The Copenhagen based collective known as Group Therapy charts out their vision towards a more inclusive and safer nightlife on a path, we can all follow and dance along on.
Our journey as LGBTI+ individuals is rarely a straight line – and our history depicts the arc we have traveled towards self-discovery and acceptance. For many of us, we find ourselves living in a time framed as “Post-liberation”. A chapter that has come into the mainstream by legislation affording us an equal opportunity in marriage, protection against discrimination, and an ability to represent ourselves unabashedly in media.
When looking at the arc towards post-liberation, understanding the value of the underground comes into historical importance. The early history of queer liberation found itself operating outside of the formal organizations we see today. Activists had to claim space against the backdrop of a hostile society in informal ways. This meant that nightlife became the central institution for queer life and as a vehicle for social and political networks in the era of pre-liberation. With history in mind, what can we say about the nightlife spaces today in post-liberation Copenhagen?
I pose this question because visibility does not translate into safety or acceptance. Our nightlife spaces are often marred by differences in class, race, and gender expression – and this not only the story in Denmark but is a common tale spanning many gay-friendly metropolises that our kin flock to seeking solace and safety.
As societies become more comfortable with the integration of our cis-gay community, where does that leave everyone else still relegated to the margins in a volatile society? We have to remember that unlike other marginalized communities, we have the unique privilege of not being born into our own culture. We traverse our youth, and for some our adulthood, coming into our own sense of self. Most, if not all of us, have to seek our queer universe and family out. Nightlife and the underground often become the portal in which we can be transported into a world that can be inherently ours.
Like many, I did not see myself represented in the mainstream queer culture nightlife – and I found myself magnetically pulled into the underground of Washington, D.C. I felt a space of joy where the dance floor and freedom of self-expression reigned supreme. And luckily, for many of us seeking out family, the queer underground has the superpower to transcend time and space.
It was Copenhagen Pride 2019 when I walked into the Group Therapy party hosted at Ved Siden Af, and from the crowd, to the performance art, to the music – it was a sense of home. From the “we don’t party with the patriarchy” banner, to the check-in quiz by the door person, to the explicit safe space policies there was a palpable feeling of what this event was aiming to do and for whom.
If you are meeting Group Therapy for the first time, they are a Copenhagen based collective putting on a series of therapeutic dancing sessions, where we can come together as a community and heal through movement. All ethnicities, sexualities, and genders are welcome. Consent is mandatory and phones are left off the dance floor!
Knowing the historical precedent of the underground in creating spaces for our chosen families – I wanted to gain an understanding of how Group Therapy works to foster this dynamic for members of our LGBTI+ community. I sat down for a queerversation with two of the organizers to talk about creating a space for those among us that do not feel like they are seen or reflected in post-cis gay liberation while keeping an eye on the future for the work that still needs to be done.
A new wave: the emergence of the inclusive CPH underground
In the late afternoon sun sitting along Sønder Boulevard, I met with Group Therapy organizers Morten Mechlenborg Nørulf and Carlo Molino. And they immediately agreed on one thing when I asked what drove the genesis of Group Therapy – something was missing.
For Carlo, a DJ whose music is grounded between classic house and disco,
“I love Copenhagen, but I felt that there was not a bridge between underground techno and mainstream queer pop vibes.”
Morten echoed Carlo’s longing for musical diversity in queer spaces that encompassed a wider variety and recalled on what it took to find that electronic environment in years past,
“There was not a lot of room for diversity in music, so we had to go to other underground music scenes, which were not necessarily a queer-friendly space. It was dangerous to go to these spaces as minorities,” where Morten noted that security personnel and organizers were not attuned to what could make these events safe spaces for minorities. But it was the promise of good electronic music that brought them there.
“Some electronic events were happening around the Valby area, with Et Andet Sted,
it was very friendly, open-minded, thinking about the safety of women and queer people in those early concepts, having formulations of policies of no racism, no homophobia, this was something that they did a lot of at that time – but that whole area was gentrified” Morten continued.
About three years ago, Et Andet Sted, switched names and locations to Ved Siden Af right in the city center and Group Therapy found its start as the soon to be collective.
When asked about what drove Group Therapy’s principles in fostering an alternative to what gay spaces already exist in Copenhagen, Carlo replied,
“Cis gays are quite privileged, so we had discussions in the beginning and moved towards including all other communities within the LGBTQIA+ community – not just white gay men. We attract a lot of them, that is the perception of the event, but this is for our femme, trans, and non-binary friends.
They have much more of a need for these spaces than we do -when gay white cis men used to fight for acceptance and tolerance, they gained acceptance, now its non-binary and trans individuals fighting for acceptance.”
