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The women who wanted to marry 22 times

BY Annie Dabb

14th Sep 2023 Inspire

9 min read

The women who wanted to marry 22 times
After meeting at a feminist pornography seminar, artist and LGBTQ+ activist Fleur Pierets and partner Julian Bloom embarked on Project 22, a mission to get married in every country in which gay marriage was legalised. They intended to celebrate the places in which LGBTQ+ people could legally consolidate their love to one another, while slyly nodding towards those in which they can’t
Back in 2017, gay marriage was legal in only 22 countries. In 2023, that number has risen to 34. That means that today, there are still 161 countries in which gay people don’t have the same marital rights as heterosexual couples.
Tragically, after the fourth country Julian was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died shortly afterwards. Instead of exhibiting photos from all their weddings as creative activism like the couple had originally planned, following the death of her wife, Fleur instead turned to writing, producing her beautiful memoir Julian, to keep the memory of her alive. 
Written originally in Flemish, Julian has been translated into English by Elisabeth Kahn and will be published by 3TimesRebel Press September 14, 2023. I had the chance to interview the incredible and inspiring Fleur Pierets about writing while grieving, the different versions of her life and relationship with Julian, and the importance of protest art that is more than just something beautiful to look at. 

Et Alors? 

Although Julian is Fleur’s debut memoir, it isn’t her first writing project. Frustrated by rejections of her writing about progressive topics like drag versus politics and protest art as “too weird”, back in 2011 Fleur and Julian decided to Google, “How to make a magazine?” and launched Et Alors? (“So what?” in English), a queer-focussed, uncensored and vibrant media platform.
"Ten years ago there wasn’t a lot of information about trans people or queer artists in mainstream media. Nowadays there is a little bit, but at the time Grayson Perry was basically the only queer person actually featured in mainstream art magazines.”
Fleur brings this passion and confidence to her projects 12 years on, explaining about the feminist opera librettos she’s currently working on—even though she had no idea how to write a libretto until she looked it up on YouTube!
“It’s just that thing, you know, I’ve never done this before so I can probably do it”.

Why did you start Project 22?

Artist, author and activist Fleur Pierets.
“I do think that people are not necessarily bad or anti LGBTQ rights, they just don’t know. We wanted a project that would build bridges. We could easily have made a project that condemned all of the countries that didn’t allow us to get married, but then it would be so negative and so much hate and opposition. So we tried a positive approach. 
One night I woke up, saying 'I’ve got it!' and I woke Julian and I said, 'Why don’t we get married in every country where we legally can?'"
Fleur laughs as she fondly remembers Julian batting her away, still half-asleep.
She explains that she had this idea after speaking to some open-minded, heterosexual friends of theirs and realising that they didn’t know that only 22 countries allowed same-sex marriage simply because, “it wasn’t on their radar”. 
“As a gay person you know these things. I know in which countries homosexuality is forbidden (67 countries). 12 of them still have death penalties. As a gay person, I know that because if I want to travel to those countries I have to behave differently.”

How has your relationship with your sexuality changed?

Coming out of the closet at 37 is quite a thing. You rethink your whole concept of identity.”
Fleur laughs about ringing her mum to tell her she was “in love with a girl”, and her mum’s response, “Were you in the closet?”.
It didn’t feel like I was in the closet, although obviously I was. Or your sexuality can change overnight!
Then my mother said the funniest thing, she said, 'I should have known. When you were 14 your childhood room was plastered with posters of Boy George and the lead singer of Europe…so many men in makeup!' Fleur smiles unashamedly at the memory.
“That might have been a clue!” she admits.
 Later on, when Fleur interviewed Boy George herself for Et Alors, and told him that she’d been very much in love with him when she was 14 years old, he told her, 'Look at you evolving, being in love with a man in makeup when you were 14, and now being married to a woman with a beard'. 
"Look at you evolving, in love with a man in makeup when you were 14, and now married to a woman with a beard"
The new wave queer icon had been making a reference to Julian’s drag king persona, Jim, who sported a smart suit and a beard. It was as Jim that Fleur had first met Julian in Amsterdam in 2011.
She confesses that the first time she saw Julian, her first thought was, 'Is that a man or a woman?” 12 years on, she’s glad that the language and perception around gender has evolved and changed.
“Now, I would never think that!” she tells me, shaking her head in dismay at her past self. 
“I don’t have those binary thoughts anymore. Now, I would just be like, 'Wow, what an amazing person’”.

How did meeting Julian help you to express your own sexuality and to be able to put that queerness in your work and your art?

Paris_Mahdi Aridj-1
Originally, the married couple had planned to exhibit all 22 wedding photos as a protest art piece. I ask Fleur about whether Julian is a substitute for this exhibition.
“Yes, we had a lot of plans”, she smiles, sadly. 
"We didn’t have the money to marry in 22 countries, who does! Julian started counting and we realised if we sold literally everything we had, we would be able to get married in five countries. If the project didn’t work out, we would have literally nothing. We took a leap of faith. We were very much in love and thought we could do anything we wanted.
So we sold everything and ended up with two suitcases each. That was really all we had in the world. It was six years ago and I looked at these suitcases and thought, “Oh my god, I’m 44 and this is all I have’.
When Julian died, I had nothing left. I lost the love of my life and I lost my job because we were working together. I literally had two suitcases and 150 euros because we spent everything on the weddings. I had to think about what I wanted to do with my life and how to survive.”
"I literally had two suitcases and £150 euros on my bank account because we spent everything on the weddings"
Rather than using her qualifications and experience as an art historian, in an act of durable self-discipline Fleur instead found work in a kitchen in Belgium so that she would have the brain space to write and document her version of Julian, rather than investing all of her energy into another creative project.
“I was so very scared that I would lose all my memories of her, so I really needed to write this book because I needed to write everything down. Most of the time my eyes were raw from crying; I was grieving like crazy, but while I was doing this brain numbing work I was thinking about everything I wanted to write and speaking it into this little recorder I carried on me all of the time.
I would come home from work at like 4am and start writing down everything had recorded. It was important because otherwise I would even the lose memories, and I had already lost everything."
"I couldn’t be anything else" Fleur declares in response to my question about whether marrying Julian had made her an activist. "Because all of a sudden you become part of a world where there is violence against gay people, where children commit suicide over their sexual orientation, where there are people who lose their houses and their jobs over being gay. All of a sudden those are your friends. It wasn’t really an option to stand on the side-line."

