“A safe haven.”
“A transformative experience.”
“A queer ritual.”
“Beauty, belonging, community.”
“Healing and therapeutic.”
These are some of the words the people I interviewed used to describe their night out – words which are (quite strikingly) borrowed from the worlds of spirituality or psychology.
But with a name like Group Therapy, the crew behind the infamous Copenhagen club night is well aware there are high expectations. While they did choose the name before deciding on much else, they had one goal from the very beginning: to create a hedonistic utopia where everyone, from guests to artists and crew, could experience the healing power of the dance floor.
Since the inaugural party in 2018, Group Therapy has emerged as an emblematic institution on the Copenhagen underground nightlife scene. With the right mix of care, community and do-it-yourself attitude, they have managed to not only survive the lockdowns of the pandemic but also nurture a faithful crowd of regulars that keep coming back to the dance floor – A dance floor which is filled with people that might not feel safe in the bars and clubs of Vestergade and Gothersgade.
This is a queer crowd; there’s no doubt about it. This is a dance floor filled with all genders and expressed (yet somehow fluid) sexualities. It’s a dance floor where strangers smile and hug each other, and where strangers become friends through their love for the night and the community surrounding it.
Yet, the queerness is not promoted – Group Therapy has never marketed themselves as a queer club night. They didn’t want to use it as a selling point, especially as the commodification of queerness is fiercely debated within the community.1 “We’re building what we are through what we do, not what we say,” explains Selma Skov Høye, one of the organisers, alongside Morten Mechlenborg Nørulf, Carlo Molino and Frederik Tollund.
So how does one create a club night that seems to draw such a religiously queer following? And why is it that the party has such historical and cultural importance in the queer community?
To understand, we need to examine a few of the elements that make up a night, like Group Therapy. We need to examine the historical origins and cultural importance of the party in the queer community, this idea of the healing power of the dance floor, and how creating a safer space influences people’s behaviour.
The party as queer culture
The modern gay liberation movement was born in New York City in 1969, when the police conducted one of its frequent raids targeting queer people at the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 28th. While the Stonewall Inn was not a place particularly worth fighting for (it has been described as dark, filthy, overpriced and run by the mafia), it was one of the few relatively safe places for queer people to socialise outside their private homes. But a tipping point was reached, and this particular raid sparked a riot.
In 1970, on the one-year anniversary of the riot, the first Pride march took place as a commemoration and demonstration. It was seen as a somewhat revolutionary act for queer people to march like that; the idea of queer people publicly celebrating themselves was completely new. One year earlier, they were hiding in a dark and seedy bar; now they were marching through the streets of New York City, demanding rights and unconditional acceptance.
While Pride celebrations look more like a party than a protest today, the spirit is the same: the act of celebrating yourself is political; it is a form of protest. Even in Copenhagen, the first marches for gay liberation took place in 1971 as demonstrations but didn’t metamorph into the rainbow-coloured party we know today until Copenhagen was the European Capital of Culture in 1996.2 Today, the pendulum is swinging back again, with Copenhagen Pride putting politics, activism, and human rights back on the agenda.
For the queer community, the party is political. Not just as a cultural-historical remnant but also a continuous act – because there are still reasons to fight. And this is something the crew behind Group Therapy is very aware of. “We want to elevate the people that have traditionally been excluded from these parties; women, trans and non-binary people; people of colour; gay and queer people,” says Frederik. “And might do that by looking at who we book as DJs, but also who we want to invite to the dance floor.”
At every Group Therapy party, a hand-painted banner is hung, spelling the phrase “WE DON’T PARTY WITH THE PATRIARCHY” – an object more associated with demonstrations outside Christiansborg than a nightclub. And in case you miss it, the same slogan is also stamped on your wrist when you pay for your entrance, leaving no doubt about what this night is all about.
The healing power of the dance floor
“A good party (…) can provide a collective escape from drudgery, a sanctuary from oppression, a chance to transcend. It revives our utopian imaginations. A good party has elements of prefiguration, glimpses into a better future; it gets you high on hope.” – Sophie K Rosa3
When you, as a queer person per definition, don’t belong in a heteronormative and cisnormative society,4 a need for escapism will emerge. It can be exhausting to code-switch how you speak, dress, behave and move – because while you might feel at ease to express yourself authentically in private, this same behaviour might put you at risk for discrimination or violence in public spaces. This code-switching might even come at the expense of your mental and physical well-being.5
For example, only one-in-two Danish gay cismen are comfortable holding hands in public.6 And because gay cismen potentially are the most accepted subgroup by society at large,7 this paradox showcases a large discrepancy between the legal rights won and the queer community’s perceived and felt acceptance.
It is a universal human need for love and belonging – a need Maslow argues is the third-most important, only after physiological needs and safety. But this creates a problem: how can the queer community feel belonging in public spaces if they do not feel safe in them?
