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Beacon Light or Polemic Fights: Will Ja be translated to Sí and Tak?


Yes, I do. Couples have uttered these well-known words millions of times, but on April 1, 2001, four same-sex Dutch couples recited their vows before the mayor of Amsterdam for the first time.  On that day, The Netherlands became the only country in the world to legalize gay marriage.  On June 18, 2005, a mass demonstration against gay marriage shut down the streets of Madrid.  Several weeks earlier, Lech Kaczyński, the mayor of Warsaw, banned the congregation of a tolerance parade because he believed that although citizens had the right to demonstrate, gay people did not.  

Seemingly, the Dutch legalization of homosexual rights remains an exceptional bastion of liberalism: the member of a club slowly opening its doors to Belgium, Canada and other increasingly tolerant states.  However, reality paints a more complicated picture of the progression of gay rights.  On Queensday 2005, a group of youngsters beat up Chris Crain, an American gay activist, because he walked hand-in-hand with his boyfriend in Amsterdam.  Meanwhile, irregardless of the mass demonstration in Madrid, the Spanish Parliament is about to open marriage to same-sex couples.  And in Poland, despite blatant and widespread homophobia, there exists a very public debate over homosexual rights.  

In what direction are gay rights heading, and what factors shape their evolution? Will widespread tolerance gain ground in many countries, or will legal development stagnate or even succumb to extensive regression to the closet? Depending on one’s perspective, The Netherlands’s acceptance and legalization of gay rights can serve as a shining beacon of success or as a red flag forewarning the imminent danger of tolerance: the true costs of recognizing equality.  In any case, an examination of the Dutch model and the policies of the European Union shed light on how the discourse in Spain and Poland may unfold and on how Dutch exceptionalism can play a role in these debates. 

The Netherlands: A Gay Paradise? 

The Netherlands has an international reputation for being a gay paradise, yet Article 1 of the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, as do the constitutions of the Philippines and South Africa.  According to Article 30 of the amended Dutch Civil Code, two persons of the same or different sex can marry, but a civil servant still can object to contracting such a marriage when her personal creed conflicts with gay marriage.  Other exceptions to the idyllic image of a Dutch paradise are the obstacles to international adoption by gay couples.  According to Philip Tijsma, the Policy Advisor to the party D66 in the Second Chamber, when the Dutch comedian Paul de Leeuw wanted to adopt an American child with his partner, the only obstacle proved to be the Dutch adoption policy.  

According to Dutch law, a married gay couple cannot adopt a foreign child.  This resulted from the Dutch fear that no other countries would send their children to The Netherlands and that there would be little gay demand anyway.  In reality, this means that one gay parent can adopt a child from abroad but the other parent can only obtain full parental rights three years later.  As president of More than Wanted, a gay parents support group of the LGBT organization COC, Anne-Marie Thus fights against what she believes is flagrant discrimination.  Tijsma says this law will change because the D66 proposed amendments to the adoption law to equalize gay and straight couples.  The Minister of Justice recently made his own proposal to open adoption for all married couples without equalizing parental rights for children born to lesbian mothers.  Both parents would have full rights from the day of birth under the D66 proposal, whereas the non-biological mother presently must wait three years. 

Tania Barkhuis, the Manager of COC Amsterdam, says that with few exceptions, in a legal sense homo- and heterosexual couples are equal, but that the question has moved back to societal acceptance.  If homophobia still exists, what made the legalization of gay rights possible? The first explanation resides in the rise of the gay movement, which formed in reaction to the passage of a law in 1911 that changed the age of sexual consent: the age for homosexuals became twenty-one, and for heterosexuals sixteen.  Before the passage of this law, homosexuality simply had not been penalized since the Napoleonic era, contrary to the strict rules enforced in many other countries.  In the face of oppression, Esquire Schorer founded the Dutch Humanitarian Committee, which evolved into the COC after WWII.  