Can someone read Julian and get a sense of who she was? 

 “I had one review that said, 'It is so honest that it’s almost perverted'. And I thought, ‘That’s a good review, I like it’."
We laugh about her scandalous honesty and then she is instantly serious once more. "I couldn’t do anything else, it had to come out. I said to my publisher, ‘If this is just therapy, tell me. I don’t need to publish therapy. Who would be interested in that kind of thing?’
I tried to make it into a novel that actually happened. The weird thing is, I never read it again. The moment the book was finished I gave it to my publisher and I said, 'Have fun with that!'”
Shortly after the book was published, Fleur was asked if she was interested in writing children’s books about her and Julian’s project 22, in which Julian didn’t die. This year, Julian also being turned into a movie. 
“I wrote Julian from my memory, so maybe it’s not true. Maybe if she read it, she would say, ‘What? It happened completely differently’. Julian is my version of what happened.
Then you have the children’s books in which she doesn’t die. And in the movie, some places are left out because otherwise there would be too many locations, so there are actually three versions of my life, which is so weird!
For example, in the movie script, Spain (where Julian and Fleur lived for three years) was left out. When I read the English translation of Julian, it was like, ‘Oh my god! Yes! We lived in Spain!’ I had forgotten because there are so many versions.
I think the book is the most authentic version of what happened, but obviously it is written in a blur of grief and in some kind of eagerness to keep as much of her with me as I could."

Do you read the translation differently to the original? 

Fleur Pierets (left) and Julian Bloom (right) at their wedding in Antwerp.
“I don’t know,” she answers ponderously. “It’s been a while since the book I first published, and I’m now working on my third novel, and another children’s book is coming out…”
“I’m kind of in a rush,” she shares. “I always feel like I don’t have enough time. I have so much to say and so much to do and Julian died when she was 40. You can literally die today, so the most important question in my life is, 'What am I going to do with the time I have left?'
So I don’t do bad relationships, both with lovers and with friends. I don’t do toxic people. I don’t do negative people. I don’t do stuff that I don’t like.
When I reread the book in English, first I must say that the translation is so beautiful, and literary and creamy…and obviously there is a lot of activism in the book and giving LGBTQ+ people space at the table. Obviously, my thoughts have expanded and have become more elaborate and more nuanced on different topics, but the base is still the same. And I really loved reading that because it means, I don’t know…”
She trails off, looking into the distance momentarily before bringing her gaze back to the screen and finding her answer, “That I really know what I stand for.

You’ve said that you’re first and foremost an activist, and an artist and a creator afterwards. Do you have any other activist projects planned?

“Yes," she sighs. "I’ve got a lot of plans, how much time do you have?”
“As I grow older, and I understand more about the world, or don’t understand anything of the world anymore, art for the beauty of art doesn’t move me anymore. When I look at art I want it to be a piece of protest. Not necessarily giving the answers, but asking the right questions. I feel that my heart goes to this kind of writing, art and performances.
Keith Haring, for example, is one of the most famous people in protest art because when he was making art there were lots of people dying from aids in America, but the government refused to talk about it, to hand out condoms and to talk about how you could get it. They refused to educate people. 
Keith Haring started with his graffiti to educate people on the streets and that for me is the most amazing thing. That for me is art, that’s what art does, that’s what art needs to do in my opinion. I’m always thinking about how to get that message across.”

What was your favourite wedding ceremony?

Fleur Pierets (left) and Julian Bloom (right) at their wedding in New York
“Oh…they were all so…weird!
I think I loved New York best. We wanted to get married in New York first because the Dutch and Belgian mentality is like, 'Be normal. Don’t do crazy things. Don’t be too loud. Be modest'.
When we started talking to people about this project in Belgium and Holland, they were like, 'Oh, really? It’s not going to work though, right?'
We actually needed to start in a country where there was so much energy; when we went to New York and we told people there, they were like, 'Oh my god, this is crazy, this is amazing!' It empowered us so much that we wanted to make it the first city in which we got married.”
Then we had Amsterdam which was very special for Julian because, from a very early age, she knew that she was a lesbian, but at that time, same sex marriage wasn’t legal in the Netherlands. So she knew that she wouldn’t have what other people had because she fell in love with girls. It was nice that that idea that she’d had over time, as a girl, changed as she grew up, and she was able to get married."
"She knew that she wouldn’t have what other people had because she fell in love with girls"
To finish, I ask Fleur if there’s anything else she’d like in the article. Humbly, she suggests that it would be nice if there was something about the book and the translation and, unbelievably, thanks me for my time, as I’m left utterly in awe of this unstoppable force of a woman, an artist, and mostly importantly, an activist.
The book cover of Julian, by Fleur Pierets
Julian, by Fleur Pierets (and translated by Elisabeth Khan) is published by 3TimesRebel Press
Banner credit: Femke Van Hettema 
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