This is where the semi-public, semi-exclusive spaces, such as a gay bar or a nightclub, might step in to fill the gap. A place where you can reliably find like-minded people, meaning you stop being a minority and become part of a community. “Good dance floors can be a very mindful experience: nobody is paying attention to what happens outside or tomorrow, but all just exist in that moment,” Selma explains.
And this escapism can be part of the healing process from the rejection, discrimination and violence felt by a queer person living in a cisheteronormative society. Carlo describes how a dance floor can be “... therapeutic, because it allows you to be yourself, express yourself and explore yourself, in a place that transcends all of society’s rules.” In fact, this is why they describe the parties they organise as small hedonistic utopias – a space to let go and hopefully heal.
How to create a safer space
“Every night, we facilitate a safer space and place of belonging for marginalised people and the LGBTQIA+ community. If you are not part of these communities, please be extra mindful of how you take up space. We always balance the crowd to create the vibe we want, so we reserve the right to reject people at the door without explanation.” – Group Therapy, on their door selection policy8
There is no doubt that to create a hedonistic utopia, you need a different set of rules for everyone to play by – in other words, a policy on how to create a space where everyone feels safe. The concept of safer space policies has been imported from the nightlife scene in Berlin,9 which, since its reunification, has been the epicentre of progressive and culture-based clubbing culture.10
The emphasis is on aiming for a safer space. The policy, as it is usually codified in Copenhagen, mandates that “every person works actively and commits to making everyone feel safe, seen, acknowledged and respected.” It does not promise a fail-proof safe space. Still, by sharing the responsibility between the organisers, venue, as well as artists and guests, it aims for more inclusion and safety through the collective effort.
What does that mean in practice? Guests are discouraged from using their phones inside the club, and photography is banned altogether. There is zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and special awareness staff are hired to act as points of contact or mediators if an unsafe situation arises. However, the most controversial of them all: the door selection policy is notoriously strict.
But exclusivity is necessary, Morten explains. “We know that [he] has the hardest job in Copenhagen,” referring to the door selector, who works at the end of the queue and decides if you can enter or not. Traditionally, this job is performed just by the bouncer, but at clubs like Den Anden Side, where Group Therapy hosts their parties, the door selector and bouncer work alongside each other.
They know it might feel disappointing to be rejected after queuing (potentially for hours), and sometimes guests have a hard time accepting their rejection. But Selma uses this example to explain its necessity: “If you can’t accept a no [at] the door, it’s probably good they aren’t facing a situation where they’re told no inside the club,” referring to their consent policy.11
By having these policies in place, the Group Therapy crew hope that exclusivity is part of what makes their parties feel safe and free – the hedonistic utopia they strive for. At least, it seems like this is part of why the queer community has embraced them. They might not have set out to throw queer-marketed parties. However, they still managed to add all the right spatial ingredients – a political space, an escapist space, a safer space – to make the queer and other marginalised communities feel the healing power of a dance floor.
But ultimately, it is worth mentioning that while Group Therapy is a prime example of how queerness and the nightlife scene are intrinsically linked, it is not the only party in Copenhagen creating a queer space. Both currently and historically, there are examples of parties pushing societal norms, creating hedonistic utopias, and escapist spaces for healing and safety12 – temporary spatial anomalies, providing “a collective escape from drudgery, a sanctuary from oppression, a chance to transcend.”13
1 Kose, M (1 July 2021) ‘Rainbow Capitalism: The Commodification of Pride and its Impact on LGBTQ+ Mental Health’ on Inspire the Mind
2 Svalebølle, B (10 August 2019) ‘Pridens historie i Danmark’ in Out&About
3 Rosa, S K (5 February 2021) ‘In Defence of Sex and Parties’ in Novara Media
4 ‘Queer’ in LGBT+ Danmarks Ordbog
5 Holden, M (12 August 2019) ‘The Exhausting Work of LGBTQ Code-Switching’ in Vice
6 Christiansen, F (1 November 2018) ‘Homoseksuelles mulighed for – uden frygt – at holde i hånd og kysse på gaden skal styrkes’ in Politiken
7 Bennike, C (12 August 2017) ‘Sådan holdt Danmark op med at hade homoseksuelle’ in Information
8 Group Therapy (2023) Groupie Therapy with Avalon Emerson on Facebook
9 Strøm (26 June 2018) Safer Spaces: En ny standard i nattelivet?
10 Københavns Frie Promotere (no date) Safer Spaces
11 “Consent is the foundation of interaction in our space. Whether it’s conversation, dance, physical contact, consumption or sexual activities — we expect everyone to ensure that it’s happening with consent and respect for your own and others’ boundaries.”
12 Hvor regnbuen ender (2021) podcast series on DR – Danmarks Radio
13 Rosa, S K (5 February 2021) ‘In Defence of Sex and Parties’ in Novara Media