The Netherlands

Gert Hekma


The Netherlands is a relatively small country of about 35.000 square kilometers that is located between Germany, Belgium, and the North Sea. Being a delta, the country is flat with many waterways, lakes, and polders. With close to 17 million inhabitants it is the most densely populated country of Europe.

The Dutch Republic was the first European republic of modern times. Its foundation is generally considered to have been in 1581 during the 80 year Protestant insurgence against Catholic Spain (1568-1648). The 17th century was the country’s Golden Age when it was the leading economic power in the world and when the arts were blossoming with painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Between 1795 and 1806, it was named the Batave Republic, which found its inspiration in the French Revolution. In 1806, it became a kingdom, and between 1810 and 1813, Napoleon incorporated the kingdom in his French Empire. In the period between 1795 and 1813, many institutions of the modern state were introduced in The Netherlands, for example a centralized democracy with voting rights for tax-paying men, new penal and civil laws, obligatory education, standardization of valuta and introduction of the metric system. With the French penal, code the crime of sodomy disappeared in 1811 from the law books while no new criminal laws specifically condemned homosexual practices. Only public indecencies remained punishable, while no age of sexual consent was mentioned in the law. In 1813, The Netherlands became an independent kingdom, being merged in the period 1815-1830 with Belgium. After a century with no special laws regarding homosexuality, article 248bis, introduced in 1911, punished homosexual relations between minors under 21 with adults above that age. Since 1886, the age of consent for all sexual practices had been set at 16 years. The new article of 1911 was abolished in 1971. Some 5,000 persons (99% men; 1% women) were prosecuted under this article. Between 1940 and 1945, the Germans occupied The Netherlands and introduced the German law against unnatural intercourse, which meant that all male homosexual practices became forbidden. This law was rarely used, most often against minors who were—under the Dutch law—victims and could be seen under the German law as perpetrators. The law was abolished after the occupation. The Netherlands were in 1957 one of the six founders of the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union—meaning a growing amount of legislation and regulation is now coming from Brussels.

Since 1971, the major legal changes were the right to serve in the army for gays and lesbians (in 1973) and an Equal Rights Law (in 1993) that regarded women, ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians. In 1997, a registered partnership was introduced for same-sex and heterosexual couples that could not (homosexuals) or did not want to (heterosexuals) marry, and in 2001 marriage was opened for couples of the same sex.

The main political parties in The Netherlands are the Christian Democrats (CDA), the conservative liberals (VVD), the social democrats (PvdA), the progressive liberals (D’66), the Green Left (GL), and the Socialist Party (SP). Especially D’66 and GL have taken up the cause of homosexual rights, while the other parties have shown meandering politics, with the CDA being most negative and the SP most uninterested in homosexual politics. While in the past the more liberal and progressive parties supported the gay and lesbian movement, nowadays the right wing has taken its cause, partly because of its Islamophobia. Gay issues have proven to be a good stick to beat Muslims.

The religious composition of The Netherlands has changed enormously over the last 50 years. While the large majority of the Dutch was Protestant or Catholic until the sexual revolution, since then the number of non-believers has grown to about 50% of the population with only 20% being regular visitors of religious services. Some 27% are Catholic and another 16% Calvinist, a quarter of these Protestants belonging to orthodox denominations. About 5% are Muslim, mainly belonging to the 10% of recent immigrants and their offspring. Although there is still opposition against LGBT rights coming from (orthodox) Protestant and Catholic groups, the fiercest opposition stems from Muslims, both in terms of the rhetoric of imams and of the queer-bashing by young men. The main ethnic minorities (from large to small) are Surinamese, Moroccan, Turkish, Antillian, and Chinese, while there is a broad range of refugees from different places (Balkan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and many other countries).

The Dutch have a flourishing and modern economy. The country belongs to the ten richest nations in terms of per capita income (national income $38,500 per capita). The nation is member of NATO, and the army participates in peacekeeping missions of the UN elsewhere in the world. The military is open for gays, lesbians and transgender persons and has an active policy to combat discrimination against them. This policy is not always successful. Homophobia in the army is covert and still insidious rather than direct and violent.

Overview of LGBT Issues

The Netherlands was the second country to have a homosexual rights movement, the Dutch chapter of the German Scientific-humanitarian Committee (NWHK). It was founded in 1912 after the introduction of article 248bis of the Penal Code. Although some gay-friendly doctors and gay novelists were members of the NWHK, it was mainly a one-person organization of the lawyer, squire Jacob Anton Schorer. The main goals were abolition of article 248bis and greater visibility for homosexuals. Schorer’s lobbying remained largely unsuccessful and he stopped his activities with the German occupation, knowing the Nazi attitudes regarding homosexuals. His important library was seized and has never been recovered.

Just before the occupation in 1940, a small group of homosexuals started a monthly Levensrecht (the right to live), which was revived after the war. They began in 1946 what is now the oldest gay and lesbian movement of the world, first named the Shakespeare club and later COC (Center for Recreation and Culture). Its leaders, especially the chair Bob Angelo (pseudonym of Nico Engelschman), not only lobbied with politicians, religious leaders, psychiatrists, and police-officers but they also published a journal Vriendschap (Friendship), organized lectures, meetings, and parties and later owned their own dancing club that would be the largest gay institution of the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s. Their prudent policy worked, and in the sixties both Catholics (among them a bishop and a leading psychiatrist) and orthodox protestants began to support homosexuals, accepting—in their language—the sinners while not yet embracing their sins. Homosexuality that was defined as a sin, a crime, and a disease was no longer any of these, and starting in the 1970s, it was rather considered a sexual orientation of a minority.

