosion of activities. It was almost a natural progression of the Hippie and Provo movement in Amsterdam in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But despite all the energy, creativity and activity at Saarein two things really bothered Carla during that period.

“Normally the person who holds the permit is also the owner of a bar. That was not the case at Saarein. I held the permit, since I had all the necessary papers for that. But I was also an employee of the foundation, who owned Saarein. And the board of this foundation consisted of women who worked behind the bar at Saarein and were directed by me, there employee! That was all nicely fitting into the late 70’s revolutionary ethos, but it made my work as complicated as this set up sounds. The board of the foundation was more a group of friends than a body who acted as a legal corporation andmy employer.” 

“On top of that, leadership or managing was a taboo within the women’s movement in this period. The same goes for ideas like making money and running a business. But at the same time, I was responsible for paying the suppliers and balancing the books! It went even so far, that the top ladies of the feminist publishing house ‘Bonte Was’ didn’t want to business with me, because I earned money as manager of Saarein. They saw that as exploitation of my sisters!

“Another point of contention was the financing of Saarein. Basically, Greet had financed the acquisition of the bar through the foundation. And I missed the sense of urgency within the board of the foundation to pay back the loan to Greet. When the loan finally was paid off after five years it was time for me to go. This was after I got ill, thereafter recovered on a long trip through The States with my then girlfriend Loesje and finally transferring the business to the board/bartenders, who divided the job amongst them. Although I later found out that my name remained for a long time thereafter on the permit for Saarein, but never you mind!”

The later owners of Saarein have rectified this mistake. Nowadays the manager of Saarein also became (co)owner of the bar. This way, the organizational mistakes of the first phase of Saarein have been corrected.

No men allowed!

A popular story is, that in the early years’ men were not allowed to get into the bar. Is this true or an urban myth?

“Like I said earlier, at ‘Het Schaartje’ (the predecessor of Saarein) we had some unpleasant experiences with straight men. They insisted to have the right to enter the bar and once inside started to harass and provoke women. That’s why in principle men were not allowed to enter Saarein. And again, with my experience at Akhnaton I had the techniques to enforce that without using violence.

“But it was unclear if legally you were allowed to deny men entry into a bar. When the bar started in 1978 discrimination on the basis of race and religion was illegal. But discrimination on the basis of gender hadn’t yet been added to the law. When that did happen in 1980, it was strictly applied to the workplace. So officially Saarein didn’t break the law, because no men were working at Saarein. Of course, we did allow the suppliers of goods (beer!) into the bar.

“In the first few months after opening Saarein, two men entered the bar and I was about to get into action. But the way they were dressed made them look like undercover policemen. So, I approached them cautiously. They appeared to be two city inspectors. They came in to see if everything was going well in the new bar. So, I took the opportunity to ask if we could refuse men entry and service. Their answer was simple: ‘a pub owner can pick his own clients’. And in all those years there was never a lawsuit against Saarein for refusing men entry. 

Broken windows

“We did sometimes have fierce debates with men, and the big window of the bar has been broken about three times. Two times the window was broken by men. One time was especially memorable. It happened during the International Women Conference. A group of German women were sitting topless outside the bar having a drink and a chat. A neighbor went crazy and shot with an air gun towards the bar and broke the big window.

“But we never had the same amount of hostility or intimidation like we experienced at ‘Het Schaartje’. It did help of course, that Saarein was located in a quieter neighborhood without popular straight bars close by.”

Slowly but surely the atmosphere in Saarein changed during the first five years. The first years were strongly influenced by the aftermath of the liberation movements of the ‘70s. As the years went by more and more women from the squatters movement started to visit Saarein. This movement was at its’ peak in Amsterdam in the early years of the ‘80s.

Carla Schrama sitting in front of Saarein
Carla Schrama sitting in front of Saarein (c)Gaylinc

Saarein in popular culture

Musical legend at Saarein

An unexpected link between Saarein and the popular culture came forward during the interview. It relates to Annie MG Schmidt the queen of Dutch musical in those years. This centers around the musical Madame, which tells the story of a whorehouse that is located next to a women’s safe house.

“Annie was doing research for this new musical and visited the famous and posh brothel Yab Yum. My brother Gerard was working there behind the bar. He was gay, so he was an ideal bartender for Yab Yum. Annie and Gerard got to talk with each other and she mentioned that she was looking for a women’s safe house for her research.

“Gerard told her that he could bring her into contact with the women of Saarein via his sister. He only had one condition: he was going to join her and visit this bar, he couldn’t otherwise visit. 

“So, there they came, Annie and her composer Harry Bannink and of course my brother Gerard. She looked around with big eyes! And it was one of the few times in my years that men got into the bar as visitors.

The end result

“In the end I also visited the musical, because I wanted to see how (the atmosphere of) Saarein had gotten portrayed in the musical. But we didn’t like it at all! To emphasize the contrast between the brothel and the safe house in the musical, they had made the safe house all gray and somber. The absolute opposite of what Saarein was in those years!

“On the other hand, in retrospect, the women’s movement did not really appreciate femininity, since it was supposed to represent subjection to the male supremacy. This did not only relate to all women but even more so to gay men and transvestites. Which coincided of course with the upcoming notion of normality of the young gays, as was promoted by the AJAH. 

… and books

“Saarein was in those five years I was involved a center of parties, play back shows and other festivities. One of my personal highlights is the presentation of the comic book that was written by Loesje.

“Whenever youvisited a library or bookstore, you would never find books for young girls about lesbian love and relations. We decided to make our own book. It was a photo-cartoon book about called ‘Calla & Lucy Go West’. The comic book was a combination of photos, that were set into comic drawings. It told the story of two girls, their friendship and their adventures in the (wild) west.

“Because of the western theme of the book, the launch party at Saarein also had a western theme. We had bales of hay in and around the bar, we arrived on a horse and the women were all dressed in western outfits!”

After Saarein 1983-1995

After she left Saarein, Carla picked up a new study and started working as a wholesale marketeer for several years, followed by the managing of PH31. This was another youth Centre, formerly a student society, which had become a cultural hotspot. It was located in the old villa neighborhood in a building owned by the protestant Vrije Universiteit (Free University). Like similar youth Centre as Paradiso, Melkweg and Akhnaton it had developed into a center for (experimental) pop and rock culture. That’s how those centers survived after 1980 when the subsidies for youth social work were cut back because of the economic crisis.

“PH31 was more experimental than the other pop and rock centers. I really liked the do-it-yourself ethos at PH31. It also had strong links with the squatter’s scene in Amsterdam.

“In the early 1990’s the Free University had to sell all the villas in that neighborhood. We only were allowed a year to find a new building. Unfortunately, we didn’t find one, so we had to fold down PH31.”

Back to Texel

After this Carla returned to her home island of Texel.

“After almost thirty years in Amsterdam, I needed the peace and quiet of Texel. And I also wanted to live closer to my brother Gerard, who was ill with AIDS and had returned to the island before me. He was to live another five years in simple splendor.”On Texel Carla would pick up her work as a youth worker, bringing all the experience she had built up in Amsterdam. In her spare time, she got herself involved in island politics and the local radio. She stills visits Amsterdam to meet friends or to party.

More pictures

While doing research we found a website full of pictures by and with Carla during the period described in this interview. Go visit the site of Vrouwen nu voor later.

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