Ask a Badass

Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.

Bet van Beeren answers We Both Know I’m Right

Bet van Beeren opened Amsterdam's first gay bar

Dear Badass,

My boyfriend is SOOOOO moody. He’ll say he’s fine when we both know he’s pissed. Then three days later, I’ll forget to take out the trash and suddenly he’s telling me everything I’ve done wrong since the last fight.

That’s not even the worst part. He has the nerve to call ME moody! He says women always have to talk about every feeling they have and it’s not necessary. I say the reason I don’t blow up at him is because I tell him in the moment. If I feel jealous, I tell him. If I feel sad, I tell him. Who’s right?


We Both Know I’m Right

Dear We Both Know I’m Right,

You’re both wrong. In my bar, I’ve seen all manner of couples fighting and… making up. I can see from here that the problem isn’t your relationship. It’s your relationship skills. Amsterdam, the city outside the bar, has a good example of what I mean.

When I was younger, I delivered my mother’s home-cooked meals around the city. My father didn’t like my mother working, but a bricklayer’s salary doesn’t go far with fourteen kids. I got a motorcycle as soon as I could, but I’ve noticed something about bicycles that you still see in Amsterdam today. Young couples bike holding hands or arm in arm. They bike in the same rhythm, their knees rising and falling at the same time.

They can do this because two things are true: they are attuned to each other and they’ve grown up riding a bike. Two people who aren’t comfortable biking won’t ride in unison, no matter how aware of each other they may be. Relationships are like that. It doesn’t matter how much you love each other. If one of you isn’t good with words or feelings, you’re going to be out of sync.

If it helps, I think you have it easy. When I opened a gay bar in 1927, my customers couldn’t kiss or dance or even brush hands.  We all knew why we were there, but the only way to keep the space open was to steer clear of the vice laws. I even had a little lamp I’d turn on if someone suspicious walked into the bar. You two don’t need to hide anything from anyone. You just need to break a couple of bad habits.

His is communication. I’m with you on that. Life is too brief to waste tiptoeing around someone’s mood. Why not tell him – calmly – when he seems angry? If he agrees, you can – again, calmly – ask why. If he says you’re wrong, leave. Go to a movie, go out with friends, go read a book by yourself. If you’re in Amsterdam, come to Café ‘t Mandje on the Zeedijk. We’re always around. Don’t let his silence take you hostage.

What if you do the same thing when he explodes over something simple? Can you refuse to engage with the laundry list until he calms down? You’ll be doing both of you a favor if you break this cycle. Secretly storing things to be mad about is no way for him to live his life.

Now, here’s where you’re wrong. Keeping things pent-up is unhealthy, but so is making your partner responsible for your feelings. It may make you feel better to tell your partner you’re sad or jealous, but what about him? If he cares about you, he will want you to be happy and will try to fix the problem, even if it’s not his to fix. See if you can figure out what feelings need to be shared and what feelings are just meant for you to feel.

The people of my generation, those of us who lived through the occupation and the hunger winter, we don’t talk about those years. Some of us hid Jews or Resistance materials in our homes. I used my bar for both. We woke up each day not sure if we would see the sun set.

When Amsterdam was liberated, we threw ourselves into whatever joy we could find because we’d learned how easily it could all go away. Slowly, the people in my bar started to bring their lives and relationships into the sun. They changed Amsterdam forever and, after I died, the people I had protected guarded my memory and my legacy.

I urge you two to find all the light you can, in each other and in your lives. Happiness is too rare to be wasted.

Bet van Beeren

About Bet van Beeren

Born in 1902 in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, the eldest daughter of a bricklayer and his wife. Died of liver failure in Amsterdam in 1967 and was laid out on the pool table of her bar for her wake. When Bet opened Café ‘t Mandje in 1927, it was Amsterdam’s first gay bar in the modern sense of the word: a place where gay men and women could find community as individuals and equals. Throughout her life, Bet was unabashedly herself, open about her preference for women and brashly encouraging others to live without pretense, as shown by her ceiling of ties she’d cut off customers. She was a caretaker to anyone who needed help and was known as the Queen of the Zeedijk, her neighborhood of social outcasts.

Bet’s bar is still open and the bridge near it bears her name.

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