The deployment of gay and lesbian studies in the Netherlands

Gert Hekma, Ph. D. University of Amsterdam

Since 1978, initiatives have been taken to start gay and lesbian studies (homostudies) in the Netherlands, first at the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht. The aim of the project was to change scholarly attitudes towards homosexuality and homosexuals, and to change the place homosexuality had in the university-courses. Until the seventies, the only places where homosexuality was mentioned in Dutch classrooms, were seminars in psychiatry and psychology where it was discussed mostly in terms of disease and abnormality. It was not a topic in social sciences, history or literature. In courses on Proust, to give an example, no mention was made of homosexuality, notwithstanding the importance of it in his works and his life. The history or the sociology of sexuality had no place in these faculties because sexuality in general (not only homosexuality) was considered to be a topic of clinical sciences like psychiatry, biology and psychology with no relevance for historical or sociological research. Sexology was considered to be a clinical science, and the relevant journals in the field, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, and Journal of Homosexuality, were definitely clinical journals, oriented towards biology and psychology. This situation has changed dramatically in the last decade. The clinical perspective on sex has become a target of criticisms and next to the clinical perspective, historical and sociological perspectives on sexuality have been developed while the research in these fields, especially in history, is booming. The Journal of Homosexuality is changing its policies and orients itself now more on history and social sciences; and next to the mentioned journals, new ones have been founded like the Journal of the History of Sexuality and Paidika. Journal of Paedophilia. This is certainly not the result of gay studies, they were part of this more general development and they had an important contribution in it.

"Homostudies" was started by gay and lesbian students and lecturers from the mentioned universities. They wanted to get space for research and education on homosexuality which was nearly absent in the Universities' curriculum. Most of the people involved had been active in the gay and lesbian movement. To give a rough idea of their backgrounds: the Utrecht-initiative was spearheadded by lecturers who had been active in or were sympathetic to the COC, the Dutch Society for Integration of Homosexuality, whereas the Amsterdam homostudies was more of a students' initiative, in which members of radical gay organisations were involved. At the end of the 70's, the policy of the COC came under attack. Its main political aim had become integration in straight society. Radical gay and lesbian groups opposed this integration because it was unclear which forms of homosexuality were to be integrated and which possibilities gay and lesbian leaders had to change straight society in a gay direction. They proposed separation to deploy a gay and lesbian culture of their own fashion, to produce the conditions for integration in future times. The result of these criticisms of the homophile policy of the COC was a blossoming of gay organisations in every field and in many different institutions, from political parties and trade unions to sporting clubs. Gay and lesbian studies was one of the first of such separately organised groups in the Netherlands. The COC joined later in this policy of stressing the specificity in stead of the sameness of gays and lesbians. These tactics of separation were not fully new in the social landscape, they were known from the black and even more so from the feminist movement.

The groups that started gay and lesbian studies, were a small band of activists and numbered in both cities perhaps five people. Rob Tielman, a former secretary-general of the COC, was pivotal in the development of the Utrecht group, while Mattias Duyves, from the radical gay group Rooie Flikkers (Red Faggots), and Jim Holmes, a leather poet, were the backbones of the Amsterdam group. Also, their specialities are worth mentioning: both Tielman and Duyves were sociologists, and Holmes was from general literature. In Amsterdam, monthly meetings were organized with lectures and discussions. Very soon, this initiative produced other initiatives, the two most important being till this day the Homodok (the Documentation Center for Gay and Lesbian studies) at Amsterdam University, and the journal Homologie, a bimonthly. In these projects, students from the social, historical and literary sciences were involved.

From the start, the participation of women was a problem although it was not so much felt as a problem - that came only later. Lesbians were (and are) very active in women's studies, so there was little need for them to join "homostudies" which more or less became a men's resource in the field of sex and gender studies. Notwithstanding this tendency, Homologie tried and succeeded also quite well in being a joint venture of gays and lesbians. The gay studies (and also the women's studies) programs tried to solve the problem of gender-blending by cooperation. This policy has however never been very succesfull. A better solution was the creation of specific lesbian posts in homostudies.

