Opening the Religious Closet: The Lives of Gay Christians and Muslims in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, gay rights are not open to question or debate, but are exactly that—rights. Policies on inclusion and even “gay and lesbian emancipation” ensure the right to be openly gay. The most recent of these, entitled “Just Being Gay,” makes specific mention of the current state of gay and lesbian inclusion in religious communities. The Dutch government explicitly acknowledges that some ethnic and conservative religious communities have made things more difficult for out gays and lesbians, and it has adopted an official policy of supporting and encouraging their acceptance in society. In a religious context, these men and women are struggling to find their place.

Longing for Acceptance: Gay Experiences of Christianity

In a western corner of Amsterdam, Ioan Nemes, 30, and Wielie Elhorst, 40, live a normal life. They work, spend time together, and attend services at a Dutch Protestant church. For them, it has never been a question of making their religion and their sexual orientation fit together. Ioan, a gay orthodox Romanian, says, “The two concepts never really came into conflict until I worked with a gay Romanian organization. It was then that I realized being gay did not go well with being Christian.” Ioan never felt the need to reconcile these two aspects of his life; for him, they are inseparable. His partner, Wielie, reflects the same attitude, “I feel as much gay as Christian.” 

While for them the struggle between faith and sexual identity has never been an internal one, they have encountered a clash between these identities in their outer world. Wielie describes this conflict within his childhood faith community, The Salvation Army. “I was lucky. My parents were liberal, but when I moved away, I was no longer protected by them. I got into a lot of trouble. Being open and active in a gay organization was met only with silence. They denied me a leadership position in the church because I was gay. After the issue of gay inclusion became a national concern for the Salvation Army, I got the opportunity to write an exegesis on what the bible really says about homosexuality. I wanted to show the negative verses in context. My report disappeared into a drawer. Then, I knew that the Salvation Army was no longer my home. I now consider it to be a sect.” His voice conveys no anger, just acceptance of this disappointment. Wielie left the Salvation Army shortly thereafter.

At times, both men have been questioned about their multiple identities. What they find surprising is that they are challenged less by the Christian community than by the gay community. “The Netherlands is a very secular place, and secularized Dutch can hardly believe that I am gay and Christian,” Wielie comments. For Ioan, born and raised in Romania, this attitude was, at first, strikingly different. “I came from a place where it is extremely okay to be religious, but extremely wrong to be gay. Then I come to this place where it is extremely okay to be gay, but extremely wrong to be religious,” he laughs. Both feel that they have encountered more ignorance and resistance towards Christianity than towards being gay. Ioan has often found himself explaining his life to his friends, who sometimes have difficulty understanding his faith. “Religion is a part of people’s lives and people’s reality. You can’t just throw it away. I look at religion like I look at being in love. I can’t explain why I love who I love. Not why I love my partner or my family. It’s a part of being in love. Parts of it are rational and parts of it are not. That’s the same way I feel about my faith.” In this city of bustling gay and lesbian communities, Ioan experiences a striking lack of knowledge about religious gay and lesbian men and women. According to Wielie, they have to work hard for recognition. “Christians are a small group within the gay community. We have to get them notice us.” Ioan notes that strong, longstanding groups like COC, a national organization that supports gay and lesbian men and women, used to lack necessary support for their more religious members. 

In the last few years, however, these organizations have actively sought to become more welcoming to religious gay and lesbian men and women. As part of this effort, Ioan and Wielie appeared in a poster campaign in 2008 that showed the gay Christian couple with their accepting parents. Tolerance United, funded by several organizations that support religious gay and lesbian individuals, ran a short campaign, Believe in Love, in the center of Amsterdam during Gay Pride.  The posters featured couples with religious family members. The goal of the project was to encourage the discussion of sexual identity within religious communities. While the campaign reached only a small audience, some believe that it sparked an important dialogue.

Ioan and Wielie now attend a Dutch Protestant church, Oranjekerk. During the last Gay Pride celebration, the community hung a sign reading, “We support the gays in their fight.” Both feel very at home and welcome in their church. Ioan recalls one of the most important moments in his life as a gay Christian: “I remember walking hand in hand with my partner, with Wielie, into our church and being smiled at.” That moment sticks out in his memory as a time when his faith and sexuality came into distinct contact with one another, and were recognized by those around him. 

While Ioan and Wielie found that their faith and sexual identity were intertwined, others have found that the two are in conflict.  For Pieter De Boer, 26, his identities have competed with one another. Pieter (who still struggles with being out and has asked for a pseudonym to accompany his personal story) grew up in a reformed church that supported the idea that God loves gay people, but does not like the act of homosexuality. In high school his peers suspected he was gay. “I was freaking out then. Oh no, they know,” Pieter remembers. “I had been lying for seven years. The reason I did not come out earlier was based probably sixty percent on religious beliefs and forty percent on the fear of being different. The hardest part of telling my parents was knowing that then our church would find out too.”  

