Gay in 2013 means Frank Ocean, Grindr and Gay Pride. It could mean societal engagement, grassroots protests and raised fists. But in The Netherlands the gay community no longer fights against the big “isms.” Some don’t fight at all anymore. “After the 2001 legalization of gay marriage many gays thought, we’ve arrived, it’s done,” says queer organizer Vreer. Others such as Lieke disagree, “I want to be engaged in a community that treats sexuality not as a lifestyle that should be comfortable and apolitical, but a community that talks about issues, important issues that are relevant.” This is why Lieke is involved with the queer movement: a movement that combats normative ideas on gender and sexuality and oppressive structures in general. Why is the LGBT community in The Netherlands largely apolitical? And is queer the solution to the issues of the mainstream LGBT movement?
Histories of Activism
The political disengagement of the LGBT movement in Amsterdam is all the more surprising considering Amsterdam’s history of counter-cultural social justice movements. Especially important among them are the provo-movement and the squat-movement, two movements that challenged normative Dutch society in the 1960s and 70s.
You stick to your own church, school and people. You read your own newspaper, watch your own television shows and read your own paper and TV-guide. This is what life in the 1950’s under pillarization, the division of Dutch society on the basis of different philosophies, looked like. It was not until the onset of the sixties that “the Dutch stopped being dull’ (Kennedy: 11). Young people collectively questioned the authority of their parents and the strict moral norms associated with life within a certain pillar. They spoke of free love, smoked weed and listened to LP records of American rock ‘n’ roll artists. But these ‘nozems’ (bum around anti-authoritarian youngsters) were rarely politically active. This changed in the early sixties with the onset of the provo movement, whose main goal was to provoke the authorities by organizing nonviolent, playful, provocative get-togethers. The movement was founded in May 1965 by a group of artists and philosophers and found its roots in non-violent anarchism. The location of its activities was the “Spuiplein” in Amsterdam, around which the movement captured the dissatisfaction of young Amsterdammers, who they referred to as the “provoteriat.” Their main tactic consisted of confusing the authorities with actions like handing out krenten (raisins) as a reference to the krenterigheid (thriftiness) of the Dutch authorities. They also marched with blank banners after protest banners were prohibited by the mayor, handing out white flowers to police officers. Their specific repertoire of protest left the authorities confused. Powerful figures were uncertain how to deal with these non-violent tactics and the provos’ anti-authoritarian attitude. The Provo movement and its criticism of capitalism and other societal structures was at the base of the development of some of the most influential student, feminist, and political movements of the 70’s, including the LGBT-movement and its struggle for equal rights.
The Squat Movement
Another important group to influence the LGBT-movement in the Netherlands was the squatters. The Dutch word for squatting, kraken, is originally lingo of burglars and thieves, but was appropriated by the squat movement in the sixties. The first organized protest took place in 1964. While young students and other city-dwellers were desperate for housing in the city, many perfectly habitable buildings were deliberately left empty. Because Dutch law strongly protects renters, many owners thought it more profitable to leave their properties empty for a while than to take in a renter – a renter who, after all, might refuse to leave when the owner found a new purpose for the property. In 1966 the provos movement responded with the “White House Plan.” Door posts of empty houses were painted white and anyone in need of housing was encouraged to squat such an empty building. This evolved as a practical initiative from the provos movement after the Nieuwmarkt riots in 1975. From this point on, the squatters became involved in loosely organized social protests against existing power structures. The movement reached its peak in the early eighties. At a time of economic downturn, high unemployment and widespread pessimism, the squatting movements had a lot to offer. Sociologist and former squatter Eric Duivenvoorden estimates that roughly 20,000 people were involved with squatting at that time, out of a total of 35, 000 that participated over the years. While the nature of the movement varied over time, the squatting movement has always had anarchist sympathies and shied away from disciplinary structures and governmental control. It lacked clear, articulated goals because such strict organization flew in the face of their anarchist beliefs. Nonetheless, the squatting movement has always been an anti-movement—anti-establishment, anti-fascist power structures and anti-urban bourgeoisie. After the eighties, the squatting movement slowly disintegrated. Its legacy of societal criticism, however, can be seen to this day as the squatter community remains closely linked to the LGBT-community.
Origins of the LGBT Movement
The turbulent 1960s and 70s provided a window of opportunity for gay and lesbian organizers to also make their message heard, aided by the squatters and the Provos. As the sexual revolution reached the Netherlands, social and sexual norms were questioned more broadly. Laurens Buijs, lecturer of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, explains life in this turbulent time:
“Try and image life back in those days. Urbanization was not a thing so if you did not live in the big city and you came out in a small town this was a horrible process which usually led with your family casting you out… this was also a generation conflict, it was a clash between the generations that had experienced the sexual revolution and those who had not. So most gay people would go to Amsterdam, where they formed tight communities that became surrogate families and the idea to address oppression in general was natural. The COC [Cultureel- en Ontspanningscentrum or Cultural and Relaxation Center] was one of the first organization to speak up about this. In the 60s the COC was a radical organization, that together with the students, squatters and other radicals formed a true democratic grassroots movement.”
Along with the decriminalization of sex work, porn and abortion, homosexuality was also decriminalized in this period, becoming legal in 1971 without major protests. Buijs describes this broader movement:
“It coincided with the rise of the sexual revolution, in the sixties Amsterdam was the center of the gay movement. The whole ‘coming-out’ thing started here. It came from a stream of thought that focused on structural inequality and a sociological approach of looking at societal systems, left-wing thought. But it was also a time in which people thought in terms of ‘the social’ instead of the ‘individual’, as is now the case. It was also the time that ideas about gender and heteronormativity as we now know them arose. Sometimes it’s strange to think about, but things like gender- and women studies are very recent phenomenon. It was really revolutionary.”