Since 1980, the homostudies groups have gotten more and more established at the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht. The political and cultural backgrounds of its members influence both programs to this day. In Amsterdam, more attention is paid to cultural and historical research and to theoretical discussions, whereas Utrecht specializes in applied research with direct relevance for the homosexual movement and the government. In Utrecht, more researchers are involved in homostudies, mostly thanks to governmental grants, as in the case of AIDS-research. In Amsterdam, more researchers work inside and outside homostudies as research-assistants. Nowadays, approximately 15 researchers work in Utrecht and six in Amsterdam. Also, other universities such as the Catholic Universities of Nijmegen and Tilburg have started "homostudies"-projects. Similar endeavours at the Free University in Amsterdam, Leyden and Groningen State University and the Erasmus-University of Rotterdam have not been successful. A total of 25 researchers currently work in "homostudies".

In the Netherlands, the gay studies groups followed a policy very different from the strategies employed in other countries such as the United States, Germany or France. Because of the democratic tradition in Dutch universities (students and junior lecturers have also some influence in university and faculty councils) and because of the high level of gay and lesbian emancipation, the homostudies groups succeeded in getting funding for posts in their field, especially from central bureaucracies. Lecturers were appointed specifically for gay and lesbian studies in the faculties of social sciences. In strong contrast with these small successes of the Dutch groups, foreign groups relied exclusively on tenured staff who supported the gay initiatives. So, little groups were formed around the criminologist Rüdiger Lautmann in Bremen and the Germanist Wolfgang Popp in Siegen, the sociologist Michel Maffesoli in Paris, the sociologist Ken Plummer in Essex, the psychologist John DeCecco in San Francisco, the historian John Boswell at Yale, the Germanist Jim Steakley at Wisconsin, the philosopher Teresa De Lauretis at Stanford and the historian Martha Vicinus at Michigan, the last two allied with women's studies. The problems with this dependency on individual professors are clear: when the tenured staff leaves, gay and lesbian studies come to an end. Also, in the United States tension exists between tenured professors safe in their positions at faculties, and gay and lesbian community-based research which sets more political than scholarly standards. But in the Dutch model, there are also problems. Homostudies is nowhere anything more than frills, a marginal interest of the universities, a show-piece of good intentions. It thanks its existence to a fashionable interest in gay and lesbian emancipation, which has little to do with the scholarly results of gay and lesbian studies. Moreover, sex-related research is nowhere and never very prestigious, so the support for it is only limited. Finally, the acute conflict in homostudies between the aims of emancipation and of scholarly work has had too often a negative influence on the quality of the product, and so on the scholarly reputation of gay studies.

The results of homostudies can be appreciated in several ways. They are best characterized as pacifying the relations between homosexuals and society. On the one hand, its institutionalization is a social move towards the homosexual movement. On the other hand, gay researchers help to inform the public about homosexuality. A general anticipation exists in Dutch society for the outcome of the research. Not only the scholarly press, but also the general press (dailies, weeklies, radio, television) pays attention to their work, and, moreover, the researchers themselves are contributing articles to the mass-media. The government makes use of the advice stemming from the applied research. Whereas homosexuality was considered something rather abnormal a decade ago, many prejudices have now disappeared. Homostudies have certainly helped to pacify these social attitudes. At the same time, they are bringing the discussion to another level and thus also creating new conflicts and solutions (medicalisation Swaab). Thanks to gay research, more attention is paid nowadays to the (homo)sexual angle in social and historical sciences. Homostudies gets slowly incorporated in 'normal' sciences, which is visible in books of essays and scholarly journals. Its research is cited elsewhere. This means not only a broadening of the fields of interests, but to a certain extent also a changing of the tone and character of research and education. Because homosexuality is not a marginal aspect of social relations, the results of homostudies are neither marginal. When "homostudies" for example discuss homosociality and masculinity, many important social institutions are involved, from sports to politics (homosociality refers to gender-specific, so male-male and female-female relations without regarding the sexual contents of the relation).

