They don’t rhyme but they could very well be misspellings of each other. “Lisbon” and “Lesbian” are not etymologically related either, but you will start seeing those two words used in the same sentence more frequently from now on. That’s because Lisbon is discretely becoming a lesbian-friendly city. It’s not exactly a liberal place like Amsterdam, it’s not a hot lesbian destination like the island of Lesbos, and it’s still rather homophobic when compared to other big capitals.
But it’s homophobic in a strangely tolerant way.Portugal’s attitude towards same-sex couples can be described in an oxymoronic way –- homophobically tolerant as in “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That is, they seem to accept the existence of homosexual couples (there have never been anti-gay marches or major anti-gay movements in the country), as long as they are not confronted with them. Because when confronted, they’ll just have to comply with their good-old Catholic upbringing and manifest their disapproval.
So if you’re a lesbian couple coming to Lisbon, you won’t see many women holding hands. You will end up thinking all Portuguese girls who like other girls just get married and live unhappily ever after. While that’s true to a great extent, it seems it won’t be so for much longer. A young television host recently came out as a lesbian in the country’s most respected newspaper, and the reaction was no reaction. Portugal’s “homophobic tolerance” allowed her to proceed with work and life as usual. No one said “good for you,” no one reacted with a “so what?,” but no one responded negatively either. It was like it never happened.
The country only reacted a couple of years ago when it was directly confronted with the issue. A lesbian couple challenged the courts to allow them to get married. The current legislation doesn’t allow it, so they were denied their wish. But the country was forced to talk about it and polls showed the majority of Portuguese oppose such unions.
But as Portugal faces the issue less directly maybe minds and tolerance levels will be expanded. Take the Lesboa parties as an example. They take place two or three times a year, and this October there will be another edition with female DJs providing the dance music to accompany a night of drinking and fun socializing for people of all ages and sexual orientations. It will be the 2nd anniversary celebration and includes major sponsorship from myspace.com and one of the country’s major radio stations.
If you want to be in Lisbon for that, stay at one of the gay or gay-friendly hotels in the city. You’ll mostly find men there, but if you want to avoid stares during a public display of affection at the reception or breakfast room, those are the places to book. The GoLisbon gay & lesbian page lists the accommodation you should consider.
For an all-girls night out, do as everyone else does, and go to Bairro Alto. Your first stop should be Primas (“female cousins”). The name brings to mind those closet days when two inseparable girls, who perhaps even lived together, identified themselves as “cousins” to the more close-minded members of society. At this bar however, the closet has no door to be closed, and girls freely display their devotion to other girls as they choose a tune on the jukebox, play pool, or grab a drink.
Then it’s time to move to Purex not far away. The house drink is the Cosmopolitan, and although the space is not very big, the area with no seats is used for spontaneous dancing. It has a number of straight and gay male clients, but this is where the lesbian locals gather.
Then move on to Chueca. No, not the gayborhood in Madrid. You’re staying in Bairro Alto. Chueca is a lesbian-owned bar with a stylish contemporary décor where you can sit with a drink or stand by the door along with everyone else.
It’s now time to go clubbing. You can go to the all-sexual-orientations-friendly Fragil or to the lesbian club Maria Lisboa. It’s pretty spacious with a hot décor, and a variety of sounds that range from 80s pop to house.
When you wake up mid-morning or even in the afternoon on the following day, have a meal at Les Mauvais Garçons, a small romantic gay café in Bairro Alto. It serves light meals in a space decorated with old tables and couches, and with black and white photos of Paris on the walls.
End your Lisbon visit with a night at a Fado restaurant. It’s your way of experiencing a little of the local culture, while also sensing that these fado divas are no ordinary women –- in between their melancholic laments, there is a certain strong masculine side that, well, makes it look like Lisbon does blend the traits of all genders and sexual orientations. It makes you think that Lisbon could very well have a very strong lesbian side. And it’s not just in the name.