When Pieter moved to Amsterdam to pursue further education, he attempted to be “healed from homosexuality” by a local Evangelical community. The procedure did not work. After many sleepless nights spent grappling with his sexual identity, he realized his feelings were there to stay and were a part of him. Pieter now gains support from the Bible, instead of shame. “There is a verse in Genesis that says, ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’” he cites. He currently lives with his partner of 4 years.  Pieter’s parents were themselves always supportive, but in 2006, he left the church to which his family belonged. “I had some very good talks with the reverend on sexuality. It was very pastoral. Without judgment. They prayed for my boyfriend and me. But then the church published a policy in which homosexuality was considered a problem. It said prayer was needed to help homosexuals to be ‘freed.’ That was a slap in the face.”

Pieter is now very much at peace with his current Dutch Protestant Church in Amstelveen. In his old church he would have likely been denied communion because he is living with a man. Now, he is a deacon and actively participates in the development of church policies. Pieter adds, “There has been a clear change in the Dutch Protestant Church and people have finished with the discussion on homosexuality. The Dutch Protestant Church is generally very accepting of homosexual members and ministers.”

Life After Allah: One Lesbian Woman’s Encounter with Islam

In a province south of Amsterdam, in a town known as Dordrecht, a formerly Muslim woman who participated in the Believe in Love campaign talks about her struggle with faith and sexual identity. “As a child I went to Qur’an lessons at the mosque. My mother tried to teach me to pray. But from a young age I resisted religion.” "Mardia," 29, lives with her Catholic partner and no longer considers herself Muslim. Mardia’s mother is Molluccan-Dutch, and Muslim. Her father is Dutch and converted to Islam in order to marry her mother. His new faith became an important part of his life, something he took very seriously. For Mardia, though, Islam never quite fit. “I have always felt different, even as a young child. At the age of four I was in love with my female kindergarten teacher. Religion did not play a big role for me like it did for my cousins and my Moluccan friends. But it wasn’t until later that I realized I was different because I was lesbian.” Mardia’s matter-of-fact tone conveys her ease with her sexual identity. “I also realized being a lesbian could be used against me by my family. But I’ve always had the feeling that if they wouldn’t accept me, it would be their loss. I would step out of their lives and stop all contact.”

Mardia came out to her father when she was fourteen years old. “My father’s first reaction was: you’re only 14. It might be just a phase. But, he never rejected it. He wasn’t a strict Muslim any longer. He had remarried an Indonesian woman, who was also a Muslim. They didn’t read the Qur’an and didn’t pray 5 times a day. Culturally they were Muslim, like they didn’t drink alcohol or eat pork.” A few years later, she told her mother who never said anything about her sexual identity. The rest of her family, though, didn’t take it as well. “My aunt called me and tried to persuade me I wasn’t making the right choices, referring to the Qur’an said this and that.” For a while things were tense, but Mardia never backed down. Over time, her relationship with her family has changed. “At a goodbye party for a cousin moving to the U.S., I saw my uncles and aunts again for the first time in years. They came up to me and apologized. They said I was fine the way I was and it didn’t matter that I was lesbian. They felt they should have treated me differently. They now feel it’s not up to them to judge, that’s for Allah. ‘You are family, you are our eldest cousin and that’s what’s most important.’ I liked that.”

That encounter was merely the beginning of a series of changes in her family. “Now they ask how my girlfriend is and she can come when they celebrate Eid-Al Fitr, a celebration of the end of the Ramadan fast. They see I’m happy now with her, and that’s what’s important. But I have been pretty strong about it in the beginning: if you don’t accept me, I’ll break off all contact. But they want to keep me in the family. Family is what’s most important.” Mardia recognizes, though, that not everything has changed. “I think they still think homosexuality is wrong and unnatural, but I don’t blame them.” For her, it is part of how they were raised, not something intrinsic about the Islamic faith. She points out the contrast between her aunts and uncles, and her cousins, “When I look at the younger generation in my family, I feel they are more open-minded. My cousins have their own vision alongside the Qur’an.” Mardia’s cousins eagerly appeared alongside her and her partner in the Believe in Love posters last year.

