Gay Men and Lesbians in the Netherlands

Gert Hekma

Since the 1970s the Netherlands can be regarded as one of the most liberal countries with regard to sexual politics. It transformed from a country that was strongly religious and conservative in sexual morals to one that is highly secular and liberal in affairs of sexual morality. Around 1970, the Dutch changed from positions that rejected divorce, pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, contraception, teenage sexuality to more liberal views on all these topics. The change of climate was followed by a change in laws. Divorce was made easier, pornography and prostitution were decriminalized and contraception was made generally available. The criminal law, containing different ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sex (21 versus 16 years), was changed in 1971; both were set at 16.

Amsterdam has known a vibrant gay culture since the 1950s and its Red Light District has become a major tourist attraction. In 1973, gays and lesbians were allowed to serve in the army. Marriage was opened for same-sex couples in 2001, the Netherlands being the first country to do so. Why exactly these changes took place in the Netherlands during the sixties and seventies is not entirely clear, but they have had a tremendous impact. The legal liberal sexual culture of the Dutch is partly a result of a political culture that is based on the idea of the separation of state and church. Sexual affairs are viewed as the private business of Dutch citizens and should not be regulated by the state. The Dutch inherited this secular model of political culture from the French.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s had a powerful impact on the Netherlands, more so than in other countries. In part, this relates to broader changes that occurred in the Netherlands, an increased social and spatial mobility, individualism, democratization, secularisation, feminism, the rise of national media and a youth and student culture. The two religious groups that had been most in favor of a strict sexual morality, the Catholics and the orthodox Reformed Calvinists, were influenced by psychiatrists and social workers to reconsider their sexual beliefs and values. In the course of the sixties, these religious orthodox groups relaxed their ideas of sexual morality.

The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement

In 1969, psychiatrist Wijnand Sengers declared that homosexuality was not a pathological problem, but that homosexuals nevertheless could have psychological problems just like heterosexuals. His research concluded that he could not find one convincing case of a homosexual whose sexual orientation had been changed to heterosexual. It would be better to help homosexuals to adapt to their preferences and social situation, which included referring them to gay organizations. He was not the first to declare that homosexuality was not a disease, but this time his profession accepted this position. He set out to help homosexuals.

At the same time, priests and clergymen set out to tell the public that the homosexual should be accepted. There was still a discussion whether homosexuals should live a chaste life, but the general feeling among clergy was that they should be accepted. In 1971, the parliament decided to get rid of the only existing criminal law targeting homosexuals. Until the sixties homosexuality was generally considered to be a sin, crime, and disease and now, within 10 years, it was none of these things. This was a radical change.

These changes led to discussions in the gay and lesbian movement about their social and political goals. Generally, the movement favored the aim of social integration and acceptance. However, the Federation of Student Working Groups on Homosexuality and later the lesbian groups, Purple September and Lesbian Nation, and the male group Red Faggots, criticized integration as the chief goal of the movement. These more radical groups advocated that society be changed allowing for greater visibility and acceptance of sexual and gender variation. The issue of whether gays and lesbians should seek assimilation or social change remains a point of debate to this day. The heterosexual population may have embraced gays and lesbians in their roles as sons and daughters, and as comedians on television but, radicals argue, isn’t Holland still overwhelmingly heterosexual?

Actually, a homosexual movement in Holland began as early as 1946, but it really took off in the sixties. Initially, the major organization was the Culture and Recreation Center, which, in 1964, became Dutch Society for Homophiles COC and in 1971 Dutch Society for Integration of Homosexuality COC. It became a serious cultural and political force that attracted general attention. In 1967, the Schorer Foundation was established to provide psychological care for homosexuals. Before the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the movement had already succeeded in becoming a part of society and the government. Gay and lesbian groups were established in political parties, trade unions, universities, the army and the police, medical care, and the churches. And, with the AIDS crisis, and its rippling effects throughout society, the government, medical authorities and representatives of the gay movement met and set up a committee that would prepare medical care, prevention activities and counseling. Gays and lesbians were becoming part of the government. Soon, the first openly gay politicians were elected and the agenda of gay rights was now on the agenda of the state.

