This plaza has hosted every kind of event over the years, from weekly markets to fashion shows. One of the most impactful for attendees, though, was as one of 56 venues around Amsterdam holding sporting and cultural events for the Amsterdam Gay Games. Nieuwmarkt held an open-air cinema of gay films. Remember, participants came to Amsterdam from all over the world, many of them from places where homosexuality was completely banned. For many, watching a film about gay life with other gay people was special. One participant described watching the British film “Beautiful Thing” by saying that the entire square sighed in unison at the characters’ first kiss.
One question that people always have about Amsterdam is why the city celebrates Pride in August, instead of the June anniversary of Stonewall like most of the Western world. It has to do with the Gay Games. The first major pride event in Amsterdam was on June 25, 1977, organized by a lesbian group in solidarity with an international movement. This event turned into an annual political event called Roze Zaterdag (Pink Saturday). It moves around the Netherlands to address homophobia within communities and is themed around relevant topics in Dutch life.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam was chosen for the 1998 Gay Games, the first city outside of North America to host them. Amsterdam’s hosting of EuroPride in 1994 had not gone smoothly. There was some tension between locals and guests, and a lower-than-expected income resulted in a massive debt. To avoid these problems, organizers laid the groundwork for the Gay Games in advance, in part by holding canal parades at the beginning of August in 1996 and 1997. Unlike the politically oriented Roze Zaterdag, this was pure celebration.
The Gay Games were an explosion of joy in Amsterdam. The opening ceremony was overseen by Amsterdam’s mayor and was kicked off by a spotlight on two women kissing in the middle of the famous soccer/football stadium named for Dutch icon Johan Cruijff. 1,200 medals were competed for by 15,000 athletes across many competitions. By way of comparison, the Amsterdam Olympics hosted around 10,000 athletes.
More than 3,000 volunteers helped run sports and culture events all over the city. The Rode Hoed held a world storytelling festival focusing on places where homosexuality was illegal. Open-air concerts gave visitors a chance to dance and party. It was also a healing moment for Amsterdam’s gay community, which had suffered through the long dark years of the AIDS crisis. Vondelpark, the city’s most important park, was laid with a memorial quilt and the names of the dead were read out. The Amsterdam History Museum has footage of attendees from harsh regimes talking about how much the event meant to them. To the city, the Amsterdam Gay Games marked a new and joyful chapter, and the early August canal parades continue to this day.
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