The sixties meant a breakthrough for (homo)sexual rights because the majority of the population changed its mind between 1965 and 1975. Instead of rejecting homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, pre- and extramarital sex, contraception, and divorce, it accepted those sexual practices. Homosexuality came from being an unmentionable sin to something that was visible and could be discussed in polite society. Once article 248bis was abolished and gays and lesbians were allowed into the army, the main issues became sex education, gay and lesbian visibility, and individual and relational rights in the fields of housing, labor, insurance, inheritances, adoption, and asylum. From the late 1970s on, an Equal Rights Law was a main theme of contestation, in particular with Christian schools that opposed the possibility that they could be forced to hire homosexual teachers. The conclusion was that all schools had to accept homosexual teachers as long as they endorsed the school’s philosophy. With the emergence of the AIDS-epidemic, issues of health care, prevention, and research became pivotal. Although the health authorities wanted to close down gay sex places like dark rooms and saunas, the gay movement successfully resisted such demands.

Since halfway through the 1980s, national and local governments started to give grants for gay and lesbian emancipation activities. Most money went to the Schorer Foundation that specializes in psychological support for LGBT people and became active in prevention and care activities (such as the buddy system) related to AIDS. The gay and lesbian movement received smaller grants for their activities, for example for renting offices, festivals, educational activities, and so on. In recent years, most subsidies go to initiatives for the elderly, questioning youngsters, and ethnic minorities. The government has a part-time civil servant who is responsible for its homosexual politics. Many cities created “diversity” offices that are responsible for “minority” groups like nonwhites, women, LGBT persons, and the handicapped.

When in 2001 marriage was opened for same-sex couples, many people both gay and straight thought this was the pinnacle of gay and lesbian emancipation, the struggle had ended, and the LGBT movement could close its doors. But it soon became clear that legal equality did not mean social equality. The Netherlands had remained a heteronormative society where the straight norm continued to marginalize LGBT lives.


In the latest Dutch survey of 2006, 4% of the men and 2.6% of the women state they are homosexual, and some 3% of both claim to be bisexual. Eighteen percent of women feel attraction to and 12% had sex with females, while 13% of the men say they feel attraction to males, and a similar amount confess to have had homosexual encounters (. What they do sexually has not been studied. From another survey, it seems as if the number of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals is growing from the oldest (65+) to the youngest generation (18-24) from 1.6% to 6.3% of the population, while the percentage of those who refused to indicate their sexual preference went down from 3.7 to 0.9%. Even if all those would be closeted gays, there is still substantial growth in two generations \. Comparing the surveys of 1991 and 2006 there are seven times more women who indicate a lesbian preference. It remains unclear whether this steep growth indicates a rising number of lesbians or of women who are open about their lesbian preference. Further, the latest survey indicates gay men have generally more partners than hetero- and bisexuals or lesbians. They also have a bit more sex, masturbate more and are substantially more active on the Internet than heterosexuals. Little can be said on “kinky” variations except that 7% of all Dutch engage in s/m behaviour and 10% has such desires, while 10% of the men and 4% of the women get aroused by fetishes. For various reasons, the visibility of gay sexual variations is higher than those of heterosexuals and lesbians. The gay world has a subculture with leather and rubber shops and bars, s/m, skinhead and sport sex parties that are largely not in existence for straights and lesbians. The impression is further that Dutch gay men focus less on anal sex than their North American counterparts and have a broader sexual repertoire.

Male prostitution is legal in The Netherlands as are other forms of prostitution with the provision that only EU-citizens can officially work in the business and they have to be over 18 years. Most bigger cities have some male street prostitution, usually in and around railway stations in the past and now mainly in parks. There were a half-dozen bordellos since the 1980s in the country, but in Amsterdam only one is surviving now. Most of the bars that catered to male prostitutes and their clients are closed. The main reason is the growing number of prostitutes working as escorts and using the Internet to find clients. The web is safe and anonymous, thus protecting hustlers from acquaintances who they would prefer not to know about their job. On the other hand, few hotels nowadays refuse hustlers to visit clients. The escorts are expensive and professional while prostitution in parks is cheap and incidental—mainly ethnic minority youth who want to earn some pocket money. There have been various unsuccessful efforts to organize male prostitutes who have been intermittently the object of care and prevention until the late 1990s—as long as AIDS was considered to be a major health risk.


