The Netherlands is a democratic kingdom of 16.000.000 people located between Germany, Belgium and England. It became an independent republic in 1581 and a kingdom in 1806. The seventeenth century was its "golden age" when the Dutch Republic was a major international force creating a worldwide web of economic and political relations. Its power declined in the eighteenth century but it would remain a colonial empire until the independence of Indonesia after the Second World War. The Netherlands is a founding member of the European Union.
Some people consider the Netherlands the most tolerant society with regard to homosexuality. If this would be true, it indicates the sorry state of sexual rights in the contemporary world. Dutch society still faces major problems when it comes to homosexual or transgender issues, so its presumed tolerance must be said not to be deeply rooted. This image of sexual tolerance parallels the idea of the Netherlands as an open society for ethnic and religious diversity. This is another half truth that most Dutch certainly like to nurse. With regard to LGTB issues, the historical and contemporary picture shows something different.
Engaging in sodomy was a capital crime in the Dutch Republic since the Middle Ages till 1811. There have been rather few cases of sodomy before 1730, and most of these concerned anal sex between males. Straight sodomy and bestiality were not so often prosecuted. Women who had married while one of them presumed she was a male, could be charged for attempt to commit the crime of sodomy when sexual relations were implied, or for fraud. Since 1730, there was a steep increase in the number of persecutions for unnatural intercourse. Several hundreds of men were accused of male-male sodomy and about 200 were executed in the eighteenth century. After the Dutch had created their replica of the French Revolution and established the "Batave Republic", also some women, or tribades in the language of those times, were persecuted for the attempt to commit the crime of sodomy and went to prison. Following the French example did not mean the Bataves abolished the crime of sodomy. In 1806, Holland became a kingdom with Napoleon's brother on the throne, while the French emperor incorporated the country in 1810. That put in 1811 in Holland an end to the sodomy-laws that had been abolished in France in 1791. After Napoleon's defeat in 1813, there was ample discussion to bring back the sodomy-articles, but it never happened.
The Dutch have the privilige that already in 1777 an anonymous person wrote a tract that was completely devoted to the theme of the abolition of sodomy-laws "Considerations on punishing a certain infamous crime". As with his enlightened colleagues in France, this standpoint did not mean he supported same-sexual practices. It was better to prevent beforehand than punish in hindsight such asocial behavior. Promote straight marriage, support co-education of boys and girls, and such vices will disappear. This Abraham Perrenot even received an answer of another citizen who endorsed the criminalization of sodomy. These were hectic years that saw a defamation of onanism and other sexual vices, but at the other hand enlightened authors celebrated friendship and revered Socrates and Plato notwithstanding their homoerotic loves. They became engaged in what has been called "The Socratic Battle" whose main subject was whether Socrates was an infamous pederast or a celestial friend. Both parties were clear in their rejection of sodomy and their support of warm friendship, but they did not clear up the space in-between. They did not answer the question how much intimacy was allowed, or what parts of the body could be touched. Same-sex lust was still a sin not to be mentioned, and this silence will have both prevented and encouraged homosexual practices.
In a perceptive book on same-sexual interests among women, Myriam Everard differentiated three major ways to be engaged in them. In the first place, the Dutch Republic knew a tradition of female friendships that were very intimate but probably chaste. Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken exemplify this tradition. In the second place, other women passed or dressed as men and sometimes even married other women, as we saw above. Next to this transgender tradition of amazones, some lower class women like the tribades enjoyed having sex with men and women. They were often involved in petty criminality and prostitution as well. But none of these groups identified as sappists or lesbians. The main theme of those times was the bridling of desire, not the object of desire. All forms of sexual license, with one self or a person of either sex or another species, but also with food or drinks had to be restrained.
Thanks to Napoleon and the French, the new Kingdom of the Netherlands enjoyed a liberal nineteenth century with regard to the legal situation of same-sexual behavior. Homosexual activity was only punished as public indecency, or, since 1886, if it involved minors under the age of 16. This liberalism did not mean much as sodomy remained an abjection. The silence with regard to "wrong loves" may have allowed some people to act rather freely on such desires as the criminal archives show, but the insult of being a pederast certainly destroyed one's reputation.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Netherlands witnessed an era of sexual uncertainty and frankness. The liberal climate made it possible, at one hand, to publish the first homo-erotic novels, medical books on homosexuality and male porn, while at the other hand the Christian parties who got the majority in parliament around 1900, were intent to create stricter sex laws. They succeeded in 1911 when laws against abortion, prostitution, pornography and same-sexual acts with minors under 21 years passed parliament. After two decades when more books on same-sex themes were published than in all centuries before, the Christians did not really succeed in restraining the flood of erotic material. The sex laws also produced protests and public debates on (homo)sexuality, while the Netherlands saw in 1912 the foundation of the second gay movement of the world, a Dutch chapter of Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific Humanitarian Committee (NWHK) that became independent at the beginning of the First World War.
