6 August 2018

‘What we really should be doing is promoting attention to acceptance all year round’

Acceptance of homosexuality in the Netherlands: then and now

The building where the Stonewall riots took place. These riots came to be the symbol for the gay liberation movement in the United States. Picture: iStock@mizoula

Last week, all of Amsterdam was given over to Gay Pride: for an entire week, extra attention for the acceptance of homosexuality and LGBTI+ rights was asked and given, capped off by the world-famous Amsterdam Pride Parade. This parade and the subsequent festival are a celebration of LGBTI+ rights. But what is the current state of acceptance of homosexuality and LGBTI+ rights in the Netherlands? Four questions for John de Wit, Professor of Social and Behavioural Sciences and an expert in the study of homosexuality and social sciences.

The Netherlands has a reputation as a leader when it comes to the acceptance of homosexuality. Rightly so?

We like to think of the Netherlands as a tolerant country, including where homosexuality is concerned. But to what extent does a specifically Dutch tolerance exist, or a Dutch leadership role in acceptance, for that matter? I've become more sceptical in this regard over the years. The abolishment of homosexuality – more specifically sodomy – as a punishable offence originated in the French era at the start of the 19th century, while the societal emancipation that has been unfolding since the late 19th century has been driven by developments in Germany. There is no doubt that Amsterdam was an international (homosexual) tourist attraction, especially for gay men, in the last decades of the 20th century. This country also has a long tradition of gay-rights organisations, the heir to these being today's COC (Dutch organisation advocating for LGBTQI+ rights). Furthermore, the Netherlands was the first nation in the world to allow civil marriages between same-sex couples.

In terms of acceptance, the Netherlands is doing well; yet this is apparently not reflected in certain aspects of our legislation.
Professor of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Internationally speaking, however, this is no longer exceptional – and according to ILGA Europe's Rainbow Europe project, the Netherlands is most definitely not a leader when it comes to human rights for the LGBT community in Europe. In fact, the Netherlands doesn't even crack the top ten. I can only term this shameful.

What else can you tell us about the current state of acceptance for homosexuals (and other LGBTI+ persons) in the Netherlands?​

In terms of acceptance, the Netherlands is doing well; yet this is apparently not reflected in certain aspects of our legislation. The Netherlands is performing especially poorly in the area I like to summarise as protection against homophobic statements and homophobic violence. In recent years, attention paid to promoting the acceptance of homosexuality has focused primarily on the intolerance of others, of migrants and of people with an Islamic background. Yet most people, as they become familiar with our society, tend to adjust their opinions and behaviour as well. The problem of intolerance practised among a small, fanatic group also has to do with the way people look for a sense of security in their specific identity. Which brings us back to the question of how tolerant we are, to what extent are we accepting of others despite – or by virtue of – what makes them different than what we are used to.

The past year has been a turbulent one for the Netherlands: take, for example, the two gay men who were beaten in Arnhem, or the advertising poster from Suitsupply that depicted two men kissing. So has there been a dip in the acceptance of homosexuality compared to the previous year, or an increase?​

I feel these instances should be viewed not as expressions of a short-term trend in acceptance, but as symptoms of more deeply-rooted issues. Time and again, polls show that virtually all Dutch people who participate in such surveys are accepting of homosexuality. According to these metrics, the Netherlands is a leader when it comes to the acceptance of homosexuality. While the incidents justifiably raise questions, those questions are different.

The context and the perceptions of the victims here can offer vital information and should play a major role in such cases, along with the information provided by the perpetrators

First and foremost, the assault on Jasper and Ronnie Vernes-Sewratan in Arnhem begs the question of why the public prosecutor felt this was not an instance of anti-gay violence and, more generally, what exactly constitutes homophobic violence in the Netherlands. As a social scientist, it seems to me that the context and the perceptions of the victims here can offer vital information and should play a major role in such cases, along with the information provided by the perpetrators. What I'm seeing instead is that there was little to no debate surrounding this far-reaching assertion. That is, to put it mildly, rather remarkable – and embarrassing in light of the Netherlands' low score in this area within the European context.

The Suitsupply campaign held a discomfiting mirror to our society – and what it shows isn't pretty at all.

The SuitSupply campaign raises the question of what acceptance of homosexuality actually means. There is a long tradition of superficial acceptance here in the Netherlands, in terms of both homosexuality and other social differences: it's all fine and well for you to be different, as long as I don't see it. 

The Suitsupply campagn in the Netherlands. Image: Suitsupply

But is it truly acceptance when people say that homosexuals can live their lives as they please, yet those same people then cause a stir over the romantic depiction of two men. The SuitSupply campaign held a discomfiting mirror to our society – and what it shows isn't pretty at all. Unfortunately, it's also all too easy to ascribe intolerance exclusively to young men with a different cultural background. Another important theme concerns the rights of multiple-parent families, which can be difficult to secure and which affect many heterosexuals as well. The traditional heteronormative framework is apparently still very much in force, especially where children are concerned, even if the lives of most people have long since ceased to resemble this traditional model.

 

While more and more countries are hosting their own version of Gay Pride, the Gay Pride events originated as a protest of police violence against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals in New York City. Does Gay Pride – as we know it today – still retain anything of this seminal message, or has it transcended its original purpose?

That's a question that was the subject of debate again this year in Amsterdam and other cities with a long-standing tradition of Pride events, such as Sydney with its famous Mardi Gras. The pragmatic answer from organisers is that, without the financial support of commercial parties, Pride could not exist – and they are quite right, at least regarding the type of Pride preferred by these organisations. Another aspect, which receives rather less attention, is that a more politically-minded gathering (viewed by some as the true Pride) would appeal to significantly fewer people.

What we really should be doing is promoting attention to sexual orientation, diversity and acceptance all year round, in big cities and small towns, in schools, workplaces and sport clubs, and especially behind closed doors in people's homes.

Take ‘Pink Saturday’, for instance: the Dutch response to the Stonewall incident, held every year since 1977. That event attracted thousands of visitors to Gouda this year, yet the Canal Pride parade in Amsterdam draws hundreds of thousands annually. While Amsterdam Pride has the advantage of location, of course, a celebration of freedom and diversity appeals to a wider LGBTI+ audience as well. If you ask me, there is room for all kinds of attention to diversity and acceptance and people should be able to choose the venue in which they feel at home. What we really should be doing is promoting attention to sexual orientation, diversity and acceptance all year round, in big cities and small towns, in schools, workplaces and sport clubs, and especially behind closed doors in people's homes.