Queer Emancipation in The Netherlands

When you ask people what they know about The Netherlands, there is a big chance they will name ‘very tolerant of LGBT+ people’, next to ‘it’s legal to use drugs there’, ‘blunt people’ and ‘windmills’. Of course, in reality, this tolerance doesn’t go for every letter of the LGBT+ spectrum. For example, bisexuals are often told that they are either ‘in a phase’ or ‘still making up their minds’ or just there for the enjoyment of men (‘so sexy’), and asexuals apparently just haven’t met the ‘right person’ yet. And although other, more accepted, letters of the spectrum seem to have found their place in society, they are often more ‘tolerated’ than ‘accepted’. As we could see from some of the reactions to the Suit Supply posters of two men kissing, The Netherlands still has a long way to go.

Luckily, there are many people, groups and organizations who are actively fighting  and have been fighting for positive change. Sometimes in big ways, through policy changes or activism, and sometimes in ‘smaller’ ways, by writing books with queer characters, being an openly gay politician or creating groups that provide an inclusive and safe space for queer people. And although The Netherlands is not a safe place for all LGBT+ people yet, we have come a long way. For example, in June 1979, The Netherlands was the first country in the world to provide limited rights for same-sex couples when renting a house; the Unregistered Cohabitation Law. And in April 2001, The Netherlands was the first country to allow same-sex marriage.

But how did we get here? Thinking about Dutch queer history, I realized that I didn’t know much more than that we were the first country to legalize same-sex marriage and the existence of the COC (biggest queer organization in The Netherlands). I didn’t know any big names in Dutch LGBT+ history. But being the first country that allows same-sex marriage should come from somewhere, so I decided to do some digging. What are some of the big names in Dutch queer history? Where do big LGBT+ organizations like the COC and IHLIA (LGBT+ literature archives) come from?

Queer History

First, a quick overview of some important changes in Dutch law, to get the bigger picture. In general, Dutch gay emancipation is considered to have been through three stages:

  1. 19th century until 1979 – To try to abolish the laws that made homosexuality illegal. In 1979 homosexuality is no longer considered to be illegal.
  2. 1979 – 2001 – To acquire equal rights for same-sex couples.
  3. 2001 – now – To reach social acceptance instead of tolerance.

On the 5th of June, 1991, Pauly van der Wildt and Janna van de Hoef are the first (female) couple to get (unofficially) married. In August of that same year, Gerard Kuipers and Frans Stello get (unofficially) married as the first male couple. Although they still have to wait until 2001 to be officially married, their actions lead to the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in The Netherlands. In 2002, the male couple is knighted for their leading role in gay emancipation.

Next to this, one is allowed to change ones legal gender since 1985 (without surgery since 2014) and it has been possible since the 1970’s to put “sex cannot be determined” on a birth certificate when the baby’s sex is unclear. Same-sex couples can adopt since 2001 and female couples have access to IVF since 2003. Legally, Dutch queer people seem to be in a relatively good place in The Netherlands.

Power in solidarity: The COC

One of the most obvious ways to make a change in the world, is through collective activism and through creating hope. This is exactly how the COC started. The goals of the COC have always been two-fold: to create a safe and fun space where queer people could come together to entertain themselves and to feel hopeful and to eventually better the lives of LGBT+ people through the results of activism. 

So how did the COC start? In 1912, esquire Jacob Schorer (1866-1957), initiated the Nederlandsch Wetenschappelijk Humanitair Komitee (NWHK, ‘Dutch Scientific Humanitarian Committee’), which organized events for queer people and their allies. The Dutch government didn’t have many big issues with the existence of the committee, although they were slightly concerned about the believed ‘contagiousness’ of homosexuality. However, during WOII the organization was disbanded, as Nazi Germany wasn’t very fond of LGBT+ people. Surviving the war: Levensrecht

Although the NWHK ceased to exist, the base had been made for queer people to come together and fantasize about how things could be. In 1940, Jaap van Leeuwen (1892-1978), together with Han Diekmann (1896-1989) and Niek Engelschman (1913-1988), initiated the first publication of the queer magazine Levensrecht (‘right to live’). Because the danger of being subscribed to this magazine was so great in this time of war, the names and addresses of the subscribers were destroyed. However, van Leeuwen saved the day (and the continuation of the magazine) by memorizing the names and addresses of all 190 subscribers.

