When I reviewed the 2018 of Belgium’s Leather and Fetish Pride festival, I mentioned that this year I decided to skip the official parties. What then did I do every night while I was in Antwerp? I am glad you asked…

If you have any interest in leather, kink, or, you know, sex, you owe it to yourself to visit The Boots in Antwerp at least once in your life. Even people who never heard of Antwerp, have heard of The Boots. As more and more of the iconic cruising and leather bars and clubs around the world keep closing, The Boots looks like it’s going to be the last man standing. Whether it is because of its size, its layout, or its history, somehow they have managed to create a space that feels old-school without alienating younger kinksters, by allowing for a variety of spaces that seem to operate differently on different nights.

First of all, this place is gigantic. There are, in my calculation, no less than seven layers to this cake of debauchery, sleaze, and perversion. These include three bars, in a roughly every-other-floor arrangement. Of course, not all of these spaces are accessible every night, but Leather Pride is their busiest weekend of the year. I can’t really say what the bar is like on a “casual” night, but they have such a full program of special events, themed nights, and parties, that I am sure they get full use of the many options the space provides.

A quick run down of the levels:

  1. A basement with its own spacious bar, a sling room, and some dark corridors to get lost in.
  2. A mezzanine level where the wardrobe is located on busier nights. This makes the in-and-out process much smoother, and it really improved the customer experience when it was implemented.
  3. The entrance level, with bathrooms.
  4. The main bar, including a glassed-in smokers’ lounge. This area remains fairly civil, if not exactly family-friendly.
  5. Cubicles with slings, glory holes, and a darker “wet” area.
  6. Another bar, which I call the “bikers’ bar” because of the motorcycle, and some themed play spaces, cages, etc. My sacrilegious favourite is the sling hanging over a grave – I really wish I could have taken photographs in there.
  7. What I refer to as the “flophouse”: an attic, with mats and cots, where people mostly seem to “rest”. This actually has skylights – if you stay late/early enough, you might actually see the sun come out.

Count on spending a lot of time going up and down stairs. I guess I should add the obvious here: this place is not accessible – even getting to the entrance requires ascending a staircase. I should also, say, given the lighting situation, the crowds, the risk of inebriation, and the inevitability of someone spilling something on the floor (just pray it’s only beer), be  very careful when navigating the stairs. I think there is some steps the management could take to reduce this risk, such as using wood shavings or something similar in the sling areas (which get very messy). It would be an easy problem to fix, as long as they realise it is a problem

Each floor is further subdivided, sometimes with actual walls, sometimes more subtly, but the variety of areas both for socialising and for getting-it-on is staggering. And the guests are full participants in recreating and re-imagining these spaces. Example: On one very busy, very hot evening, all the guys in full leather uniforms discovered the basement was marginally cooler than the main bar. Essentially, the basement was transformed into this exclusive leather bar – not that anybody was barred from entering, but you did feel very strange there if, like me, you were half naked. So while the bar as a whole was inclusive, there was still themed spaces created by the patrons themselves!

Sometimes the environment dictates the theme more directly – you find the fisters around the slings, naturally. In general, though, it seems to be a fluid, organic process, and it means that the bar is a little different every night. It makes me really curious to see what some of their themed nights are like!

As this is a fisting club, let’s get real: there are slings-a-plenty. There is actually not much variety, however: all the slings are identical, your typical  leather mat with a headrest, and none of them had foot holders. I missed the variety that you find in places like BB in Berlin or Le Keller in Paris. There is an inconveniently-located gynaecologist chair if you are feeling very exhibitionistic, but that’s about the only other obvious option. When it is not too busy there is also a sling hanging right in front of the basement bar, if you really wan to show off! In general the slings are sort of clustered together, so spontaneous fisting parties form around them, and if you are cruising for a fist you know where to look. There is also plenty of paper and bins around these areas. However, the only sink is right back at the entrance level, so you are going to be spending some time on those stairs. There is also a place to douche here. I would definitely love to go back for one of their fist parties, based on what I saw on these “off” nights!

In terms of other kinks: This is not a play dungeon, so don’t expect the specialised equipment you’ll find somewhere like Quälgeist. Bring your own rope and toys, if you think you’ll need them. At the same time, it’s more than just a sleazy cruising bar like the Lab, where the dungeon furniture is mostly atmospheric. Have a look at their schedule, and you’ll see how much variety they can accomodate.

Some of the technicalities: This is a private club, and you do have to buy a membership at the entrance. However, there are short-term memberships available, and the cost is not high. When you arrive, you are given a card to hold on – they also conveniently write your wardrobe number on there. The card is all you need while you are The Boots. All your drinks/purchases are noted down on the car, and you pay for everything when you leave. A bit like laboratory, except you don’t have to be branded like a calf. The dresscode can be quite specific on different nights, though they were pretty permissive during the Pride weekend. Make sure you check what’s required for the night you’re going.

In conclusion, The Boots seems to be doing something right, and I think it has a lot to do with attracting the right mix of people in the first place. I might be relying too much on my visits (this year and last) during Leather Pride, but the diversity of the crowd is something you really don’t see in a lot of gay bars. They are somehow holding on to the “Old Guard” while still welcoming curious 20somethings and puppies. I believe this has a lot to do with the way the space allows for different communities, and different imaginaries, to function independently. And I also suspect the enormity of the space has a lot do with that, because these communities do not feel like they are competing for a niche. Even when it gets really crowded, you still feel like you have many directions to choose from.

Do yourself a favour, and put Antwerp on your travel schedule. Have a look at their program, and pick a weekend that matches your interests. You will really be visiting a part of queer history! Let’s hope The Boots will be around forever!