Becoming Model Citizens
Despite the initially broad vision of the gay movement’s goals, the idealism of the 1970s did not remain unaffected by changing political conditions. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, gay Dutch citizens steadily made political gains in the realm of state administered rights. Same-sex couples were incorporated into social security, tax and other structures, and an anti-discrimination law was passed in 1993. The Netherlands also became the first country to recognize same-sex marriage in 2001. The state-centered goals show a definite shift in the values of the movement, with marriage in particular showing a commitment to more normative ideas of state recognized relationship structures.
Gay activists now fought to be recognized as full citizens of the nation state, rather than fighting to change that nation state. Along with increasing acceptance and decreasing social alienation for certain members of the LGBT community and fuller integration and easier alignment with mainstream society, the changing political climate affected the path of integration. The radical spirit of the 1960s and 70s gave way to the neoliberalism of the 1980s. Neoliberal, free-market capitalism became central in the Netherlands and the idea of homosexuality became generally tolerated. Through social and institutional forces in these decades, the current condition of individualization and fragmentation, of mainstreaming and government involvement within the LGBT community was created.
Queer is Here
One alternative to mainstream LGBT organizations is the queer movement. The term queer is both personal and political. Originating as a derogatory slur in English, it was reclaimed in the United States in the 1990s, most visibly by the New York City activist group Queer Nation. Queer is difficult to define, but Vreer argues, “On an individual level it refers to people who do not identify with default expressions of gender and sexuality. On the other hand it also has to do with questioning the powers that be.” Rather than focusing on being accepted by the state, queer politics often look to challenge dominant systems and question the value of conventional lifestyles. The Amsterdam festival Queeristan for instance is about providing a space—not only an autonomous space that dodges logics of profit and commercialization, but also a platform to both explore and counter the normative workings of gender, sexuality and identity. This means that it is necessarily small. Queeristan co-founder Vreer says, “The queer movement is very marginal. This is partly our own choice, in order to keep our structure open, transparent and credible.”
As a personal label, it refers to people who refuse to be pinned down by a default identity. Vreer claims, “There is a multitude of gender identities and sexual identities. If you pinpoint a standard, you only grasp one among many. We have to protect the multitude.” Lieke, who self idefines as queer explains, “I don’t find myself in hetero/bi/homosexual definitions, because they’re all defined by the gender of the person you like when that doesn’t seem like a relevant thing to me.” In short, queer is a political tool that can be used by individuals to show a commitment to challenging established ideas about identity and its intersection with gender and sexuality. But even though the queer movement provides some interesting ways of politicizing gender and sexual identities in Amsterdam, it comes with its own challenges.
The LGBT movement is no longer a political movement whose goals challenge all forms of injustice, and overarching solidarity is not promoted within it. Although The Netherlands has a history of counterculture movements that battle injustice broadly, nowadays emancipation can be seen as a process of individual liberation rather than a collective effort against injustice. This fragmentation is very visible in Amsterdam. LGBT people of different heritages all get their own night and their own party, but efforts to combat systemic oppression beyond homophobia remain limited. The queer movement attempts to reverse this shift. In its aim to preserve intellectual and ethical purity, however, it fails to mobilize large groups. The COC, on the other hand, tries to gain broad support and is thereby forced to be apolitical on nearly all issues. Neither of the two, it seems, are ‘mobilizing the gays in the streets.’ But perhaps Tania is right. No one group knows it all. This multitude of viewpoints is worth preserving, as long as there is common talk and common action. What is lacking is not the instruments, nor the power, but the solidarity. The lesson, it seems, is not that queer movements are good or mainstream LGBT movements are bad. Rather, there is a need of solidarity. There is a need of an open discussion on alternative interpretations of what sexuality can mean. There is a need for connection between LGBTQ people on the fringe and in the center, people who are white and people of color, those in power and far from it. Otherwise, the powers that be can continue to divide and rule.
ANP. “VVD en PvdA: Amsterdam moet weer Gay Capital worden.” Volkskrant, January 16 2011.http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/1824964/2011/01/16/VVD-en-PvdA-Amsterdam-moet-weer-Gay-Capital-worden.dhtml
COC website. COC Netherlands. http://www.coc.nl/
Jivraj, Suhraiya and Anisa Jong. “The Dutch Homo-Emancipation Policy and Its Silencing Effects on Queer Muslims.” Feminist Legal Studies 19.2 (2011): 143-58. Print.
Kennedy, James C., Nieuw Babylon in aanbouw. Nederland in de jaren zestig. Amsterdam (Boom) 1995.
Moerings, Martin. “Protest in The Netherlands: Developments in a pillarized society.” Contemporary Crisis 7 (1983): 95 – 112.
Egbert Martina. Cultural Critic and Writer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 18 June 2013.
Krzysztof Dobrowolski-Onclin. COC volunteer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.
Laurens Buijs. Lecturer Political Science University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.
Lieke. Student. Queer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 14 June 2013.
Ruud. Student. Black Feminist. Netherlands. 19 June 2013.
Tania Birkhuis. Former director of the COC Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.
Vreer. Co-founder van Queeristan. Queer-organizer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 21 June 2013.
Originally appeared in humanity in action