The Netherlands doesn’t have gay ghettos or vicinities. At most one can find a concentration of queer bars and discos, some shops, and gay people living in a certain district, but the concentration is always rather low and even in the gayest street, LGBT people are at most a tiny majority. Although many cities and towns have gay bars, discos, and saunas or local chapters of the COC, Amsterdam has by far the biggest gay and lesbian scene in The Netherlands. There is not a strong sense of community among gays and lesbians themselves, who always like to say they are so much more than only gay or lesbian. The problem is that major issues such as marriage, antigay violence, or public sex also divide the gay community itself. Right wing politicians who defend gay rights against Muslims are seen by left wing gays as promoting Islamophobia while doing little to counter the social problems gays and lesbians still face. Conservative gays—now probably the majority among gay men—support the right wing leaders and parties. The left wing parties who attract the votes of Muslims have become hesitant to speak in favor of sexual freedoms, afraid to loose these voters, and also because the left never had a clear cut philosophy on sexual issues. In the present day media-democracy they rather depend on popular opinion. The old and new rifts of Dutch society, even in the gay community itself, hinder gays, lesbians, and transgender persons from feeling united.

Although the feeling of community may be low, there is a wide range of organizations. Next to the COC, the largest one De Kringen (The Circles) caters to men who come out. These are small groups that gather at someone’s home and sometimes continue meeting for decades. There is a wide range of religious groups, varying from an organization of clergymen, groups that organize Catholic, protestant and Jewish services, an LGBT group that caters to persons from orthodox-protestant backgrounds to the Foundation Yoesuf for Islam and Homosexuality. The Arab bar Habibi Ana has its own cultural events and an independent group Nafar works for the emancipation of Arab queers. One Amsterdam based Christian organization promises to heal homosexuals from their sinful life and make them happy heterosexuals. Bisexuals are organized but their activities have by and large remained marginal, invisible for both straight and gay publics. A wide variety of gay and lesbian sport clubs, for example in volleyball, tennis, athletics, self-defence, and swimming provide leisure activities, and some also participate in regular competitions and/or organize their own national and international tournaments. Nothing gay happens in soccer, the most popular Dutch sport that is particularly homophobic. Nonetheless many lesbians have joined it. Some political parties have their own gay and lesbian groups that were most active in the early 1980s and recently show new initiatives. Many professions (teachers, soldiers, police officers) and, also, big companies have their gay and lesbian groups. There is a lively kinky scene in Amsterdam mainly organized by the leather and rubber shops in town. The major kinky sex place Vagevuur (Purgatory) is, however, in Eindhoven. The Amsterdam bar scene is divided in two groups who compete for the control of the annual canal pride parade which is the main gay event of The Netherlands, always organized in the first weekend of August. The second most important event is Pink Sathurday, each year organized in another town during the last weekend of June.

In the past the gay and lesbian movement had a wide range of specialized publications. Some still do exist: COC’s Update, the lesbian ZijaanZij, the conservative Gay Krant and the gay glossies Squeeze and Winq. The low key, artsy, and semipornographic Butt is an English language publication from The Netherlands. The main media are nowadays on internet, the leading one being, busy to become the leading European site At the lesbian side the main providers are and Most of these sites provide possibilities for profiling and messaging.

Drag queens, transsexuals and transgenders

In 1959 the first bar with drag queen shows was established, Madame Arthur, after a Parisian example. It catered mainly to a straight public. Cross-dressing was at that time a popular gay pastime for special parties in the homosexual subculture. This tradition continues to this day although since the radical faggot movement of the 1970s the transformation of a man into a woman has to be less perfect in term of gender inversion, aptly summarized in the 1970s term gender-fuck or in the terms of Dolly Bellefleur, one of the leading ladies in the contemporary scene, gender transformation art.

In 1960 the first transsexual operation took place. After much medical and political debate, such operations were legalized in 1982: transsexuals could change their sex legally and the health insurance would pay for the medical costs if some medical and psychological criteria were fulfilled. Transsexuals had to perform the “real life test,” so living as a person of the other sex for one year, they should not be married at the time of the sexchange (to prevent same-sex marriages) and they should not be able to reproduce after the operation—what would open the possibility that a father could mother a child. In summary, the law upheld the gender dichotomy and the straight norm. Since the 1980s the Gender Foundation is the main institution to take care of transsexuals. Some other foundations have emerged that see to social and psychological support for transsexuals.

The first organization in the early 1970s was “Travesty and Transsexuality,” simply T&T, a subdivision of the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform (NVSH). It is functioning to this day, now also including transgender persons that came up in the 1980s. The political success of transsexuals marginalized the other groups that only have become more prominent in the last decade. The transgender persons started with a group “Het jongensuur” in 1994 (named after The boy’s hour, a famous transgender novel of Andreas Burnier from 1969) and a journal “Continuüm” in the 1996. They mainly cater to females interested in male or boyish gender roles. Since 2001, a biannual transgender film festival is organized in Amsterdam that produced a new transgender group “The Noodles.” There is a small but lively transgender community in The Netherlands that publishes a series of quality (internet) journals and newsletters. Transgender themes have also made an entry in the art world with artists, museums and galleries occasionally paying attention to gender blendings and transgressions. In art schools and gender courses the topic has become popular, but less so on streets or in families. Violence and discrimination against transsexuals and transgender people remains common in The Netherlands, with male-to-female transgender people being the main target.

The physicians of the Gender Foundation now engage in treatments for adolescents who may become transsexual and get medicaments to slow down their gender development so the sex change will be easier once the kids may decide themselves on their sex at 16 years. The Foundation is as well involved in the treatment of intersexuals in which they take a rather strict position that soon after the birth one sex needs to be determined and medically imposed on the baby.

