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Gays get organized in Brussels

GSN meets the team at Rainbow House in the capital of Belgium

Gays get organized in Brussels
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The offices of Rainbow House in the center of Brussels had been burgled about a month ago. A window had been broken, the door had been forced, and all of the laptops and computers had been stolen. As a temporary measure the staff were all working on their personal laptops to keep everything operating.

I met Francois Massoz at the bar operated by Rainbow House on the rue du Marche au Charbon – just around the corner from their main administrative office. Massoz is in charge of communications for Rainbow House. Young, passionate, handsome, and with an appealing French accent, Massoz talked articulately about the purpose of Rainbow House and its role within the vibrant LGBT community of Brussels.

What is Rainbow House?

We are the umbrella organization for the LGBT organizations of Brussels. We were established nearly 11 years ago.

We currently represent 30 organizations – this will increase to 40 as a number of organizations have lodged applications to join. Applications from new members will be considered at our annual general meeting in March.

Member organizations pay a small membership fee of €75 ($97) per year.

What are some of the key activities of Rainbow House?

A lot of our member organizations don’t have their own office space, so our offices give our members somewhere to work or hold meetings and events, and this also encourages collaboration between organizations.

We produce a number of key publications: ‘Out In Brussels’ is a small pocket-sized guide to the bars, events, and LGBT associations of Brussels. And ‘Rainbow Times’ is a magazine that we produce three times each year.

We also actively promote collaboration between our member organizations. Plus we organize Pride Week.

What are the plans for Pride Week in 2013?

Pride Week is a festival that is held the week leading up to Belgium Pride.

This year our focus is on ‘family’, but we are also exploring the concept of ‘gender’. Highlights of the Pride Week festival will include :

  • A forum to discuss the legal aspects of LGBT parenting;
  • An exhibition and presentation by New York photographer whose work explores gender;
  • A number of theater productions;
  • A Pride village;
  • A run around the city;
  • A film festival exploring the history of gay movies;
  • Plus there will be a lot of workshops and conferences in collaboration with our Pride House organization members.

Another interesting thing that we’ll be doing during Pride Week links to a new app that helps to identify and document incidents of ‘gay bashing’. If you’ve been a victim of some form of aggression, physical or verbal, then the app enables you to enter the details of the incident and then creates a map of all the incidents across the city. During Pride Week we’ll be placing flowers at each of the locations where there have been attacks in the last year.

Does Rainbow House undertake any health education or HIV prevention work?

While a number of our members organizations are focused on health and prevention, Rainbow House is not itself focused on HIV prevention.

However we do currently have two big projects underway.

Firstly the ‘HIV Cafe’ which is an event that is held once a month, creating a safe space for HIV positive people. This isn’t just for LGBT people, but for anyone that is HIV positive. This has received a lot of media coverage and one of our main aims is to challenge ‘sero-phobia’ [stigmatization of people living with HIV].

Our second big project is Knitting Against AIDS. This involves people from the fashion industry but we’re also working with schools and retirement homes, getting people involved in knitting scarves while at the same time discussing and educating people about HIV and AIDS. We then hold a fashion show where the scarves are modeled by people who are HIV positive, the scarves are sold and the money raised is donated to HIV prevention associations.

We are also participating in the Sialon project. This is a European-wide project that is conducting saliva-based HIV testing in clubs, bars and saunas to collect data about the number of men with HIV. Participants have the option to learn their results but this is not essential as the main priority is to collect the data.

In addition we work with our member organizations to coordinate activities around World AIDS Day in December each year.

How is Rainbow House funded?

We are subsidized by the government, but it is quite a complicated system. There are a lot of different government departments we have to apply to for funding, so it takes a lot of time and effort.

One of the challenges is everything is designed as short-term project funding, so you are often waiting for a long time to know if an application has been successful, and we need to apply for a lot of different projects in order to maintain the funding that we need to pay our staff. We have a core staff of five people.

There is only limited private funding available, so continuing to access government funding is essential.

This ongoing challenge regarding funding is one reason a new organization ‘Regenboogvrienden’ (friends of Rainbow House) has been established as a fundraising vehicle.

What does the future hold for Rainbow House?

If we continue to find money there will be a good future. If we don’t, we will still try to survive.

While everything we’re doing doesn’t require a lot of money, we still ultimately depend on the willing of the governement. If anything changes then we could disappear very quickly.

The good thing is that we have existed for nearly 11 years now so I am hopeful for the future.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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