Barkhuis’ second explanation for the legalization of homosexuality resides in the post-WWII societal depillarization.  Freedom movements outside the traditional pillars sought to obtain individual liberties.  According to Pierre Valkering, the Pastor of Our Dear Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Amsterdam, while the pillars crumbled, a movement began in the 1950s within the Dutch Roman Catholic Church to recognize and support homosexual love rather than merely denounce it as a sin.  In the 1970s, the RCC reintroduced more restrictive views of homosexuality, and in the next quarter century, Pope John Paul II enforced his conservative grip on the Dutch RCC.  

While change occurred within the Dutch RCC, the Protestant Reformed Church made the different church councils consider whether they would bless a gay couple.  In spite of the legal rights and acceptation in religious circles, a threat exists to this liberalism.  Valkering himself feels as if he is caught between two fires: on the one hand, the conservative Vatican directives, and on the other hand, the liberal Dutch society.  Barkhuis cites the revival of religious influence (both Islamic and Christian) as one of the threats to societal support, in addition to a general right-wing revival, free expression within migrant communities and homophobia in education and in the workplace.  These may be the reasons for which 80 percent of Rotterdammers object to gays kissing in public.  

Henk Krol, the Editor in Chief of Gay Krant, adds a competing and practical explanation for Dutch liberalism.  Gay forerunners in The Netherlands came out to the public in the late 1960s on television and well-known Dutchmen casually mentioned their homosexuality without making an issue out it on popular television programs.  Krol also stressed the importance of singers who came out and made homosexuality more tangible. Lastly, tabloids did not regard homosexuality negatively because many editors were gay.  Besides popular culture, Krol highlights the Dutch Calvinist need to regulate all new phenomena.  In 1985, when lesbians addressed Gay Krant to question the second-rate citizenship of their children, a movement to legally normalize gay couples began that ultimately resulted in the legalization of gay civil unions in 1998 and three years later in gay marriage.

The Influence of the European Union 

Is the Dutch model really an exception in the field of gay rights? Regardless, it certainly is a forerunner.  According to Tijsma, the EU can use the Dutch model to demonstrate a functioning system.  Despite the fact that the EU cannot impose laws on member states in this field, it has issued numerous guidelines to equalize protection.  Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which came into being in December 2000, forbids discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, as does the Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Additionally, several cases from the European Court of Justice expand upon homosexual rights.  

Tijsma points out that the EU more recently issued a resolution (September 2003) that encouraged the member states to equalize their marriage laws.  The new EU Constitution also includes a prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of sexual discrimination, although the constitution’s passage is somewhat stifled at the moment.    One Dutch argument against the EU constitution suggests that the EU could suppress Dutch liberal policies, but Tijsma does not fear this type of influence at all.  

Are liberal resolutions incompatible with societal traditions in some member states? In other words, do societal debates within the member states reflect the EU directives? Over the last couple of years, homosexual rights became the subject of debates across the globe.  As this text is being written, the most heated debates in the EU are taking place within Spain and Poland.  

The Spanish Debate 

Although Spain is a member of the EU, the union certainly is not the major player within the Spanish debate.  The RCC has a stronghold within Spanish society, as evinced by the mass demonstration against gay marriage in Madrid.  On the June 30, 2005, the Spanish Congress [will pass] legislation legalizing gay marriage without succumbing to the demands of the demonstrators.  [When the law passes], the debate will still be salient in the Spanish news media.  Steven Adolf, the NRC correspondent in Madrid and author of a book on backstage Spanish political life, further asserts that the dialectics of progress may in fact result from the passage of the Spanish law: the exceptions evident in Dutch law will not exist in Spain since equalization will progress more quickly.  

The passage of the new Spanish law has taken place in a space as contracted as Pierre Valkering’s fissure between two fires.  Steven Adolf explains that there have been two opposed Spains ever since the end of the 18th Century.  One old, reactionary, very conservative, Catholic and inward looking, the other enlightened, anti-papist, progressive and open to the outside world.  The clash of these two Spains not only resulted in several civil wars, buts also surfaced in the gay rights debate.  Whereas in The Netherlands gay rights seem to have profited from depillarization, in Spain, they emerged from the deep division of society.  

