This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Since 2012, Amsterdam's Club Church has been hosting an event called Hello Pozzums, targeted specifically at gay men who are seropositive for HIV. Recently, they also started welcoming "negative" men, who take the HIV prevention drug PrEP (or Truvada) to these parties.
Club Church is a bastion of free sex; the only real sex club in Amsterdam, where the parties are all about getting some no-strings-attached action. The club is full of cruise spots where people can fuck, and for those who prefer to do that in the dark, there's a dark room as well.
The club was founded in 2008 by Australian Richard Keldoulis and his business partner Wim Peeks. While the Dutch capital is undergoing intense gentrification, with a number of its gay bars and saunas closing down over the last few years, Keldoulis and Peeks remain intent on keeping the scene alive. Besides Club Church, they also run the city's last gay sauna, Sauna Nieuwezijds, with co-owner Elard Diekman. I spoke to Keldoulis about PrEP, sex parties and Amsterdam's changing gay scene.
VICE: How did you become a club owner?
Richard Keldoulis: Before I started Church, I had a gay info kiosk near the Homomonument, which I opened in 1998. We sold souvenirs and organised events on Queen's Day, Gay Pride, etc. We did that for about 10 years. During those years we occasionally threw parties in the Warmoesstraat and Club LA, which used to be located right here in this building. Eventually we got the opportunity to buy the club, and that's how it all started.
How has the city changed since you arrived, 18 years ago?
Things are awful now. With every year, the number of gay spots that are closing grows. It feels like there isn't anyone doing anything new at the moment. When I arrived here, in 1990, there were 34 dark rooms in Amsterdam, but now there are only 12 left. Nowadays, the only dark rooms are situated in gay bars. And there are no other clubs like ours. Some people think that's a sign of growing equality, because gay people have started to go to mixed bars. I think it's a shame.
I think a lively gay scene fuels creativity in urban environments, as Richard Florida once wrote. I think there's always going to be a clash between cultures, where one side goes: "Just act normal" and the other side goes: "Normal makes life dull." But a big gay scene fuels the creative class and questions what "normal" is. You shouldn't strive for uniformity – that's bad for the city.
"After the discovery of penicillin, there was a sweet period when people were not afraid of deadly STDs and sex was free. Then AIDS came along in 1981, and fucked it up for everyone. Hopefully now with PrEP we can pick up where we left off with the sexual revolution."
Was the lively gay scene at the time the reason that you came to Amsterdam?
Absolutely. I lived in Japan for a while until my visa ran out. So, I thought about where I wanted to go next. In Amsterdam, I found freedom – I could smoke weed and just be myself. The Netherlands was very progressive at the time. When I got here, I saw dicks on the local TV-channel! You'd never see that in Australia. The Dutch are much more open about sex. And a club like Club Church wouldn't be able to survive, where I come from.
Don't you think that gay clubs are disappearing because of apps that help you find a fuck buddy with the touch of a button?
That may be a factor, but they also have the internet in Madrid and Berlin, and those cities still have a huge gay scene.
What's the best part of owning a sex club?
The dark room is sort of my natural habitat, my playground. I started working in this business out of personal interest. And sex sells, right? Now I can combine a successful business with my battle for sexual freedom.
When you started throwing parties for seropositive men in 2012, you wrote: "'People with HIV are still being discriminated in the cruising scene. HIV-positive men want to be able to enjoy an event, where having HIV is the norm, where there's no stigma. Club Church wants to create a space where HIV-positive men can feel physically uninhibited, where one's HIV status is not an obstacle." Now you also welcome seronegative men that take PrEP. Why?
We want to do away with the taboo around HIV, also within the gay scene. We wanted to create a space for men that are seropositive, so they too can have unprotected sex. But we've also known for a number of years now, that when you're positive and you're taking your meds, you're not at risk of infecting others. Moreover, people that take PrEP cannot get HIV. So gay sex keeps getting safer. In the end, the most dangerous men are the guys that don't know their status.
Do you feel responsible for the wellbeing of your guests?
I've always felt responsible for their safety. We have free condoms lying around everywhere in the club and we actually used to go around checking if people were using them, but we don't do that anymore because, as I said, PrEP makes things less risky. But at the end of the day, it's not for me to tell you how to have sex.
How do you feel about HIV becoming less and less of a threat thanks to those new drugs?
It's fantastic news, obviously. You know, when penicillin became available during the Second World War, syphilis suddenly became much less of a problem. That's why until the 1980s there was a sweet period, when people were not that afraid of deadly STDs and sex was pretty free. Then AIDS came along in 1981, and fucked it up for everyone.
Hopefully now we can pick up where we left off with the sexual revolution. I'm already enjoying more freedom now. I use to religiously use condoms but ever since I got on PrEP, I have been able to sometimes ditch the condoms and, more importantly, the fear.