Young queers

An important question concerns the age of sexual consent. Young people come out at always earlier ages, while their sexual majority is legally set at 16 years. Young queers have no chance to visit gay places like bars, gay organisations or gay Internet sites because of the set age limits. They are left alone until they become 16 years and remain exposed to the straight institutions of families, schools, and sport clubs where youngsters with homosexual preference face prejudice and get little chance to learn anything positive about gay life. In 2007, LGBT youth became a major news item as they had for the first time their own 16-minus boat in the gay canal parade. The LGBT movement fears that any effort to lobby for lower ages of sexual consent so young people can join the gay and lesbian community will be faced with the critique of supporting pedophile interests. Because of the outrageous demonization of pedophilia, also in The Netherlands, birthplace of the pedophile movement in the late 1950s, such a reproach is lethal. Few people from the gay and lesbian world dare to face such verbal straight terror. In name of the protection of children, sexual diversity is impeded and gay and lesbian youngsters remain exposed to straight norms until they become 16 years. But due to the success of the 16-minus boat, a lively movement of young queers Jong&Out has been started.


The Dutch LGBT movement considers visibility as its main subject of contestation. This issue is central since the 1970s. The main focus is on education. In secondary schools, sex education is obligatory and should include themes of homosexuality, but because of the large discretionary space for schools, little or no attention is being paid to gay and lesbian issues. The COC offers classes for schools on gay and lesbian themes, but only a small part of the schools makes use of this opportunity, in Amsterdam for example 20% of the secondary schools. Most education is moreover focussing on biological issues (genitals, reproduction) and the prevention of sexual misery (STD’s with a focus on AIDS, teenage pregnancies, sexual abuse) and not on the promotion of sexual pleasure or the acknowledgement of gender and sexual diversity. Topics of sexuality are in general not dealt with in disciplines such as history, citizenship, geography, or religion. The school climate)—certainly in so-called “black” schools (where kids from ethnic minorities are in the majority)—is unfavorable to the coming out of both teachers and pupils. On courtyards and sporting fields the most common slurs still are “faggot,” “homo,” and “dyke.” School administrations do in most cases little to counter this negative climate for all kinds of reasons, for example out of prudery or because they are afraid for “the reputation of the school.” The first gay/straight alliances to create solidarity across sexual boundaries only began in 2008. Although the Dutch government and cities have allocated financial support for initiatives to promote education on homosexuality, the budgets have been far too small to counter the prejudices and discriminations and were given for too short periods to be enacted.

Visibility in public

Gay men are most visible in popular TV programs and glossies but much less in newspapers or on the streets except in gay streets. In some “gay-friendly” workplaces, gays are outed as soon as they start their jobs but (as will be later explained) being openly gay goes under the condition that they should behave “normal” —in the sense of gender and sexual performance. It means gay males have to act in normative masculine and straight ways so as to be invisible. Lesbians are again much less visible than gay men in both media and public life. They are made invisible, but also keep themselves by and large invisible. In the absence of a lively street and bar culture, most lesbians dress in ways to fit into mainstream culture. Although visibility is a major issue for the LGBT movement, it is far from being realized, even in the lives of by far most LGBT people themselves. “Screaming queens” are rare birds even in Amsterdam where blue jeans remain for 40 years the pinnacle of fashion. Since the extension of the kinky scene from leather to rubber and skinhead and sport clothing, even kinky apparel has become less visible in Amsterdam’s streets. Both gay and straight often say to oppose queer “provocation,” another way to indicate homosexual visibility is unwanted. One could reformulate the public visibility of queers in the following way: because straight people, in particular young men, are nowadays much more aware of homosexuality, gays have made themselves less conspicuous to prevent unpleasant situations or insults. Surveys show that although 95% of the Dutch state themselves as gay-tolerant, 43% still object to two men kissing in the streets, and only 8% have objections to a straight couple doing the same. Dutch gays wonder how many of the 57% non-objectors may change their minds when they see two kissing boys in real life instead of a survey. So it remains streetwise not to make homosexuality too visible.

Politics and Law

The Netherlands has an Equal Rights Law since 1993, but different from women, ethnic, and religious minorities, gays, and lesbians have used this road to complain about discrimination very little. The same is true for lodging complaints to the police about slurs and hate crimes. The Dutch gays and lesbians were for a long time too closeted or too complacent to denounce queer bashers or persons who insulted them. Although according to some surveys, a fourth of gays and lesbians are confronted with forms of abuse that merit official attention, the number of complaints being filed with the police is utterly minor: in a city like Amsterdam until recently about a dozen per year. Since 2007, the police actively request the LGBT community to lodge complaints about antigay abuse and insults, while it promised to be more aware of such cases and to register them specifically as anti-gay violence. The same is true for the Equal Rights Law. There have been few gay or lesbian cases because the concerned persons appear to be too closeted or complacent, in terms of “that is the way [gay] life is.” To say it in a different way: they have internalized the straight norm and have not learned to stand up for themselves in homosexual issues.

