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A Look Inside Portugal’s Most Inclusive Spa

All gender identities are welcome to let their desires flow in this mixed sauna in Portugal.

Never segregate; always aggregate.

This has always been the motto of Kiki Pais de Sousa, 56, a Portuguese transgender woman who founded the first mixed LGBTQ+ and hetero-friendly sauna spa in Europe in 2011. Apolo 56 in Lisbon brings together all sexual orientations and gender identities in a place where everyone is welcome to explore their most secret desires while remaining respectful of others. Kiki envisioned an inclusive sauna model in which 60% of the audience is Portuguese, and the remainder are foreigners from all over the world.

“Previously, women and transsexuals were barred from entering the city’s saunas,” explains Kiki. “Now, we welcome everyone, whether transsexuals, gays, lesbians, or swingers.”

Guests share various themed environments in the space, like an amusement park exclusively for adults. In the water circuit: saunas, Turkish baths, a pool with a jacuzzi, and communal showers relax and break an initial shyness. Meanwhile, in the area considered more liberal, there are private cabins with TVs showing adult movies, cages, mazes, slings, erotic cinema, and other sensual environments, besides a snack bar and lounge. Although it is not required, the customer may wear a bracelet with each color representing a sexual preference or orientation. This makes approaching people easier.

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Kiki Pais de Sousa

The Portuguese businesswoman emphasizes the importance of adhering to the establishment’s rules for everyone to enjoy the house without fear of discrimination or harassment. Aside from that, the sauna hosts theme parties and private events such as birthdays, bachelor parties, swinger parties, and so on. The dim lighting ensures the privacy and intimacy of those seeking pleasure and fun with two or more people. The more daring can walk around naked in the expansive sauna, while the more reserved can wear a towel or even a bathing suit. There is no official dress code, but sex is prohibited in the pool or sauna for hygiene reasons. Due to the spa’s diverse clientele, some clients wear a mask provided by the libertine establishment to conceal their identity and thus feel more at ease. A place where no taboos exist and where pleasure is accepted.

Pride and Courage as Weapons Against Prejudice

Kiki explains the business’ success is based on inclusion. “Our proposal is simply to provide a space and services for people of all sexual orientations,” she says.

Much more than a place for adult entertainment, her inclusion of all orientations and gender identities in the same space is also a way for her to reduce discrimination, which she herself has faced.

“I’ve already experienced discrimination, but it doesn’t bother me; I’m very proud of the difficult process I went through. The looks, comments, and situations do not affect me,” Kiki explains.

Photos: Kiki Pais de Sousa

Kiki’s childhood was marked by constant bullying at school. However, when Portugal’s gender identity law was approved in 2011, she took an important step. It was the start of her gender transition. Years later, the desire to bring all people together in a single space stemmed from a desire to promote inclusion with respect and equality. The Portuguese entrepreneur simply desired to provide a relaxed, prejudice-free, and liberal environment where everyone could feel comfortable expressing their feelings. With her increased visibility over the years, she has received invitations to participate in educational campaigns to combat discrimination in the country, particularly in the family context.

“[A] person can bear the stares of society, but it’s very difficult when it comes from those closest to them, from the family,” she says.

She was also the first transgender woman to speak out on Portuguese television, where haters attacked her on social media.

In a country with a strong religious tradition and a population of slightly more than 10 million people, 80.2% of whom identify as Catholic, Kiki was audacious. Although the Portuguese LGBTQ+ community has made strides in recent years, there are still obstacles to overcome. According to a study by the association Ação pela Identidade (API), more than half of the transgender people who sought the country’s National Health Service (NHS) experienced discrimination. Among the reported incidents was a health professional’s refusal to assist a trans patient.

Kiki agrees that there is still much to be done and suggests solutions to reduce intolerance in social interactions.

“There have been legislative advances not accompanied by general mentality,” says Kiki. “Trans people continue to face discrimination, and many are vulnerable, making them more exposed to hate crimes, harassment, and violence. You have to be very strong to endure that.”

According to her, the Portuguese government should invest in education and training for teachers, police officers, health professionals, and businesses to better communicate with them. From another perspective, the hetero-friendly and LGBTQ+ mixed sauna is also a place of acceptance and integration. An original and ambitious proposal that represents an evolution through sexual freedom, expanding interaction spaces, and not being limited to ghettos as it was in the past. In this respect, Kiki has made significant advances.

“We have made a lot of progress,” she says. “But we still have a huge way to go; we need to invest in information to promote a change in mentalities.”