Today, the progressive Spain is represented in political life by the left wing Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and its right wing opponent Partido Popular (PP) is a hybrid mixture of the old traditional Spain, liberals and christian democrates. The PSOE proposed the legalization of gay unions under the former PP government, but the PP turned down the proposal. The current PSOE government wants to show change during the first year of its existence and gay marriage, this time without limitations, is at the forefront of the agenda. The PP currently presents all sorts of obstacles to the bill’s passage, including putting forward amendments that are similar to the old PSOE proposal.  

Moreover, some important PP figures led the anti-gay marriage demonstration together with eighteen bishops.  The PP in the Senate, which made the amendments, invited Professor Polaino of the Universidad Complutense to speak about the effects of gay parentage on children.  His speech was more opposed to homosexuality in general than to gay marriage, which Adolf argues is the strong undercurrent in the Spanish debate.  He also hypothesizes that Opus Dei orchestrated the well-organized and well-financed demonstration.  

Historical developments may not be the only influential factors.  In the present law proposal, the PSOE points out that both individual state laws and directives made by the EU Parliament change civil codes.  The mention of specific EU recommendations in the PSOE law seems to be one of the few arguments of international character made in this context, but The Netherlands also appears on both sides of the barricade. In political discourse, the PP used the Netherlands as a negative example of a silly state together with Belgium. The progressive press portrays The Netherlands as a positive example, just as Job Cohen, the former Secretary of State and the current mayor of Amsterdam, had hoped for when he was involved in designing the Dutch civil code amendment.  

In spite of the Dutch pride about exporting its model, Adolf has not been asked to comment on the Dutch family life as he is normally after The Netherlands appears in the news.  Henk Krol has been asked at least four times to lecture on the Dutch legislation to an Alderman in Barcelona, to regional governments and to gay movements. Krol remains convinced that the opening of marriage for same sex couples in The Netherlands empowered LGBT groups worldwide. Two conclusions result: the Spanish gay rights legislation may come from mainly national trends, but the legislation may also reflect an international concern for gay rights. The Polish Debate        

Whereas in Spain homophobia pushes the undercurrent in the opposition to gay marriage, in Poland overt homophobia is a legitimate element of the debate. At first glance, the Spanish and Polish situations seem nearly identical because there are law proposals moving through the houses of parliament and highly visible public debates over gay life, including controversial demonstrations.  In 2004, Senator Maria Szyszkowska proposed the legalization of gay civil unions in the Polish parliament and on June 11, 2005, the contentious Parade of Equality in favor of gay rights and tolerance occurred. Although activists asserted the freedom of expression, Mayor Kaczyński found grounds on which to forbid the parade: the organizers had to hand in piles of documents and the mayor forbade the demonstration because they did not hand in the plan for changing the traffic in the city.  Could John Paul II’s memorial march have been banned on similar grounds?

Ever since August 2002, an open public debate has taken place because an article by psychiatrist Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska entitled “What Gays Are Allowed to Do” was published in Gazeta Wyborcza, the leading progressive Polish daily newspaper.  This discriminatory article triggered an avalanche of publications, and a year later the gay advocacy group, Campaign Against Homophobia, organized an exhibition of thirty photographs of same sex couples in four Polish cities.  This forced homosexuals into visibility and forced Polish society to stop neglecting the issue.  In 2004, the first gay tolerance demonstration in Cracow ended in a riot causing worldwide media attention. The story continues in 2005.

Although Poland abolished the penal law on homosexuality in the 1920s, in practice the Polish RCC influences conceptions of social rights and wrongs so strongly that the Vatican’s own doctrine is actually more liberal than Polish practice. If the RCC officially opposes gay sex, then homosexuals still should be loved and not discriminated against. In Poland, the ultra-catholic radio station Radio Maria, the country’s second party, League of Polish Families, and its youth department, Pan-Polish Youth, bash homosexuality by comparing it to necrophilia, zoophilia or pedophilia and calling it a sickness. The 2004 riot in Cracow was caused by Pan-Polish Youth, which threw among other objects stones, eggs and acid.  The RCC is not to be blamed for all of this, but religious purity, the link of Catholicism to Polish nationalism and the fear of the “other” (be it a Jew, Ukrainian, Roma or gay) certainly inspire and justify violence and hate speech.  