Labor legislation

Laws forbid discrimination in various fields such as the workplace, housing and services. Few cases of discrimination because of homosexual orientation have been put to court or the Equal Rights Commission (that has an advice function). As noted, there are probably few gays and lesbians eager to come forward with such cases that often will prove to be complex and unclear because discrimination often remains hidden in a cloud of injurious jokes or subtle forms of opposition. The last case of straightforward labor discrimination dates back to 1982 when the Royal House rejected a gay social worker. Many gays and lesbians also report that they remain silent on their job, and when they have problems after coming out, they see it as their personal struggle to get accepted with their fellow workers and bosses.

Although some types of work are still largely straight and “masculine” (in construction, the army, higher levels of management, male professional sports), the typically gay and lesbian jobs have become less so. There are now many straight male ballet dancers, comedians, and hairdressers in Holland. Nonetheless, some professions in the service sector continue to attract disproportional numbers of gays and lesbians, for example police officers for women or stewards and waiters for men. There has, however, never been a representative survey of workplace and sexual orientation, so these data depend on hearsay of insiders. Most trade unions and workers deny the importance of questions of sexual orientation in labor relations.


Although the AIDS-epidemic is not over, it has come to be considered as not that important an issue. Since AIDS has changed from a mortal into a chronic disease since 1996, the attention for the epidemic has diminished and the focus is now on other countries, in particular in Africa. In The Netherlands itself, AIDS has remained largely a gay disease, affecting them in the beginning at levels close to 100%, while since 2000 the about 200 new cases annually are equally divided between homo- and heterosexual. The Schorer Foundation, begun in 1967 to serve gays and lesbians with specifically homo-psychological problems, has become in the 1980s the main institution to provide care and support for AIDS patients and prevention for the gay community. Since the emergence of the epidemic, there was cooperation between the government, health authorities, and the gay movement. Although there were some points of controversy, the epidemic was in general handled well. Two points of debate have been whether condoms should be provided widely—the Dutch believed safe sex would be no anal sex, with or without condoms—and whether the gay sex places should be closed—something the health authorities very much lobbied for. On the last issue it was decided not to do so, because bedrooms with no third parties present could be more dangerous than a sauna or dark room, and also because the sex places were the best locations to provide information on AIDS, safe sex, and health care.

The main point of controversy remains “barebacking” (engaging in unprotected anal sex). Also in The Netherlands, a group “poz and proud” has emerged within the HIV-society (a client organization) that suggests HIV-positive gay men can engage in unsafe sex among themselves. This organization received full media attention in 2007 after a scandal in which three gay men had not only infected each other, but also raped other gay men and injected them with their infected blood in an apparent crazed effort to enlarge the group of HIV-positive people with whom to have unsafe sex. One of the amazing things in this scandal was the health authorities knew of these unsafe encounters already for more than a year, warning the local gay community in Groningen, while the raped and infected gay men were so closeted or afraid of the consequences of coming forward, that none of the 15 victims that finally went to the police, had the courage or felt the responsibility to indict the perpetrators immediately. This case shows the limits of openness for homosexuality in The Netherlands. When it comes to the provision of medical and social support for AIDS patients, the situation has, in general, been positive since the late 1980s.


The issue of anti-gay violence was first a theme of police violence against specifically gay men who were cruising in parks or around urinals while queer bashing was mainly a topic of fights of gay men among each other or with straight lovers. This latter kind of violence continues to this day in the world of male prostitution where it remains common that hustlers murder their clients. Research on the 1980s indicates that alone in Amsterdam two gay men each year were murdered by young men for whom prostitution often was an irregular trade. At that time the topic of queer bashing came on the political agenda. There have never been reliable statistics on the number of such incidents as neither the police nor the gay movement keeps track of them. There have been some cases where gay men were murdered on cruising places, while less violent incidents have been reported from the streets where gay bars are concentrated. In 2007 a transgender was murdered in the streets of The Hague. Gay men or lesbian women holding hands outside gay districts also face violence. Another form of threats concerns gay men, transgenders and lesbians in their homes who face insults and agressions of neighbors and sometimes move to other districts. The number of cases reported to the Amsterdam police was 15 for 2006 and 24 for the first 8 months of 2007. The police itself supposes that the dark number is 96%; meaning the real number of anti-gay incidents will be 25 times higher.

With the gay canal parade of 2007, four gay tourists who visited Amsterdam were beaten up by local youth. The media reported extensively about these and earlier incidents. The Amsterdam City Council, police and justice showed great indignation and promised stricter measures of control and prevention. This violence was seen as an attack not only on the queers, but also on the reputation of Amsterdam as a tolerant and gay-friendly city. The authorities promised more education on homosexuality, more preventive measures in black schools’ and ethnic minority families, whose male sons are seen as being more prone to this kind of violence than white young men, to keep a stricter record on such cases while asking gays and lesbians to report more often experiences of discrimination. This violence is however not restricted to the city of Amsterdam and not only ethnic minority male youth are involved in it, but also ethnic majority young males. A major background seems to be that young straight men feel threatened by gay men in their masculinity and heterosexuality—another example of the continuing lack of social acceptance of homosexuality in Dutch society.