It takes a (queer) village…
Morten and Carlo were quick to state that they are a part of a growing coalition of groups aimed at creating a safer more inclusive nightlife space for the LGBTI+ community including, Mainstream, DJ James Lotion, and the Malmö-Copenhagen collective known as SWEAT.
“There are different parties and different promoters, but we work a lot together, it’s tight and cozy this family, each focusing on their own music style, crowd, they all pretty much have these same policies”
“We also have to mention that the venue we work with, Ved Siden Af, has been very active in forming safer spaces policies.”
“It has been relatively easy for us, to start, with a venue like that where there are ideas about what is a good night going out in terms of safety and respectful behavior – we have our ambitions and it aligns with theirs”
“We have been riding a wave together with other people when Ved Siden Af switched locations, and Club Mafia started the same time we did”
Club Mafia, a consistent partner and presence at Group Therapy events, is a collective enforcing the individual’s right to their own body and claiming space for diversity in Copenhagen nightlife, enforces safe space policies ensuring that there are consent and respect.
And while we talked about how these collective works intimately together to within the underground queer music scene, our queerversation quickly honed in on the urban and political landscape that they all navigate.
Culture for Who(m)?
Morten and Carlo highlighted the recent formation of a group called, CPH Free Promoters, where the goal is for event promoters to procure access to cultural funds and are working with other nightlife collectives in the aim that the Danish Parliament will recognize these collectives as promoters of culture – and access to sustaining funds in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic is a necessity where the cornerstone of these organizer’s businesses are dancefloors.
“There are already critical voices of nightlife in Danish Parliament seeking to impose limits (on nightlife) – and it is important that we promoters, through this new organization – stand together and speak up – because that could be a problem in the future and then again with gentrification and having access to venues where we can throw events – because nightlife is culture and they need to recognize that in the municipality”
“And again, maybe not so much for cis gay males, but all other parts of the LGBTQIA+ community – they need these cultural spaces too”
This brought us into a wider discussion about the cishet normative perspective in terms of what the municipality denotes as culture and who has access to funds or privileges of other cultural groups. There might be a generational divide in getting politicians in the municipality to widen their view on what is culture for marginalized groups. Maybe this is not the culture they grew up with or it is not their inherent culture – but recognizing that this aspect of culture is just as valid, as the dominant cishet nightlife culture.
Copenhagen’s economic development of the aspect of space, and who owns it, is a huge factor in the survival of these underground spaces that aim to serve the wider LGBTI+ community.
“Finding queer spaces for underground music are getting harder and harder, we have to rent large spaces at quite expensive prices and it’s hard to afford that when you’re a small collective.”
A Space for Healing & Representation
While we spoke about the collection of experiences that brought them together and the opportunities and challenges on the horizon, it was impossible not to go back and consider the intent all this work started with. When asked about how the name of the collective came to be, Morten responded after much thought that they arrived at “Group Therapy”,
“It just made sense to us, you know we wanted to create a space for people to heal themselves through dance and through each other, in a space of freedom, of no fear, of no tomorrow”.
As these emerging groups push and expand on creating a wider and more inclusive underground and nightlife, it goes beyond just policies for those of us who attend the events – it also extends to representation of talent. Active safer safe policies can allow diversity in who attends but seeing a range in representation in the musical talent is equally important and is something that Group Therapy and Ved Siden Af work together to do.
“It’s important to remember where it all came from, history of electronic music – black people needing those spaces due to marginalization – and in terms of booking and talent, this is important, and it’s a good thing to remember in this country that is very white.”
During our queerversation, as Carlo and Morten spotlighted the other collective working in unison across Copenhagen, it was hard not to envision all this work as a path forward for more progressive and inclusive nightlife policies – not only in our cis-gay spaces but also in our cishet venues as well.
Allyship does not only exist in the daylight and the idea of post-liberation does not extend to everyone in our community. Carlo and Morten agreed that this is where a lot of the hard work needs to be done with many cultural gatekeepers in Danish nightlife who need to unlearn privileged perspectives regarding safety and security for their events.
It is easy to see nightlife and the underground as a monolith, but it has its layers and intricacies, and for us, as LGBTI+ citizens of the world, it has a unique historical precedent that affords many us of a moment of freedom not experienced or accepted elsewhere– one that connects us as a family through that unique atmosphere of dancing and glamour.
“The goal is not anymore an underground gay rave, it’s more like – I feel like we created a tiny community where it is everything” – Carlo
Post-liberation: refers to the time period after the gay liberation – a social and political movement spanning from 1960s – mid 1980s
Space(s)/safe space(s): refers to places created for individuals who feel marginalized.
Underground: artistic or another social environment that exists outside and possibly in opposition to the dominant, recognized or established environment.
Gatekeeping: when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.