The leader of this movement was Squire J.A. Schorer who had lived some time in Berlin. Other fellows were the physicians Arnold Aletrino and Lucien von Römer who both had published extensively on homosexuality, defending the position of Hirschfeld and others that it was an innate sexual preference. All of them had worked with Hirschfeld in Berlin. Their main disagreement was whether homosexuality was ethically allowed in a loving relationship which Von Römer endorsed and Aletrino rejected. The NWHK had two other members, M.J.J. Exler and J.H. François, authors of homosexual novels. Although the NWHK consisted of five persons, Schorer was by far the most active person. Aletrino and Von Römer stopped writing on homosexuality in 1908, and only François showed some activity for the NWHK in its 28 years of existence. Schorer wrote irregularly annual reports and letters to the press, acted as a gay match-maker and collected an important library that the Germans slept off to a still unknown destination shortly after their occupation of the Netherlands in 1940.
The law against sex with minors was not the only threat for gay men. Loss of job, house and reputation were other dangers they had to prevent by being quiet. The naturalization of homosexuality in emancipatory disourses had as its corollary pathologization by physicians who started to castrate "sex criminals" in the 1930s and continued to do so until the 1960s. Article 248bis was however the main expression of society's anti-homosexuality. From 1911 to 1971 5000 persons were persecuted under this law, 99% of them men. Other measures against homosexuality, for example local regulations introduced in the 1930s that forbade men to stand longer than 5 minutes in public toilets, also targeted gays. Laws on public indecency victimized gays probably even more than 248bis. Lesbians had first to face restrictions as women, for example about going out in public, visiting bars or in their clothing. Only when they neglected or transgressed such rules, they could act upon lesbian desires. Once so far, they were treated as whores.
The Red Light Districts of the bigger cities were the natural place where gays and lesbians could meet each other and their objects of desire. The police strictly controlled bars in these districts not only for heterosexual intimacies, but as soon as they discovered too many typical gay men or lesbians in these venues, they lost their license. Of course, the police faced problems in identifying faggots and dykes, but they knew the signs of gender-inversion that pointed to homosexual desires. Gay men were still sissies who looked in these locations for "real" men like sailors and construction workers while the dykes preferred "femmes" to be found among the prostitutes. Theories of homosexuality as gender inversion hold that sexual desire could only ignite between opposite poles, namely "nicht" (sissy) and "tule" (trade) and butch and femme. Only after the 1950s the idea gained ground that gay men and lesbians could love and have sex among themselves.
The Second World War made little difference for gays and lesbians. The NWHK stopped working as well as a new gay journal "Levensrecht" (Right to Live) that had started just two months before the German occupation. But queer bars opened and closed and Dutch police and justice prosecuted gay men, all just like before and after the war. The major change was the introduction of the German anti-gay paragraph in The Netherlands that forbade same-sexual intimaces between men of all ages. It was the irony of history that the Dutch legal authorities who had introduced 248bis to prevent the seduction of minors, now used the German paragraph mainly to prosecute those "victims" between 16 and 21 years who were not deemed worthy of protection. While there were some gay and lesbian heroes of the Dutch resistence against the nazi's, there were also collaborators. A complicated case was a lower-class Jewish lesbian who was forced to help the police, did so a bit too eagerly and was sentenced to death after the War for her betrayal, the only woman to face execution. More important war criminals were reprieved by the authorities.
The monthly Levensrecht picked up after the war where it had started in 1940. It developed in 1946 into the major postwar Dutch homosexual movement, the COC (Center for Culture and Recreation). Its leaders faced a tough job as the climate was very anti-homosexual in those days, the number of prosecutions for 248bis reaching its highest level in the 1950s. But the same decade also saw the first breeches in the prejudicial practices when some doctors and clergymen changed their mind. Instead of comparing homosexuality with dunge and prostitution as they did in the early 1950s, they discovered the human and loving side of gays and lesbians. One psychiatrist who had railed in the 1940s against sexual abuse of boys and promiscuity, discovered seduction played no role in becoming homosexual while many gay men preferred stable relations above anonymous sex. In the words of another pro-gay psychiatrist in 1969, homosexuals were simply the same as straight people.