In The Netherlands, one is not allowed to speak of gay marriage because marriage is the same for gay and straight. During the sexual revolution, gays and even more so lesbians were opposed to the marital institution because it was sexist and homophobic. Also, doctors had advised them till that time to enter a heterosexual marriage to get rid of homosexual desires. The first psychiatrists who took a positive stance on homosexuality rather advised against marriage because it would not heal homosexuals of their sexual preferences, and would make moreover the partners and children in such marriages unhappy. The COC propagated for a long time individualization instead of a focus on couple relations in some kind of marriage – that accumulation of special rights in such diverse fields as housing, sexuality, education of children, insurances, legacies and dozens of others. The LGBT movement was rather in favor of splitting up the diverse functions of marriage instead of this piling up of straight privileges. Since the late 1980’s, conservative gay men started to lobby for gay marriage. It was partly because gay men had learned from AIDS that couples needed rights, and lesbian couples wanted to secure parenthood rights for children born either in their own lesbian or in previous heterosexual relations. Seen the success of the lobby for same-sex marriage in politics and the media, the gay and lesbian movement followed suit and also embraced the struggle for marriage. The government realized in 1997 “registered partnerships” for homo- and heterosexual, a kind of second-rate marriage that mainly organized rights and rules for couples, while marriage had broader functions, in particular in relation to third parties. This halfway solution was repaired in 2001 when marriage was opened up for same-sex couples, The Netherlands being the first country to do so. From a legal sense, most differences between gay and straight had been lifted by this legal inclusion. There were three exceptions where homo- and heterosexual couples were still unequally treated. First, the biological fiction – meaning that the legislator assumes the husband is the biological father of the child born in wedlock – was not extended to gay and lesbian couples, so they always had to deal with a third person, the “biological” father or mother of the child, instead of altogether giving up the idea of the “biological fiction” which often indeed is a fiction. The second difference is that gay and lesbian couples could not adopt children from countries that were opposed to such adoptions. A reparation of this inequality is now under way. The third exception is that the king or queen can not be married with a person of the same sex, a prostration for the royal house (that a year later sent out a press release in cooperation with the prime minister saying that the second son of the queen was not gay, and suffered from persistent rumors that he was so; indicating how anti-gay attitudes are deeply ingrained in Dutch society because why should a prince care about being called gay?).

The number of marriages of same-sex couples has been quite low: close to 10.000 couples have been married by the beginning of 2007. There are no reliable data on the number of homosexuals, but with a percentage of 4% of the population there would be about 500.000 adult gays and lesbians meaning some 4% of those are now married. Because it is advantegous to be married in terms of income and inheritance taxes or for legalizing a non-Dutch partner, an important part of the married same-sex couples may have engaged in it for financial or legal benefits and without any attachment to marital ideals. So it can be said that although the idea that one should belong to a couple is strong, the eagerness for marrying is weak among Dutch gays and lesbians, not too different from a large part of the straight population that neither shows great eagerness to marry. In general, the gays and lesbians who married, often report their families and friends supported, sometimes even promoted their marriage. Although still some 20% of the population is unfavorable to same-sex marriages, it is not any longer a big issue in Dutch society or politics. The major political issue resulting from it has been the exemption to register marriages of same-sex couples allowed to civil servants who have problems of conscience to consecrate them. This exemption is felt by the LGBT movement and the liberal parties a continuation of discrimination of homosexuals because there exists no other such exemption. If civil servants would refuse to marry couples of different religion or ethnicity, the Dutch would never support such special rights. This shows how exceptional and discriminatory this exemption is. The new center/right government of CDA, PvdA and a small orthodox calvinist party (the PvdA is puritanical on sexual issues) allows this exception.

In the past, the image of gay men was typically of a single intensely pursuing sexual possibilities while lesbians were often seen either as lower-class and violent drunkards or as unhappy wives trapped in marriage. Nowadays these views are changing with all the successful gay men and lesbian women who often live in quite normal couples, lesbians in growing numbers with children. Concrete data on gay and lesbian lives are regrettably missing. So the factual situation is unknown. That gay and lesbian lives are not yet completely normal is evident from mental health surveys that indicate a higher prevalence of psychological problems among gays and lesbians and of suicide among homo-youngsters.

Public sex

There is a set of socio-political issues that is not generally shared among gays and lesbians. In the first place gay public cruising. Over the last 25 years, the Dutch police has made some efforts to protect gay cruising area’s against queer bashers. At the same time, the general population became more and more opposed against these sexual practices. While in the past the argument was that those poor married and closeted gay men had no other place to go to, with the greater acceptance of gay men many people see no need to endorse public sex. They oppose what they consider to be offensive and sleazy. Although most cruising places are hidden, and mainly used after dark, the idea of gay men having sex in the bushes or on a urinal offers sufficient ground for gay and straight people to feel offended. Because of such opposition some gay cruising places in urban parks or along highways have been closed down for gay use. Defending such gay public cruising places has become more controversial, and the few politicians who did so, faced fierce criticism and ugly insults. A general argument has become that now gays can marry and enjoy themselves in bars and disco’s, there is no longer any need to have cruising places—some journalists even argued neither dark rooms or sauna’s. The press turns more often against such use of public places, while denying that straights also use public space for sexual pastimes—they do but often less concentrated than gay men because they form the majority and can use sexually unmarked places for their pleasures. The general “heterosexualization” of Dutch society leads to a growing opposition against and revulsion of gay cruising.