Since the early eighties, the annual gay parade has moved from Amsterdam to other towns, following the logic that such a demonstration of gay and lesbian visibility was more important for people in the provinces. When it was held in 1982 in Amersfoort, centrally located on the Dutch Bible Belt, local youth attacked gays and lesbians and unprecedented violence broke out. It created uproar in Dutch media and politics and led to the enactment of gay and lesbian anti-discrimination policies on a local and national level. An Equal Rights Law (1993) extended equal legal, social security, housing, pension, legacy, and asylum rights to gays and lesbians. Instead of persecuting gay men on their public cruising area’s, the police began to protect them against homophobes.

In many respects, AIDS proved a turning point. Cooperation between the gay and lesbian movement and local and national authorities took place. This cooperation followed the Dutch model of bringing representatives of “minority” groups or communities into the government with the aim of eliminating discrimination or establishing tolerance and equality. The system worked generally well, but erased dissenting voices. Nonetheless, openly gay men and lesbians were represented in various political bodies. Eleven of the 150 Dutch MP’s (member of parliament) in 2000 were openly gay or lesbian.

The pinnacle of gay and lesbian emancipatie was the opening of marriage for same-sex couples. The first marriages of gays and lesbians were celebrated in Amsterdam on April 1, 2001. A large majority of the population now supports gay marriage, and even the Christian-democratic party, which initially opposed the law, now accepts it and has even an openly gay married man as MP. However, few gay and lesbian couples got married (less than 10% of an estimated total of 100.000 couples). Seen the various relational options, marriage has lost popularity among all Dutch.

Sexual Attitudes Now

The ethnic Dutch are highly ambivalent about the gains of the sexual revolution. They are citizens of the country that most profited from it, but often people complain that “we have gone too far” or “perhaps we should return to the morality of the fifties when Holland was a safe and pleasant country”. Gay cruising areas have become controversial and as the public demands its closure, some city governments comply. Most Dutch have the feeling gay emancipation is no longer needed, as gays have all the legal rights straights have. At the same time, the legal changes may have been reached, it does not mean the social climate has followed suit. To the contrary, the Dutch culture has notwithstanding all sexual progress remained heteronormative while homophobia has far from disappeared. The most common insult for men remains ‘flikker’ (faggot).

The growing population of muslims is generally seen as a threat to (contested) sexual freedoms as many of them have the same outlook on sexual politics as orthodox Christians. They resist public visibility of both homosexuality and prostitution. Especially young Moroccan men are often accused of insulting and beating up gay men and not respecting their rights. Gay men have become highly critical of muslims and the political right wing has joined them in attacking muslims for being backward, sexist and homophobic. Right-wing leader and notoriously gay Pim Portuyn was the first to do so. The left, including many gays and lesbians, has become insecure by the alliance of right wing, gay pride and islamophobia. Muslims and (even gay) supporters of muslims have started to attack gay men of being islamophobes and sexual abusers of muslims boys. The situation regarding sexual politics, ethnic minorities and gay emancipation has become highly confused. This political confusion leads to sexual stagnation.

The reputation of Amsterdam as a gay or sex capital is in decline. The Amsterdam Labour leader has proposed to close down the Red Light District, and his proposal received a positive response from various sides. Tourist Information Boards are reluctant to provide relevant information about the sex locations although half of the visitors to Amsterdam come for the Red Light District or gay venues. Notwithstanding all positive changes that have occurred in the field of moral politics, the Dutch continue to feel unease and ambivalence when it comes to the day-to-day concerns of sexuality. The Netherlands may provide the most positive example of gay liberation, this result is not ingrained or sufficiently secured.


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