These supportive clergymen and doctors made the sexual revolution more promising in Holland than elsewhere. Because they convinced their fellows including Catholics and Calvinists that homosexuality was not a major problem, most Dutch supported the legal tenets of the sexual revolution, not only decriminalization of homosexuality but also of adultery, abortion, prostitution and pornography. It made the Netherlands from a backward into probably the most progressive country in sexual issues.
This change matched a change in gay and lesbian identities that went from gender inverted to gender conforming while the object of desire changed from straight people into other homosexual people. Gay men started to see themselves as masculine, especially in the upcoming leather world of the 1950s while the lesbian began to identify as feminine. They were not any different from other men and women, except in the bedroom. And there, they desired another gay or lesbian person, not any longer straight sailors or femmes. The relational model changed from the way relations were organized in the world of prostitution and began to look like heterosexual marriages. No wonder that some people started to champion the idea of gay marriage. Not so the COC that wanted to promote individual, not marital rights for its constituency.
The gay scene exploded foremost in Amsterdam since 1955. Disco's, hotels, sauna's, the first leather bar made the city into the European gay capital. Since the 1960s, gays and lesbians started to come out of the closet into streets and media. The gay movement radicalized and was highly successfull in the struggle against anti-homosexual discrimination. Article 248bis was abolished in 1971, gays and lesbian were allowed into the army in 1973, psychiatrists stopped seeing homosexuality as a disease. The first exclusively lesbian bar Tabu opened in 1970 in Amsterdam and the first radical lesbian group "Purple September" started in 1972. The recent possibility of transsexual operations was legally recognized and could be paid for from medical aid in 1978. From the late 1970s on, gay and lesbian groups popped up outside the COC in political parties, labour unions, universities, health organizations, the police and the army. A new newspaper, the Gay Krant, became the mouthpiece of "normal" gay men.
The annual gay and lesbian parade that was held in The Netherlands since 1977, faced in Amersfoort, the center of the Dutch Bible Belt, in 1982 violence by queer bashers. Although the damage was limited, it created a major outpour of support for gay and lesbian emancipation. The government decided to back it with regulations and some insubstantial financial support. The police stopped harassing gay men in their cruising area's and instead began to protect them. It was the right moment for a change in social attitudes regarding homosexuality as it was the year that Aids arrived in the Dutch gay community. Thanks to a strong gay infrastructure and the support of both government and health authorities, it was possible to contain the epidemic. A remarkable number of gay men changed their sexual behaviour. Although Aids still became a personal and social disaster, the number of victims remained low in The Netherlands compared to other European countries. Aids strengthened gay and lesbian health institutions and made it possible to discuss (homo)sexuality in concrete terms in media and schools.
In the 1990s, the gay world further diversified. The street culture of public toilets moved from the inner city to parks and highway stops outside the city. The gay world proliferated and saw the emergence of various fetishes, leather parties and transgender communities. Ethnic minorities strongly contributed to queer diversity. All important parties had by now representatives who were openly gay or lesbian. In 1993, an Equal Rights Law was enacted that included homosexuality. In 1998, gay and lesbian relations got legal acknowledgement while marriage was opened for gay and lesbian couples in 2001 and included the right of adoption.
The disappearance of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians made most Dutch think the struggle for homosexual emancipation was over and the COC could close its doors. The last queer movements had disappeared already in the 1980s and never seen a resurgence. But the end of legal discrimination did not mean social discrimination had disappeared. Orthodox Christian and Muslim leaders, representing a minority of about 10% of the population, have denounced homosexuals while the most common insult on schoolyards remains "flikker" (faggot). A growing puritanism not only affects the world of sex work and public eroticism, but also gay and lesbian culture. Nowadays there are fewer teachers and students who dare to come out in schools than a decade ago. As so often, lesbians are even less visible than gay men who have a more lively public culture, produce more journals and get more positive and negative media attention. The successes of the past have led to a silencing of sexual diversity in the present and a denial of discrimination. The public culture has remained heterosexual and not only most straights, but also many gays and lesbians like it that way. The media may have become very sexualized and gayified, but such a homosexualization of everyday life is not to be expected in a near future.
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