In 2005, another homophobic article, this time written by the priest Dariusz Oko, marked the beginning of an intense media debate.  This publication coincided with the Equality Parade in Warsaw.  The public debate is very polarized because of the new visibility of homosexuality that did not exist before the turn of the century. In Poland, the ingredients for legalization exist: political consciousness, gay movement, visibility and international treaties, but acceptation will proceed slowly because of nationalism and the stronghold of the orthodox wing of the RCC.  

What role do EU and Dutch influence play in the Polish debate? The EU standards have applied to Poland since Polish accession on May 1, 2004, and it may not be a coincidence that the Polish debate over homosexuality burst out while Poland was on its way to becoming a member, but The Netherlands have also played an active role. Dutch embassies are encouraged to spend money on grassroots gay tolerance projects. In Poland, the embassy financially supported the photo exhibition, and it subsidized nearly all organizations that took part in the 2005 Warsaw Parade.  This was made possible by a strong COC political lobby and the government’s desire to amplify Dutch action in the field of human rights. Philip Tijsma explains that after voting on the law on marriage, the Dutch Parliament asked the Minister of Foreign Affairs to promote the Dutch model.

Furthermore, D66, CDA, VVD, GL and PvdA sent a parliamentary letter to the mayor of Warsaw and the Polish Parliament urging the mayor to respect human rights and the “ban on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation as stated in the European Treaty, and of the clauses on non discrimination and freedom of opinion, speech and assembly in such international treaties as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.” Additionally, shortly after gay marriage opened in the Netherlands, Henk Krol was extensively interviewed for Polish television, and the COC maintains contact with Polish gay organizations in order to support capacity-building to encourage support for tolerance.   


Although The Netherlands does not seem to play an openly major role in the Spanish and Polish events, the huge influence it had when the first marriages of gay couples were concluded is undeniable.  The Dutch model is a unique one that could not be replicated in any other society.  This uniqueness does not solely reside in the opening of civil marriage to gay couples, but also in the historical and contemporary features that characterize The Netherlands.  Dutch exceptionalism therefore embodies the forerunner role the country played in the legalization of gay rights.  

Spain and Poland are at different stages of development due to their historical and cultural contexts.  The former seems to be approaching the same level of legal equality as seen in the Dutch system, but Spanish social acceptance lags behind.  The latter has only recently opened discussion on homosexuality and does not appear to be moving towards radically changing its civil code.  Societal acceptance remains at a very low level.  Diverse public and private Dutch institutions try to export the Dutch legal model.  The native Spanish Sí may have a slight Dutch accent…and the Polish Tak?  





Steven Adolf, correspondent of NRC Handelsblad and Elsevier in Spain, author of the book “Spanje achter de schermen” interviewed on June 25th.

Tania Barkhuis, manager of COC-Amsterdam, interviewed on June 22nd.

Henk Krol, editor in chief of the Gay Krant, interviewed on June 29th.

Jan Oosterhof, council president of the Reformed Church in Den Burg, interviewed on June 27th.

Anne-Marie Thus, president of More Than Wanted (Meer dan Gewenst), COC NFIH, interviewed on June 24th.

Philip Tijsma, policy advisor of the D66 party in the Second Chamber of Parliament, interviewed on June 27th.

Pierre Valkering, pastor of the RC Parish of Our Dear Lady Queen of Peace in Amsterdam (RK Parochie Onze Lieve Vrouw Koningin van de Vrede), interviewed on June 27th.Helena Zapico Barbeito, Spanish student from A Coruña, interviewed on June 23rd.


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Krauss, C., Gay Marriage is Extended Nationwide in Canada, nytimes.com, June 29th, 2005.

Krzyżaniak-Gumowska, A., Haczyk się znalazł, Gazeta Wyborcza (128. 4843), June 4-5th, 2005, p. 1.

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