In 1946, at the end of WO II, the readers and creators of the Levensrecht magazine came together and created The Shakespeare Club. Members were usually active through a pseudonym and were only members in secrecy. In 1949, due to pressure from outside, the Shakespeare Club changed their name to the one most Dutch queer people will recognize; COC: Cultuur- en Ontspannings Centrum (‘Culture and Leisure Centre’). The name change was a political one: The Shakespeare Club was getting too much attention in a time where homosexuality was put into the spotlight by the creation of the Kinsey scale and internal division of the Dutch government about homosexuality created tension. By adopting a new name and refraining from naming anything queer-related in the statutes, the newfound COC should be relatively safe.  

The tides changed with the roaring Sixties. The architect Benno Premsela (1920-1997) became the first openly gay, non-pseudonym using chairperson of the COC. He appeared on TV, in newspapers and on radio using his own name and being fully visible and thus recognizable. Since then, the COC has been an openly LGBT+ organization with various subbranches and still focussing on both creating a safe and fun space for queer individuals and on LGBT+ activism. Homosexuality was eventually legalized in 1979, partly due to this activism. Already three years before the legalization, Coos Huijssen became the first openly gay politician in The Netherlands. It truly was a time of big changes.

Power in the written word: IHLIA and queer writers

Power to change the world for the better can’t only be found in coming together and fighting for change on a policy level. It can also be found in the written word (and these days, in modern media, such as movies). Representation matters, as we have seen from the last blog written by Tiaan. But how did people find queer literature before the internet and before being queer was legal?

A group of people, mostly students of the University of Amsterdam and some volunteers, thought the same in 1978. They came together in a little room of the Baschwitz Institute, close to the University of Amsterdam, to create Homodok, short for Dokumentatiecentrum Homostudies (‘Documentation Centre Homostudies’). Their goal: to create an archive of LGBT+ related literature and information in order to make queer literature more easily accessible. Soon after they got their own, real computer, they created their own thesaurus: Homosaurus.org, where both queer people and their allies could look up LGBT+ related terms.

The Homodok initiative soon attracted more attention from people looking for and  people wanting to donate queer literature. In 1988, the Van Leeuwen Bibliotheek (‘Van Leeuwen Library’), heritage of the before mentioned Jaap van Leeuwen, became part of the Homodok. Part of the COC-library was donated as well a little later. In 1999, after a merger with the Lesbisch Archief Amsterdam (‘Lesbian Archive Amsterdam’) and the Anna Blaman House, they changed their name to IHLIA. These days, IHLIA is the biggest LGBT+ heritage organization and information provider of the Netherlands.

Historical queer writers

Some of the early authors writing about LGBT+ subjects have gone beyond the walls of IHLIA. Especially now that being queer is not as unusual anymore, but also before that. They can be considered the big queer writers of The Netherlands, for their unapologetic expression of their queerness.

One of the first queer authors was Anna Blaman (1905-1960). She wasn’t an activist, but was considered a strong example for queer people for her unapologetic stance in her sexuality (and her shameless love for motorbikes). Another early queer writer was Andreas Burnier (1931-2002), pseudonym of Catharina Irma Dessaur. Although Andreas usually identified as a lesbian, they expressed their transgender-feelings in Het Jongensuur (1969, ‘The Hour of Boys’), a book they call largely autobiographical. A third example is Gerard Reve (1923-2006), who is even considered to be one of The Big Three authors of Dutch post-war literature.

Of course, there have been many more people active in making The Netherlands into what it is today. I’ve tried to pick the people and organizations that I thought best represented LGBT+ emancipation in The Netherlands. If you have anyone to add, please let us know through email or in the comments!