Homosexuality and society

Doing normal

The long-time exposure to straight norms has led to a growing sentiment also among gays and lesbians they have to behave “normal”, meaning they have to perform in gender-normative and non-sexual ways (. The most common reproach against gays and lesbians is their non-normative behavior. Gay men are seen as sissies—unmasculine men who talk too much about sex while lesbians are looked down upon as butches—too masculine for a woman. The negative prejudices internalized by gay men and lesbian women produce personal misery, psychological problems and rejection of so-called extravagant or extreme behavior by both straight and gay. The norm has become that gay men should behave in masculine and lesbians in feminine ways. This norm leads to revulsion among gays against faggots and sissies and among lesbians against butches. The queer turn in The Netherlands is not a fierce critique of gender and sexual standards, but of people who diverge from such norms. Sexual and gender norms that mutually reinforce one another, have led to a heterosexualization and a strict division of gender roles in Dutch society, also in gay and lesbian life. Most straight people may continue to see gay men as sissies and lesbian women as butches, the younger gay generation does everything to prove their behavior is “normal” – meaning conformist in sexual and gender performance and reproducing the problems they themselves have faced as young queers.


The main protestant denomination, “The Protestant Churches of the Netherlands,” allows gay and lesbian ministers, and they celebrate same-sex marriage, although local churches have some free space to manoeuvre. The Catholic Church was in the 1960s open on homosexuality, started to accept the homosexual person, and had an institutional “Open Door” that catered to homosexuals with personal problems. The main Catholic psychiatrist asked for acceptance of homosexuals, including gay couples. It was a time that the Catholic Church, especially in The Netherlands, was more engaged with social issues. It was the progressive wind of the Second Vatican Council that allowed some space to the clergy, but within ten years the tables turned and the Dutch province was again under the reign of conservative bishops who kept to the strict morality of the church. One of the results was a massive dropout of Catholics. Since then, bishops have expressed their negative views of homosexuality on several occasions, for example a bishop declaring that it is a neurosis or the archbishop declaring that Catholics shouldn’t rent rooms to homosexuals. The other religions go from very progressive (Remonstrants, Mennonites) to very conservative as orthodox Protestants and Jews. Most of the Muslim imams agree that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, while some were more vehement denouncing the tolerance for gays and lesbians and saying, for example, that Europeans were worse than dogs and pigs because they allow gay marriage.

The influence of religions is large in The Netherlands as the social system was traditionally based (and remains so) on a division of the major institutions according to religion, going from schools, hospitals, and political parties to media, sport clubs, and even economic activity. Although this “pillarization” is losing ground since the sixties, there are still important ramifications, for example half of the schools remain “religious” versus another half being “public.” The system continues to be used by orthodox Protestants and is revived by Muslims. This pillarization and the freedom to decide on the contents of education by schools continue to impede sexual openness in the educational system. It affected the coalitional political system because only in the period 1994-2002 were no Christian parties in government, but all others since the First World War included Christians who used their influence to promote religious values that were most often detrimental to sexual freedom.


Most media have been supportive of the gay and lesbian movement since the 1970s as long as the demands and targets belonged to the realm of the “normal,” such as for the Dutch same-sex marriage or entry into the army. They pay rather little attention to gay issues; thus, was the first celebration of marriages of same-sex couples no major news in The Netherlands, and in front of the Amsterdam City Hall the number of the curious that wanted to see the celebration was no more than some dozens. Since the Right has become interested in gay issues, the media again pay more attention to them. Movies and documentaries rarely depict gay or lesbian topics. On the other hand, many major comedians are gay men and national celebrities: the late Jos Brink, André van Duin, and Paul de Leeuw. They are open about being gay and their shows often make the most of the gay-straight difference for a straight public. The problem of media representations remains, as elsewhere, that the gap between the media and every-day life remains enormous. A gay comedian on television is something very different from the gay guy next door. What is fun at a distance, becomes a problem close by. There are more examples of gays and lesbians out of the closet: fashion designers, politicians, musicians, and novelists but few sportsmen, soldiers, or businessmen.

Outlook for 21st century

Although The Netherlands has seen the legal changes that have made homo- and heterosexual citizens nearly completely equal, the country needs still the social changes to implement this equality seen the heteronormative character of most of its institutions. Moreover an effort is needed to counter antihomosexual prejudices that often remain under the surface but sometimes are very visible—such as the hate crimes and insults directed at LGBT people or the utter lack of gay education in schools. The main theme seems to be, however, the broader sexual emancipation of the Dutch. Not different from other Western societies, the perspective on sexuality in The Netherlands remains one-sided, which impedes the citizenship rights of different groups, in particular LGBT people. Sexuality is seen as natural, which hinders the development of sexual cultures. It is seen as something more typical for men than for women, so it remains not only homophobic but also sexist. The belief is that sex and love should belong together, apart from being unrealistic, leads to unwarranted criticism of those who like sex but not per se in loving relations. The view is that sex is a private affair that not only leads to discriminatory legislation on public “indecencies,” but also to an absence of perceptive political debates on sex and of sensible sex education because such necessary public goods are relegated to the private realm. Sex is seen as an identity, and this hinders a more open and free-floating sex culture where people are able to experiment beyond identities. The French utopian socialist Charles Fourier suggested two centuries ago the idea of rallying or plural love as a way to go beyond the egoism of the couple and create social cohesion in society, but the present day insistence on identities is even impeding lovers to find common ground because it is rather sexual curiosity than identity that creates bridges between citizens.

