It’s not news, lesbian venues have been steadily dwindling over the last few years. Having been battered by the financial crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been reported around 60% of queer venues have closed in the past decade in great gay cities like London. Yet queer venues continue to be the beating heart of our community.
On a recent solo trip to Copenhagen, I discovered the true importance of this kind of in-person gay-thering. It was my first time traveling by myself abroad and Copenhagen was a perfect choice; safe, easy to get around, and offering a good balance of undiscovered gems and tourist hotspots. Two days into my trip I decided it was time to meet some locals instead of just drinking with British and Spanish tourists in the hostel’s communal sauna.
Feeling slightly alone and in over my head, I headed out to find my people.
Wandering down the voguish streets of the Vesterbro neighborhood, I found Vela— Copenhagen’s last remaining lesbian bar. Completely camouflaged from the outside, tucked down a little side street, this tiny bar can be hard to spot even with a map. I walked past it twice. Disguised by stained glass murals of Geishas, a relic from a time when queer venues had to hide the identities of their patrons, I entered through the small side door.
But there was a sign on the door that instantly made me feel welcome. Written in English, it clearly laid out the rules of Vela and among them was ‘no biphobia’. As a bi person, I have felt excluded and unwelcome in LGBTQ+ spaces on many occasions and this was the first time I’d ever seen a venue make it explicitly clear that this wouldn’t be tolerated.
The space itself is long and narrow. There’s a foosball table by the door, a small bar, with little wooden tables and benches lining the walls. As I made my way down this runway towards the bar, Mama Vela, as the landlady is known, called over to me in Danish. Wrapping her arm around me as I approached, she addressed the small crowd of 30-somethings. “Wow,” I thought, “I’d heard this place was friendly!”.
It turns out, I was crashing an office Christmas party. I had not seen the sign on the door saying, “Closed for a private function.” The barmaid explained this to me as she made me a drink and let me know I was welcome to stay as they opened in 15 minutes anyway. Slightly embarrassed, I hunkered down with a small band of Copenhagen’s Salarymen for “one drink”.
Getting in with the late crowd
I ended up staying in Vela until it closed at 2 am. As the office crowd filtered out, the students filtered in and the real party started. I spent the first part of the night with a group of young, non-binary punks playing foosball. Followed by dancing with two lesbian students, who ordered me their favorite Danish beer and patiently spoke English all night. It turns out it was also their first time in Vela, being new to the city themselves. One of us had only been in Copenhagen for six months, the other two months, and the third less than 48 hours. Alone and at a loose end, we all sought out a queer venue.
As the night rolled into the next morning, I introduced my new friends to the British tradition of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” signifying that it’s time to go home, which was surprisingly well-received. Exchanging Instagram handles, we headed out into the frigid city knowing we now had at least one other queer friend in all of Copenhagen.
For many of us, lesbian bars like Vela are the only places we can feel like our authentic selves, where we can meet members of our community, our chosen families. Although far from perfect, they also provide a welcome antidote to the increasingly cliquish and exclusionary politics of online queer communities.
Unfortunately, the magic of Vela does not extend beyond its unassuming door. I spent the next day brutally hungover at Freetown Christiania.
All photos provided by Vela, velagayclub.dk