Looking Out of the Closet: Coming to Terms with a Double Life

In the middle of the night, a young Dutch-Moroccan boy from The Hague logs onto MSN. He asks not to have his surname published. “I haven’t come out. Even though I have a modern family, I’m afraid it will all go wrong. I know a few Muslims who did come out and they have had an extremely hard time. They are being threatened and have been disowned by their families. I know some have been beaten up,” Soufiane, 18, is not entirely sure how his family would react if he were to come out. “I think they would accept it, except for a few family members. My father would probably disown me, but I could tell my mother. I know she would still accept me, but I would hurt her. No mother wishes for her child to have feelings for the same sex. And the last thing I want is to hurt my mother.”

Soufiane is counting on God’s grace to help him. “I know it’s forbidden to engage in sexual acts with the same sex, but it’s not forbidden to have feelings for the same sex,” he comments. Soufiane takes his faith seriously. He prays five times a day, attends Friday prayer at the mosque, fasts at Ramadan, and reads the Qur’an regularly. He has searched for passages that would help him get rid of his homosexuality. “I didn’t find anything. These are feelings I can hardly suppress. To me Islam is the one true faith and I want to enter paradise in the afterlife, in spite of being gay. So I regularly ask Allah for forgiveness. I know homosexual acts are forbidden and it won’t be accepted, but when heterosexuals sleep with one girl after another, it’s also forbidden. So why can’t gays be forgiven? We’re only human as well.”  

His boyfriend, another Moroccan Muslim boy, has supported him through this struggle. They often discuss Islam. “We teach each other new things. I find that quite special and important. It makes our relationship stronger. We know it’s forbidden to have sex with each other, but we do. We have our needs and it’s hard not to satisfy them. Straight Muslims have that same struggle,” he concludes.

Young gay Muslims like Soufiane prefer to use the internet as a safe, anonymous way to find and support one another. This is how Soufiane met Ilias, 17, a friend that lives in Limburg, a southern province of the Netherlands. They have never met face to face, but for Ilias, Soufiane is an inspiration. “Soufiane is an example to me, he doesn’t want to let go of his faith. He is gay and he prays. I can’t do that yet,” Ilias types over MSN Messenger. Ilias is not entirely sure how he will reconcile being gay with his faith. “I feel Muslim. I really believe in Allah. But at the same time I am something that Islam rejects. It’s a dubious situation. I want to enjoy life in my own way and at the same time honor my faith. But lately I’ve been thinking that you can combine both things—the gay and the Muslim lifestyles. As long as God knows what’s going on in your heart.” 

Unlike Soufiane, Ilias is out to his immediate family. “They accept it, but they’re not proud of it,” he says followed by a winking emoticon. Apart from his mother, brother and sister, however, he does not have many religious people around him. His father died when he was ten years old. “I don’t think I would have come out of the closet if he were still alive.” Even though he is out, Ilias is still hesitant to provide his full name, as he has conservative family members in another city who he doesn’t want to know. “My mother or siblings would never tell them.” 

“For a Moroccan I came a long way, don’t you think?” he types, adding a smiling emoticon. “I’ve known I liked boys since I was four years old.  I kissed another boy behind the playground and felt bad about it. So I’ve also always known that it would not be accepted. I’ve been depressed for most of my life.”  He was 15 when he came out, a process inspired and supported by a young lesbian woman from Homecare, a mental health agency in the Netherlands, who helped him through his depressed periods. “My coming out process was something I was very conscious of. I planned it for two weeks. I wrote a letter with help from a friend and I kept it in my room for weeks. I was just waiting for the moment when I'd be brave enough to give it to my mom. When I think about it, it was very surreal but I'm proud and glad that I did it.”  Eventually Ilias left the letter on the table, went out, and told his mother that she had to read something from school that was sitting on the table. There was no reaction until he asked about it one week later. “She admitted she read it and said that she was disappointed and didn’t want to hear another word about it. There was nothing but silence between us for two weeks.”

Eventually, Ilias and his mother started talking again, and life returned to normal. He began to look for support from those around him, which is when he started connecting with other young gay Muslim men. He says, “They are truly some sort of inspiration, showing me I'm not alone and developing themselves as gay Muslim people.”

Gay and lesbian rights have advanced by leaps and bounds in the Netherlands. As the first country to legalize gay marriage, it has led the way in many regards. Nevertheless, religious gay and lesbian men and women are still fighting for their emancipation. Some are fighting to be accepted by their gay community as religious, while others are fighting to be accepted by their religious community as gay. Still others have given up the fight, unable to reconcile their sexual identity with their faith. The experiences of gay and lesbian men and women in The Netherlands cannot be boiled down to just one story. As Ilias wisely noted, “I just think that they should be true to themselves and their friends, at least feel free…and just do their thing. Be religious, be gay…whatever makes you happy.”

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2009

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