Resource Guide

Suggested Readings

Bartels, Thijs, & Jos Versteegen (eds) (2005) Homo-Encyclopedie van Nederland, Amsterdam: Anthos .

Duyvendak, Jan Willem (1996) “The Depoliticization of the Dutch Identity, or Why Dutch Gays Aren’t Queer,” in: Steven Seidman (ed), Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge MA/Oxford, pp. 421-438.

Duyvendak, Jan Willem (2001) “Identity Politics in France and the Netherlands: The Case of Gay and Lesbian Liberation,” in: Mark Blasius (ed), Sexual Identities – Queer Politics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 56-72.

Hekma, Gert (2004) Homoseksualiteit in Nederland van 1730 tot de moder­ne tijd. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.

Hekma, Gert (2005) “How Libertine is the Netherlands? Exploring Contemporary Dutch Sexual Cultures,” in: Elizabeth Bernstein, and Laurie Schaffner (eds.), Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity. New York; Routledge, pp. 209-224.

Hekma, Gert (2006) “The Demise of Gay and Lesbian Radicalism in the Netherlands,” in: Melinda Chateauvert (ed.), New Social Movements and Sexuality. Sofia: Bilitis Resource Center, pp. 134-145.

Keuzenkamp, Saskia, David Bos, Jan Willem Duyvendak, and Gert Hekma (eds.) (2006) Gewoon doen. Acceptatie van homoseksualiteit in Nederland. Den Haag: SCP, 2006.

Keuzenkamp, Saskia, and David Bos (2007), Out in The Netherlands. Acceptance of homosexuality in the Netherlands, The Hague: SCP, 2007 (summary of the former).

Koenders, Pieter (1996) Tussen Christelijk Réveil en seksuele revolutie. Bestrijding van zedeloosheid met de nadruk op repressie van homoseksualiteit. Amsterdam: IISG.

Oosterhuis, Harry (1992) Homoseksualiteit in katholiek Nederland. Een sociale geschiedenis 1900-1970. Amsterdam: SUA.

Schuyf, Judith (1994) Een stilzwijgende samenzwering. Lesbische vrouwen in Nederland, 1920-1970, Amsterdam: IISG.

Schuyf, Judith, and André Krouwel (1999) “The Dutch Lesbian and Gay Movement. The Politics of Accommodation,” in: Barry D. Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak & André Krouwel (eds.), The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 158-183.

Seidman, Steven (1997) Difference Troubles. Queering social theory and sexual politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch. 12.

Tielman, Rob A.P. (1982) Homoseksualiteit in Nederland. Studie van een emancipatiebeweging. Meppel: Boom.

Van Naerssen, Alex X. (ed.) (1987) Gay life in Dutch society, New York : Harrington Press.


Piet Henneman & Jan Lemstra, In dit teken …. (45 min.) 1949. Documentary on the COC, its views and activities. Not available on dvd.

George Sluizer, Two Women (113 min.) 1979, based on a novel by Harry Mulisch. Two women fall in love but one runs off with the ex-husband of the other.

Paul Verhoeven, Spetters (105 min.) 1980, movie on three young guys one of whom discovers he is gay after being raped. Controversial at the time it came out.

Paul Verhoeven, The Fourth Man (105 min.) 1983, based on a novel of Dutch leading gay novelist Gerard Reve. A gay writer engages in a sexual relation with an adorer (f).

Roeland Kerbosch, For a lost soldier (93 min.) 1992, based on a novel by Rudi van Dantzig on the love between a Canadian soldier and a Dutch adolescent just after the liberation of Holland from the German occupation (1945).

Pieter Kramer, Yes nurse! No Nurse! (102 min.) 2002, most campy Dutch movie based on a 1960s television comedy series.

The Flemish novelist and film critic Eric de Kuyper made while living in Holland four experimental movies with strong queer undertones Casta Diva (1983), Naughty Boys (1983), A strange love affair (1984) and Pink Ulysses (1990).


COC, the national LGBT organization This site offers news and relevant information on the COC and has links to most other Dutch websites of professional, religious, political, sport, health, youngster groups, for gay and lesbian parents and community events.

Rozenstraat 8

1016 NX Amsterdam

tel: *31-20-623 45 96

fax *31-20-626 77 95

Internationaal Homo/Lesbisch Informatiecentrum en Archief (IHLIA). The major LGBT archive and library of the Netherlands.

Openbare Biblioteek Amsterdam (OBA) (6th Floor)

Oosterdokskade 143

1011 DL Amsterdam

Tel: *31-20-5230837

Email: homodok@ihlia.nlWebsite:

IIAV. The International Information Centre and Archives for the Women’s Movement that carries material on the lesbian movement and other women’s sex organizations.

Obiplein 4

1094 RB Amsterdam

Tel: *31-20 665 0820

Fax: *31-20 665 5812


Website:, national website of transgenders with links to other clubs and newsletters., the national organization of bisexuals., organization and bar for Arabic, Turkish and other ethnic minority LGBT’s., organization of young North-Africans with LGBT feelings., Foundation for LGBT muslims.