Dutch courage

Published in Diva magazine, August 2005

Chris Crain surely couldn’t have imagined, when he was booking his holiday to Amsterdam, that his presence in the Netherlands would have a profound and lasting effect on Dutch politics.

He never envisaged what would happen on the night of April 30th. It should have been a happy end to a great day out. It was Koninginnedag, the celebration of ex-Queen Juliana’s birthday, which transforms the Dutch capital into one big street party. The central Leidesestraat was still busy with revellers in the early hours of Saturday morning when Crain – all six-foot-seven of him – and his boyfriend started walking back to their hotel. Not far from one of the city’s small gay areas, they were holding hands.

They walked past two young men, one of whom spat on them, and called them ‘fucking fags’. Relating his story to the Dutch police later, Crain remarked that his attackers had ‘Moroccan features’ and spoke with accents that didn’t sound Dutch. The two aggressors – yet to be caught -were joined by five others, and a scuffle broke out in which Crain ended up bruised and broken-nosed.

What his assailants didn’t realise was that Chris Crain is chief editor of US gay weekly The Washington Blade. Following the attack, his highly publicised account on the magazine’s website has sparked off something of an identity crisis for the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular. In the two months since the incident, Dutch natives have been asking themselves: can Amsterdam still legitimately consider itself the gay capital of Europe? Reports across all media have shown that the events of April 30th weren’t a one-off, and that a growing number of lesbians and gay men don’t feel as safe on the streets as they once did.

A survey conducted by the national LGBT campaigning organisation the COC claims that a third of the city’s queer population feel unsafe walking hand in hand with their partners. The city’s mayor, Job Cohen, recently revealed that there are around 20 cases of homophobic violence reported every year. Twenty cases may sound minimal, but for those who regard the country’s famous liberalism as a benchmark of Dutch society it’s a shock: anti-gay feeling in Holland was something that was unthinkable. The changing tide of tolerance – which has always been about putting up with difference rather than embracing it – also shows in the city council’s drive to clean up its red-light district. Part of this move includes the battle to close down those gay men’s backrooms which fall outside a very narrow area of the town centre – which most of them currently do. No conclusion has been reached yet, and the war of words goes on, with Councillor Anne-Lize van der Stoel most vocally in favour of the shutdown. Surprisingly, she’s a lesbian.

But the fact that Crain described his assailants as Moroccan-looking has added another dimension to the debate. The Netherlands’ Moroccan immigrant population has been in the news since the outspoken film maker and author Theo van Gogh was murdered, allegedly by a Dutch-born man of Moroccan origin with extremist Islamic links. Van Gogh critics argue that he was anti-gay, and became a victim of his own Islamomphobia; he reportedly called Dutch Muslims ‘goat-fuckers’. Since that moment in November last year, heated discussions about what: means to be Dutch and the place of immigrants — particularly Muslims — in Dutch society have been raging, and now the focus has turned to lesbian and gay identity. Many Dutch people blame Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, whether first, second or third generation, for stoking up anti-gay hatred. In 2001, Khalil Al-Moumni, an imam in Rotterdam, described homosexuality as an illness, and on national TV compared gay men to dogs. But other people feel that the whole debate is a vicious circle: immigrant people are disenfranchised by Dutch racism, and retaliate by taking out the frustration on gay people – who perhaps symbolise ‘Dutchness’ or Amsterdam – and so it goes on. The role of the Christian Democrat-led coalition government, whose policies are based in part on biblical teachings, shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Anne Klijsters, a lesbian in her mid-20s, think they should shoulder a lot of the responsibility: ‘People in government at the moment are anti-gay. That’s a big problem. They’re afraid of making policies to protect gays. The country’s really going backwards.’

Klijsters’ view is reflected by many lesbians and gay men in the capital, who speak nostalgically about the past gay glory days. ‘It’s strange: eight years ago, people could hold hands on the street and show affection. Now, they’re discriminated against,’ says architect Jan-Peter de Vries.

Nostalgia for the good old days of gay liberation is so strong that Puck Verdoes, a well-known face on Amsterdam’s scene, recently organised something the city hasn’t seen for many years: an LGBT demo. Staged to coincide with the first IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) on May 17th, the kissing and hand-holding protest took place just a couple of hundred metres from where Chris Crain was viciously attacked. Several hundred people showed their solidarity – waving placards that read, ‘Gays are Cool!’, ‘I’m a little bit of everything’ and ‘Transsexual Menace’ – an impressive turnout for an event that was organised in less than a week. Another notable, large presence in the crowd was the media. All the major TV and radio stations attended and the demonstration was the lead story on every news programme that night, proof that the media, at least, is taking the problem of homophobia very seriously.

If anything good has come from the attack on an innocent man, it’s that it has galvanised the LGBT community. On June 9th, the police, COC and Amsterdam City Council announced that they would be working together to combat homophobia. And, just two days before that, a new Dutch-based, international gay rights website, http://www.onemilliongays.nl, was launched with the aim ‘to stand up to protect and preserve gay rights within the ever-growing European Union’.

With the Netherlands taking action to curb its burgeoning homophobia, it seems the Queen isn’t going lose her crown just yet.


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