The broadening of the field of homostudies in Amsterdam to genderstudies, more specifically to these homosocial arrangements, was an attempt to anchor homostudies more firmly in the university. By broadening our domain, it should become easier to link up with other interests and specialities. This led however to considerable controversy between the groups of Amsterdam and Utrecht, and also, but more concealed, between gay and women's studies in Amsterdam. The aim of the Amsterdam group was explicitly to move beyond a discourse of emancipation (which does not exclude a discourse of emancipation). This move was a result of Foucault's thesis on the making of the modern homosexual, which influenced strongly the Amsterdam-research on the "uitdoktering van de homoseksueel" (the medical creation of the homosexual). If the homosexual was a historical creation, whose beginnings had to be situated in the 19th century, then this identity-type would also have its endings. To get hold in historical and sociological analysis of this "uitdoktering", a broader conceptualisation was needed. The choice fell on "homosocial arrangements" as a cover for both our interest in sexuality and gender. This move meant an explicit localization of emancipation movements, be it gay or women's. It was very much a scholarly move, contrary to a sensible political strategy to establish homostudies, or for that matter, women's studies. It led logically to a broader definition of the field of research as sex and gender studies. But such an endeavour needs scholarly support, especially as it goes beyond the fashionable interest in homosexual emancipation of the bureaucracies at the university. Scholarly interests are in general beyond universitary politics. The conflicts between the different groups go back to this problem. Hesitations about the university strategies, and also fear to disappear again in male and straight dominated research and education, impede the development of a broader shield as sex and gender for gay and women's studies. Moreover, many people criticized the concept of 'homosocial arrangement' as favoring reactionary male-chauvinism. Many of the considered male groups in the military, in the economy and in sports indeed take such positions, but this says little about the research or the researcher. As always personal and political divides shaped this controversy.

The effort to integrate homostudies into the universities was and is in fact an impossible task. Homostudies was started for a simple reason: there was no attention paid to homosexuals and homosexuality, or it was the wrong attention. Only a domain of research and education was defined. There was little fundamental discussion of its raison d'être. But how could we relate to social or other sciences which themselves do not (and neither are able to have) definitions or foundations for their domains? The development of the sciences has no strict logic, but depends on rather accidental interests and breakthroughs. So the strategy to deploy homostudies has to be effected on a practical and political level. There are two major problems for such a practical strategy. First, the unflexible and conservative attitude of the university which blocks renewal of research and education. In my faculty, they praise themselves already for a decade and a half because of their stimulation of women's studies. Second, in social and historical sciences little attention is given to topics of relevance for homostudies, be it sex and gender, the body or sports. Such themes are interesting for gay studies, because they give it a wider horizon and because of their importance in terms of explanation or analysis. But these difficulties to get homostudies started are also a source of knowledge and inspiration in themselves.

The deployment of homostudies has a clear structure. Thanks to a change in societal relations, homosexual emancipation got a strong foothold in politics and elsewhere. This process was duplicated by a growing interest of gays for scholarly research, and of the universities for research on homosexuality. Especially in the Netherlands and the United States such research became a possibility. It has a strong political motivation which gives the debates on gay studies a certain severity, as in the discussion on constructionism. But whereas in the research on homosexuality explicit political stances are taken and have to be taken, because homostudies is a new endeavour, such stances also exist certainly in other research where they are however rarely made explicit. A difference between normal and special science is not politization, but motivation and explicitness about politics. Science develops by starting new endeavours, and gay and lesbian studies are such an enterprise. It is for very practical (and not very philosophical) reasons that such renewals are thrusted upon the universities. Nowadays it exists, it gets supportive and critical acclaim, but it has to move beyond its own domain to verify if its insights have indeed a wider relevance for research and education. For sex and gender studies, for the sociology of the body - that will be the task in the second decade of "homostudies".

Gert Hekma